We lost another pioneer this week with the death of Gary Austin. When The Committee started its run at The Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles, Gary joined the cast in San Francisco under the direction of Del Close, and he was part of the company when it made its early breakthroughs in longform improvisational theater. Austin continued on with The Committee with various ensembles under various directors, evidently soaking up everything he quickly learned. It’s hard to imagine that The Committee’s cultural influence would be so widespread without Austin to evangelize their work. The Groundlings, which Austin founded in 1974, became a force in comedy that for years was matched only by The Second City in the talent that it attracted and nurtured. As a teacher of acting for forty years, Austin helped players bring their full selves to the stage and to play at the top of their intelligence. Thanks, Gary, for your commitment to elevating the art form and for your life of service.
pictured: Gary Austin
This month we’ve made a lot of progress: we located and secured an amazing trove of rare Committee-related photos and just this weekend wrapped up two more interviews, with Howard Hesseman aka Don Sturdy and Gary Austin.
Howard, of course, was an important member of The Committee’s ensemble – his work was captured both in The Committee’s feature A Session With The Committee and in numerous late night television appearances, from Dick Cavett to The Midnight Special. With a limited window of time available to us (many thanks to IO West for allowing us the use of the Del Close Theater on short notice), Howard was concise, comprehensive, and hilarious. We discussed Howard’s introduction to The Committee, the birth of “Don Sturdy”, seminal Committee sketches such as “Acid” and “20,000 Came Home”, the ABC/”Music Scene” deal and its fallout on the company, and the influence The Committee’s cast played on “WKRP in Cincinnati”.
Pictured: Justin Chin (DP), Sam Shaw (Co-Writer, Co-Director), Howard Hesseman, Jamie Wright (Co-Writer, Co-Director)
On Sunday we met with Gary Austin, Committee castmember and founder of the The Groundlings. The Committee introduced Gary to improvisation and the pioneering work of Viola Spolin, and he carried this influence through The Groundlings to help shape generations of performers, scores of whom have swelled the ranks of Saturday Night Live.
Gary traced for us the path he took from Committee stage manager to performer, and helped us paint a picture of Committee performer Chris Ross, an improvisational genius who died from a drug overdose at the age of 25.
While we plan on another trip to LA in early 2016, we’re starting the winter in the editing room. Stay tuned.
I came to improvisation pretty late in life compared to most improvisors. I didn’t see my first show until I was 30 and freshly moved to Amsterdam for multimedia school. I had gotten a job tending bar at Boom Chicago, yet another of Amsterdam’s odd landmarks – a wildly successful and (largely) American improv & sketch comedy show in the heart of Holland. It was amazing.
And as with anyone who has ‘discovered’ improvisation, there was no going back. I started doing projects for the show and pretty soon designed a video system for improvising live video & integrating set video pieces into the show. Owners Andrew Moskos and Ken Schaefle rolled the dice and took me on as video director, an act of blind faith for which I am eternally grateful.
Once I was working full-time in the shows, I had to know more. I asked cast member Jason Sudeikis whose uncle George Wendt had been a stalwart at The Second City, and who had a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the art. When he told me about Second City, Improv Olympic, UCB & The Groundlings, all in Chicago, NYC and LA, I had to ask if San Francisco had a history with improvisation. He said Del Close had worked at a place called The Committee, but that he’d never seen much information on it. It was at that point I knew I had to learn more.
Having grown up in the Bay Area, I had heard of The Committee in the same breath as The Diggers and sit-ins in the Park, but never really knew much about what they did, pretty much rolling it all into street theater and people getting high. What can I say – I grew up in the Reagan Era. Once Sam Shaw, myself, and members of Crisis Hopkins took up the cause of the San Francisco Improv Festival in 2010, we knew the first thing we wanted to do was celebrate the city’s history with improvisation – and that started with The Committee.
As Sam says in his post, we were extraordinarily fortunate to have the cooperation of founding director Alan Myerson in putting together a panel with Carl Gottlieb, Larry Hankin, Allaudin Matthieu, Jim Cranna, and lassoing Del Close’s biographer Kim “Howard” Johnson to moderate. Once I met these people, and looking at the skills and resources we had available, I knew we had to get a documentary going. It’s an amazing story of San Francisco, political activism, theater, and improvisation, with roots in the beginnings of The Compass and Second City and tendrils extending out into the current state of the art and most modern, popular comedy.
Here’s a taste of our first effort with The Committee – one of their classics – reprised with the help of Howard Johnson, in August of 2010: