One word closely identified with Christmas is “jolly” and what could be jollier than laughing about holiday traditions with the Groundlings? The iconic Los Angeles comedy conglomerate, on Melrose for almost half a century, has launched the 2021 edition of its annual holiday show. Snow Globe Groundlings is performed live and in-person, and that fact alone is almost enough to qualify as a Christmas miracle in these strange times.
The Buzz sat down with Groundlings writer/performer/director/teacher Michael Churven for an inside look at how the show comes together.
So, how does the show come together?
The Holiday Show is always tricky because, unlike our other shows, we don’t preview sketches. Generally, we work out Groundlings sketches through four to six weeks of testing, the way a standup comedian tries out new jokes. Individual sketches are performed in front of audiences, and we pick the best. By contrast, the holiday show is put together in three weeks, without any previews, and we tweak on the fly.
We write material over the course of about a month and pitch for the director, who selects the final sketches. There’s an intense writing period, three weekends of shows, and then it’s done.
The holidays are ripe for humor, but also somewhat the same every year. How do you keep it fresh?
We don’t repeat ourselves year over year. Sometimes there’s a sketch in a main company show that went well, or a character you want to continue to write for, and that adds a new angle. Writing about the holidays is a narrower way to write, because you’re not starting from scratch. You’re writing to the theme, so it tends to be a less scary process.
For audiences it’s about the joy of the season. They’re right on board from the moment the lights go down. You can feel the energy because everyone goes through the holidays in some way.
It sounds like Snow Globe Groundlings is scripted. Is there any of that classic Groundlings improvisation?
Definitely. The show has both written sketches and improvised pieces based on audience input.
Yes, and…Who writes and directs the show?
With the Groundlings, one director leads each project; for this show, it’s Chris Eckert. He’s having a great time and has put together a great show. There are 11 cast members, and, per the Groundlings sensibility, we all write for ourselves to perform. We are the sketch equivalent of singer-songwriters. Sometimes we do solo material, often we work together to generate the ideas and write scripts together. We pitch in weekly workshops with dozens of sketches. You have to write a lot to find one or two that hit.
What is your background with the Groundlings?
I started as a student, five or six years ago and was invited into main company a year and a half later. I have directed, which is my favorite thing because it uses all parts of the brain. I’m currently directing the Sundays Drive-Ins & Dives, our weekly show featuring the top level of the student company. It operates like Saturday Night Live: There’s a new show every week, it’s very intense, everyone is all in. There’s nothing like this school anywhere else in the world. I’m also a teacher.
[Ed. note: See more about Michael Churven here.]
Is there any involvement in Snow Globe Groundlings of Groundlings students? Is there a pathway from the school to the stage?
There’s no way to join main company without coming through the school. It has its own vocabulary and a very particular sensibility that’s been working for 50 years. [The Groundlings was founded in 1972.]
The top level of the school is intense performing and writing every week. The main company doesn’t ever perform with students.
So what’s the transition from student to main company member?
Groundlings seasons are six months. At the end of each season, the Groundlings main company has seen a lot of Sunday company shows and discusses who they would like to have come back. It really means something if you get invited, to performers and to the industry at large.
Improvising is a high wire act. There’s no rehearsing and no net. It requires good communication, including listening and eye contact. It’s a very pure environment, same as it was 50 years ago.
Snow Globe Groundlings is performed on Fridays and Saturdays through December 18 at 8:00pm. Tickets are $25 and are available here. Running time, according to Churven, is “about 90 minutes and up to two hours depending on the laughter.”