The greatest scene ever created and performed at The Groundlings was BLAIR HOUSE. The piece was included in the Groundlings’ very first show in 1974.
Skeptic: Oh come on Gary. How can you say that? You left The Groundlings in 1979, you returned briefly in 1990, and you’ve seen maybe five Groundling shows in the last thirty years.
Gary: You’ve done your research.
Skeptic: There are dozens of Groundling shows you’ve missed with hundreds and hundreds of scenes you’ve never seen or even heard about.
Gary: I’ve been busy. Lots of travel and lots of errands.
Skeptic: So how can you say that?
It was three days before our opening at The Oxford Theatre in East Hollywood. We were to be reviewed by Sylvie Drake of the Los Angeles Times. She had written an article about us in the Calendar Section of the Times the previous Sunday. She concluded her story with, “This could be the start of something big.” I knew that in order to fulfill her prophesy I needed to add one more scene to the show in order to balance things out.
I called a workshop. I had no ideas. So, as always, I started idea-less and began to build.
I set up a barroom onstage. I sent Gloria Vassy and Jean Pflieger to the down left table. I asked Cherie Kerr and Jim Lashly to sit at the down right table. The waiter had to be Jimmy Martinez, one of the funniest, most brilliant comedian/clowns I’ve ever known or seen anywhere. I put Jim Smith behind the bar, as he was not a great improviser and he needed something in the show, so giving him a bit part would fulfill that need. I put together a house jazz ensemble consisting of singer Tracy Newman, stand-up bass player Richard Levine, and percussionist Archie Hahn.
Now that everyone was in place, what to do.
I asked Gloria and Jean to play the Viola Spolin game, HOLD IT. The exercise requires the actor to hold an extreme facial expression throughout the scene, no matter what happens in the scene. I told them not to speak. I directed Cherie and Jim to play the Spolin game PRE-OCCUPATION, which requires each actor to focus on a separate pre-occupation while performing an activity, in this case drinking wine.
I told Jimmy to serve the two tables. Jimmy had a great snob waiter character, so we established an upscale restaurant. (In the show Jimmy wore a tux, and all others wore evening clothes.)
I asked the ensemble to play music softly under the entire scene no matter what might happen.
I told the bartender to stay behind the bar and not to get involved unless someone approached the bar.
The improvisation began and ended. Fifteen minutes after I had cast the piece we had a perfect scene. Here’s the story.
When the lights come up the restaurant is in full operation. The combo is playing really good music, and Cherie and Jim are engaged in conversation about their pre-occupations as they sip wine at the end of their meal. Jim’s pre-occupation is that he has just noticed that he has forgotten his wallet. He confides in his date and says he will handle the situation. He begins to build a rant about having left his wallet at home, and the rant gets louder and louder, breaking the “sophisticated” decorum of the restaurant. The rant is increasingly filled with profanity. The waiter begins to physically melt as he tries to calm the customer. (Jimmy had an uncanny ability to look like the melting wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz.) The strategy works. The panicky waiter encourages the couple to leave. They exit without paying.
The behavior, the characters and relationships, the give and take, the texture, the mood, and the specific beats of the scene fell into place the first time it was improvised. All elements of the scene were in perfect balance. By luck the actors were perfectly cast. We repeated the scene. Nothing was changed or re-written from the first improvisation. The scene became a staple of our shows for a couple of years. Reviewers and audience alike loved the piece.
Skeptic: So why is that the greatest scene?
Gary: If I were to divide all work into two categories, process and result, and rate each on a scale of one to ten, then BLAIR HOUSE gets a ten in both categories.
Skeptic: Maybe there have been others that you don’t know about.
Gary: Unlikely. I’ve been doing this since 1968. I know the percentages. However, I’ll make one concession. Maybe, unlikely, but maybe there has been one other scene which I would consider equal to BLAIR HOUSE. Maybe one.
Skeptic: So what’s your point?
I had learned as an actor at THE COMMITTEE the idea of doing in order to discover. It was an ass backwards approach that worked beautifully. Give yourself a task and discover the idea in retrospect. In other words, instead of executing an idea, execute and find out the idea. Don’t go for result. My teachers were Del Close and Alan Myerson, and improvisers Howard Hesseman, Gary Goodrow, Peter Bonerz, et. al. I was fortunate to have the best teachers in the country.
BLAIR HOUSE taught me the lesson of process vs. result so clearly that I have approached my work via process ever since.
I’m a songwriter. I can’t help but have an idea of what I want to write about. Because I am willing to abandon my idea while doing the work I’ve assigned myself, I have never written the song I set out to write. The resulting idea has always been better than the original idea.
I don’t want to be imprisoned by my idea. If I put idea (result) ahead of task (process), then I will censor impulses that conflict with my idea. The result? Rehashing that which I’ve done before. It may be that my impulses will lead to ideas I’ve never had.
My friend and fellow traveler Michael J. Gellman of Chicago’s Second city has written a book on improvisation entitled PROCESS: AN IMPROVISER’S JOURNEY.
The only significant difference in our approach is the pronunciation of the word. Because of his time spent in Canada, Michael pronounces “process” with a long “o.” I pronounce it the American way.
And the work goes on.
August 9th, 2010 I delivered the following speech at the Groundling Theatre at KIP KING's memorial. Chris Kattan, Kip's son, presented a warm, funny and poignant evening.
Kip sat here. The rest of the cast sat in the front row and entered the stage from there. That would have been difficult for Kip.
That was a couple of years ago, not long before he went into the hospital. We were working together again.
Kip was discovering the joy of ensemble work.
Kip King was the funniest man I ever met. And I’ve know some funny people. I saw the tears underneath the laughter and when the tears came they came easily. The sadness of the clown and the joy of performance and laughter.
Jerry Lewis tried to clone him. Luckily he failed.
In a workshop about thirty years ago I asked Kip to go onstage and make a hospital bed with the chairs and to lie in the bed. I told the group, “Kip is dying. You each have exactly one minute to tell him good-bye. You must leave the room when your time is up.”
We laughed and we cried as we watched Kip interact with his friends. The funny and the sad back and forth, unpredictable and as truthful as Kip himself.
When Wenndy and I visited him in the hospital I didn’t think we were saying good-bye. I told him we’d be back. How could there be a final good-bye?
Kip came to the house for singing lessons with Wendy in his last couple of years. He had trouble walking and so he sat in a chair for his lessons. Kip was finding easy access to his emotions through singing. He always greeted us with new jokes upon arrival. Wenndy and I laughed as deeply and as heartily as any laugh we’ve ever laughed.
I don’t know how funny those jokes were, but Kip King was telling them, and there was nothing funnier, ever.
The night before the Groundlings 30th Anniversary Celebration at the Henry Fonda Theatre, Wenndy and I threw a party at the house for our friends, including all those who had traveled from around the country for the event.
Kip sat in an easy chair and conversed with people. More and more people gravitated toward him and soon everyone at the party had formed an audience around him. Kip spoke and we listened and we laughed. It was a show. People from the East Coast who were there still talk about it.
Kip had his characters. The Telethon Guy. The jokes he wrote in the 70’s stood up in 2004. They were silly, smart jokes and only Kip could get laughs from them. No one else. No one else. It seemed to me that those in the audience knew they were laughing at the man and the jokes were just the wagon he rode in on.
In the Telethon piece, Kip introduced Lynne as Sonoko and Suzanne as Rita Chandelier and Sandy as the old decrepit dancer, Slam Bones. If Kip was the funniest man I ever met, Sandy Helberg did the funniest dance I ever saw, as Kip sang, straight faced and oh so sincerely, Mr. Bo Jangles. Jerry Lewis sentimentality magnified.
In Pee Wee’s early days, when Pee Wee was a stand-up comedian, before he became a Kids Television host, Kip played his vaudevillian Grandfather in a presentation sponsored by Norman Lear for a possible television series. Kip’s Grandfather secretly coached Pee Wee in the art of telling jokes.
Kip’s latest great character, created just before he became ill, was a totally blind Hollywood agent. When he perused a client’s 8 x 10 and made his selection, we bought it. He made us believe that he had picked the best picture.
In 1979, just before I resigned from The Groundlings, a rift had developed in the company.
I was Artistic Director and there was a bitter division over the definition of The Groundlings… who we were and what was our purpose. I was the leader of one of the two factions.
There was a contentious meeting with all members of the company in attendance. It was the big showdown. Kip sat there. In the midst of the noise and anger and confusion he stood up and he spoke in defense of my position and in defense of me personally. His remarks were spoken through his tears and I knew that I had a true friend.
The last time I saw Kip, just a few weeks ago, I spoke to him, our faces in close-up wth each other, inches apart. I asked Velma if he could hear me and she said “yes but speak a little louder.” Wenndy and I had remarked during the months Kip was ill how frustrating it must have been for him not to be able to speak. That was his life – talking and being loved for it.
I have never seen two eyes look at me with such intensity. His eyes pierced me and brought me into himself. I searched his immobile face for signs of a response as I spoke. A slight stretch of one side of his lips told me he was laughing. When I told him I have cancer his face contorted and I wished I hadn’t said that. I assured him that I’m in the midst of a treatment that will give me many more years and I hope that made him feel better. This man, in his situation, cared about mine. Overwhelming.
Whenever I looked up at Velma, there were tears streaming down her face. Her love for her husband was written there.
Beginning in the 70’s all of us at The Groundlings watched Little Chrissy grow up. Chris came to workhops and shows with his Dad. The outgoing messages on Kip’s phone were the voices of father and son doing Kip King schtick. The tutoring was happening and Chris was learning.
Chris became the first second generation Groundling.
Helen Hunt told me a story about working with Chris on Saturday Night Live. She and Chris had been rehearsing a scene for a couple of days and Helen thought that Chris seemed familiar to her on a personal level, but she couldn’t figure out how. She finally asked him if they had ever met.
According to Helen, Chris said, “Yeah. You used to babysit me.” Kip and Helen and Chris were in our early workshop family. And here was Chris, realizing the dream his Daddy had for him.
Kip didn’t realize the fame he deserved, but then fame is about being known to strangers. We who are not strangers to Kip know him in ways that strangers cannot. To us he is the greatest star.
Keep it comin’ Kip, keep it comin'.
Laura Merrill is a strong comedic actor and writer. She has recently contributed as a writer and performer to "The Beverly Bonner Show" at Broadway Comedy Club, and "In Transit" and "Something Outrageous" at the 45th Street Theater. She has experience in Shakespeare, Chekhov, and scenic design.
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