Gary Austin, the founder of The Groundlings, passed away on April Fools’ Day, according to Variety. The Groundlings posted a tribute to Austin on their Instagram and Twitter but many were left wondering if this was just an elaborate April Fools’ prank by the man who helped jump start the careers of Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and more.
Sadly, Variety confirmed the death of Mr. Austin who had been battling cancer. Gary’s daughter, Audrey Moore, confirmed his passing and said Austin was surrounded by family and friends at Cedar Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles at the time of his death.
Austin started The Groundlings, an improvisational and comedy sketch troupe, in 1974. Located on Melrose Avenue, the theater still holds classes for more than 2,000 students a year. Though Austin left The Groundlings in 1979 due to creative differences, he would return to direct shows in the 1990s. Austin continued to teach his style of improv through his Gary Austin Workshops.
The Groundlings improv troupe has produced multiple Saturday Night Live alumni including Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Phil Hartman, Will Forte, Maya Rudolph, and more. Similar to the Second City comedy troupe which trained Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, The Groundlings was a favorite venue for Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels to come check out new talent for his show.
Other notable Groundlings alumni include Melissa McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone, Friends star Lisa Kudrow, and Pee Wee Herman star Paul Reubens. In fact, Pee Wee Herman was a character Reubens created during his tenure with The Groundlings.
The announcement of Austin’s passing seemed to take a little bit of time to gain traction on social media, presumably given the timing of it being revealed on April Fools’ Day. Eventually, support began to pour in for Gary’s wife and daughter as Hollywood remembered Austin and how he helped change the improv comedy sketch scene.
The founder of the Groundlings, the LA improv troupe where I & so many others on SNL, started their career, has passed.#RIPGaryAustin
— Jon Lovitz (@realjonlovitz) April 2, 2017
RIP Gary Austin, founder of the @groundlings! But kudos on a life well-lived!
— Wendi McLendon-Covey (@wendimclendonco) April 2, 2017
The Groundlings has just recently been the topic of conversation on TV Land’s newest show Nobodies. Nobodies, which is produced by Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone, centers around three writers who are Groundlings alumni that are trying to get their script produced. The inaugural episode, which aired last week, showed the relative unknowns trying to reconnect with their former Groundlings cast mates while attending an alumni show.
In a 2011 backstage interview with Zoe Hewitt, when asked how he set up his classes to help his students gain confidence, Gary Austin remarked, “One of the things I tell them is you can’t make a mistake in my class. What you think is a mistake is not a mistake. Commitment is the success.” Austin’s technique of fully committing to a character and their journey despite the obstacles that might be thrown in the way is part of what helped make The Groundlings comedy such a success.
Academy Award winner Helen Hunt, who was a student of Austin’s, referred to him in her Oscar acceptance speech back in 1998, thanking Gary among other teachers for the training they provided to help develop her craft. Hunt reunited with Austin for Gary Austin and Friends Live to help promote his new school at the time.
“I think that he has made me a better actor. He’s made me a better rehearser. He’s given me just…fun. I’ve had a lot of fun for a lot of years,” Hunt said following her Gary Austin and Friends performance.
And thanks to Gary Austin and The Groundlings, fun is something we’ve all learned to have.
[Featured Image by Araya Diaz/Getty Images for The Groundlings]