The Groundlings are in the middle of their holiday shows, with Snow Globe Groundlings bringing laughter and light to comedy fans on Fridays and Saturdays through Dec. 18. Ryan Gaul is one of the company members who is taking part in the holiday shows, and I connected with Ryan recently to talk about celebrating the season with improv comedy and just how he approaches making people laugh with everything that’s changed in the world. Plus, how are The Groundlings continuing to move comedy forward?
You can learn more about Snow Globe Groundlings and get tickets on the Groundlings website. The final two shows are scheduled for Dec. 17 and 18 at The Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles. But there are always new live shows, as well as online classes and performances, if you can’t make those dates!
Brittany Frederick: The Groundlings name is legendary in comedy. How did you first become involved with the company, and what made it someplace that you gravitated toward?
Ryan Gaul: In college I did a lot of dramatic theater, and I think there was always a part of me that craved to do something different. I didn’t know necessarily it was going to be sketch and improv. I thought maybe I’d try stand-up someday, which I’ve never done in my life—still on my bucket list, but I’ve never done it because I’m terrified of it. After I graduated college, I went into Boston and took an improv class and I fell in love in the most cliche way. I was just absolutely addicted. Eventually after a few years, I remember my father saying, “If you’re going to do it, then go really do it. Don’t play around in Boston; go to where you can actually make it a career, make some money.”
I came to L.A. and the next morning went and signed up for an audition at The Groundlings to get into their program and never really looked back. The most beautiful thing that came from it is that [acting] can be such a lonely, lonely journey, because you have an audition here or there and maybe you’re lucky enough to get a job, but having The Groundlings is like having a little family that I can always go back to. And for the last 15 years no matter how few auditions I get or no matter how successful I am, I always can jump back there and see my “family.”
BF: What are some of the things you’ve learned from The Groundlings that you’ve carried forward into the rest of your career?
RG: One hundred percent, just fearlessness. I watch the people that have gone ahead of me and I’ve kind of tracked what makes somebody successful in this business. And I’ve figured out doing what you think people want you to do doesn’t work. No matter whether you’re in an audition or in a sketch or in an improv scene or talking to somebody on the street, the key to coming across authentic is just being true to yourself and doing what you feel is right in the moment.
I can remember being on a set once and being like, “This line doesn’t feel right. I don’t like it.” This is a while ago—being like, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I want this recorded in history with me saying this line.” I was very scared to bring it up, and I brought it up and I remember the director just saying, “Yeah, change it. No problem. Just change it.” And it blew my mind…It’s such a fragile industry. It’s such a fragile career to be an actor. You’re so scared to ruffle any feathers or cause any waves. And if you look at all the people that succeed, they don’t have that fear.
That’s something I’ve really tracked from The Groundlings, watching Jim Rash and Nat Faxon and Melissa McCarthy and Will Ferrell and Edi Patterson. Watching their fearlessness, that’s something that I try to have as a mantra anytime I go into a job.
BF: How excited are you for Snow Globe Groundlings? It being a holiday show is fun enough, but also to be doing it with live audiences again at the end of another difficult year.
RG: It’s been a wild ride as I’m sure it’s been for you as well…It’s just the idea of doing live comedy. I’ve been doing it for 20-something years, so I absolutely was taking it for granted, like “Eh, maybe I’ll do this weekend, maybe not.” Now I’m like, “I’ll do anything.” I am jumping into this holiday show at The Groundlings. It’s only going to be three weekends, but I think it’s going to be a real joy-fest and just a ton of fun. I went to my first pitch two nights ago, and I was glowing in the cheeks and just grinning the whole time smiling. I went home just on a high. So I can’t wait to put it up in front of an audience and just spread a little cheer.
BF: Have your pitches changed over the last two years? Since there are things we laugh at now that we may not have pre-pandemic and also things we might have found funny that aren’t as funny.
RG: I think comedy evolves either way, regardless of whether we had a pandemic and such amazing social change in the world. Comedy is sort of this weird rollercoaster you have to track. I compare it sometimes to jeans. Jeans change every couple years and it’s like well, now wide legs are cool. Now mom jeans are cool. Now skinny jeans, and now skinny jeans but with acid wash. And comedy, I feel like it’s not exactly like that, but it has this roller coaster of “What is funny right now?”
When we pitch things, I can tell when I’m like, “Oh, I’m pitching something that would’ve been cool a year ago or two years ago. Now I have to kind of adjust it to this year.” I think you’re saying what most people are experiencing, where it’s after not only a pandemic, but sort of a huge shift in America, whether it’s politics or the social climate. We’re all a little on edge right now, and we recognize that at The Groundlings. At The Groundlings, I’m not sure if we want to promote anything but joy. And a lot of the time we’re like, we just want to have fun and show you some crazy characters that are doing crazy things. But we do have to be careful.
For example, I have a sketch that I’m trying to put up in the Holiday Show with Emily Pendergast, where we come home drunk after a New Year’s Eve party and we’re very hostile towards each other. The director who originally looked at it was like, “Ryan, let’s just make sure she’s much meaner to you than you are to her. You can be both be mean, but let’s just be careful.” Because it makes the audience uncomfortable. There’s a thin line between where the audience can be uncomfortable and then also laugh very hard. You want to present them a platform where they can laugh as hard as possible and not feel uncomfortable.
BF: What are some of the other things The Groundlings have in the works after this?
RG: We have a lot of outreach programs in the works right now where we’re trying to reach out to inner city schools. Improv notoriously has been a horribly white art. We are really, really working hard on changing that at The Groundlings. Harder than I think I’ve seen The Groundlings work on anything in the 15 years I’ve been there. And it warms my heart to know that we’re doing that. Leonard Robinson is working so hard. I feel like he works The Groundlings as a full-time job to make sure this is happening and we’re all trying to fall in line behind him as a leader. And so right now when we talk about spreading the joy of improv, I want to spread it to kids, because I think that is an underused tool in letting kids know how creative they can be. If you ever have seen a group of anywhere between second, fourth, sixth graders do improv, it’s the most brilliant thing in the world. If you give them the joy of saying “No, it’s up to you, man. You just say yes to your partner and try to make a story,” it’s some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen.
So to me, it’s not a question of how do we get more people involved, it’s how do we get everyone who wants to be involved, involved. How do we spread the idea of improv, so that everyone has a choice of whether to do it or not? Because there’s too many people out there right now that you say, “Yeah, I do improv.” And they’ll be like, “What’s improv?” And it’s like, “We got to make sure you know what improv is.” Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Impractical Jokers, those are two shows that have really spread the word of what improv is. And then I want everybody to come to a live show because that’s when you really experience like, “Ooh, that looks dangerously fun.”
For tickets to Snow Globe Groundlings and more information about all of The Groundlings’ shows and classes, visit their website.
Article content is (c)2020-2022 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.