I Met My Comedy Idol — And He Healed My Broken Heart

They say never met your idols. Not in this case.

Woman sitting on stand up sign, doing improv vgajic, Dmitriy Larichev | Canva

To graduate from my school’s theater department every candidate had to do a portfolio presentation. There you’d present to a three-person committee letters of recommendation, pictures from shows you worked on, and if you were an actor, perform a couple of monologues. 

No one has ever been asked to do anything remotely like this in the professional theater, but we had no choice.

After about an hour of demonstrating what a well-rounded performer or techie you were, the committee asked you what your plans were for the future. Nine out of ten of my fellow graduating classmates said they’d go to New York to pursue an acting career or work backstage.


I was the only one who said I was moving to Los Angeles and joining The Groundlings.

The Groundlings were my only plan for the future.

When I started going to The Groundlings, it truly was the golden age with talented performers such as Kathy Griffin, Mindy Sterling, Phil Hartman, Deanna Oliver, and Lynne Stewart gracing its stage.

Later would come Melissa McCarthy, Julia Sweeney, Kristen Wiig, Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph and so many more.

No one did improv and sketch comedy better in Los Angeles than The Groundlings at that time.

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I first started doing improv in college and I loved it. It felt like play, but the longer I studied at The Groundlings the less improv felt like play, and the less fun it got.

The competition was fierce — everybody wanted to be the funniest and stand out. I was so concerned with being hilarious and still following the rules that I tensed up and overthought everything.

I was struggling with, and ultimately failing, at improv comedy.

But I kept at it and didn’t consider the possibility that The Groundlings and I weren’t a good fit.

Going to the sketch and improv shows at The Groundlings was mandatory, but no one complained. I was thrilled every time I saw a show as they were so funny and clever.


George McGrath was in the main company and was my absolute favorite improv comedian. It seemed as if there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. He was a brilliant improviser (especially at song improv) and equally fantastic at comic characters and sketch comedy.

He worked often with Paul Ruebens and was not only the co-writer of Big Top Pee Wee, but he also played Globey on Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

George is one the funniest people on the planet, so it was no surprise when he was nominated for a few Emmys for his writing including Tracy Takes On.


I especially loved George’s On the Television, a satiric review program about TV shows on television. Brilliant. All the TV shows were fake, and a large number of Groundlings were on that show. It was hilarious and still holds up today.

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During my classes at the Groundlings, I learned the basics of improv: to always agree, to add information, and to start the scene in the middle of the action.

I would take a level and pass it, only to fail the next level and have to take it again. I ended up taking the second level twice, the third (or writing level) twice, and the fourth level once. Finally, I made it to the advanced class. We had to do two shows and how well we did would factor in our acceptance to The Sunday Company.


The Sunday Company was everything.

Between the first and second shows, I had a cyst removed and was in the hospital for five days. Although it was difficult for me to move, I went back, completed my class, and performed in the second show. Everyone seemed to enjoy my work. I felt confident that I would be moved into the Sunday Company.

Then I got the call that I hadn’t made it and wouldn’t be going any further with The Groundlings. Not only hadn’t I been invited to join the Sunday Show, but most of my class had been.


I desperately wanted to react like a professional, but I couldn’t stop crying. My teacher was very sweet and tried to comfort me. However, neither she nor anyone else mentioned that I could take the class again.


People, like me, took classes repeatedly all the time.

Heartbroken, I swore that I would never go back. I immediately broke that promise when I went to the theater to see a friend of mine’s show but after that, I didn’t go back to The Groundlings for decades.

I tried not to be negative when someone talked about auditioning for them or going to one of their shows. I didn’t want my completely and utterly devastating experience to influence them, but my bitterness and anger continued on like a seething river of hot lava.

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I studied and performed improv for several years after getting kicked out of The Groundlings. I got kicked out of two other improv/comedy schools — not because I’m untalented, just because that’s what they do. Comedy theaters need an influx of new students to help pay their rent. If you’re not paying dues or class fees, they have very little interest in you.


Finally, I found an improv/comedy home in Bang Improv Studio. There, my love of improv returned, but I began to get more and more into storytelling and spoken word.

When I pitched doing a monthly personal essay show, the owners of Bang were very enthusiastic and supportive. Since I had a show, I had an excuse to book some of my friends and favorite performers. When the chance came to book George McGrath, I wasted no time in doing so.

George was as amazing as I remembered, and he killed just as hard at personal essay as he ever did at improv.

We became friends and he read his essays in my show, Piñata the Personal Essay Show, many times over the ten years it ran.


For my birthday one year, he gave me a set of DVDs that were a sampling of his entertainment career over the years. When I’m in a bad mood, all I have to do is put on one of those DVDs, laugh, and I feel so much better.

Many years after my devastating and internal breakup with The Groundlings, I found myself breathless and nervous standing in front of The Groundlings Theater. My hand paused on the door, but I didn’t open it right away.

It had been over 20 years since I swore I would never come back, and yet there I was, at their door.


Can you forgive an institution? Maybe so, but it wasn’t forgiveness I was after. I was there to celebrate their 40th anniversary and let go of my resentment. Mainly, I was there to support my favorite Groundling alumni and friend George McGrath.

Once I was in my seat, and the show began, all my bitterness and animosity seemed to disappear. It no longer hurts my heart to hear about The Groundlings or see their shows.

They may have destroyed my improv comedy dreams but if they hadn’t, I might not have found the satisfaction and love I have for personal essays, writing, and storytelling.

I don’t regret my time at The Groundlings — I still have many friends from that time, stories of being in class with people like Lisa Kudrow and Laraine Newman, and if I hadn’t gone to the Groundlings, I wouldn’t have met my mentor and friend, Cynthia.


Most of all, if it hadn’t been for the Groundlings, I never would have known George McGrath.

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Christine Schoenwald is a writer, performer, and frequent contributor to YourTango. She's had articles featured in The Los Angeles Times, Salon, Bustle, Medium, Huffington Post, Business Insider, and Woman's Day, among many others.