'Groundlings State Penitentiary' Fails to Keep You Locked In

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Photo by derekthomasla via Flickr.

The name Groundlings is ubiquitous to not only the comedy landscape of Los Angeles, but to all of America. As a smallish school along a particularly shop-heavy strip of Melrose, Groundlings has helped to usher in fresh face after fresh face to the homes of millions of Americans. Current and past performers range from "that girl from that commercial" to the Will Ferrells of the world. Nearly all of them, however, share one inimitable trait: they're hilarious.

The main focus of the Groundlings school has always seemed to be "characters", a longstanding comedy tool that allows performers to take on the perspectives and mannerisms of an unusual person who must then interact in some capacity with the outside world. Think Ron Burgundy, and you'll start to get an idea of what the Groundlings tend to be after. When used well, character comedy can serve to heighten the ridiculous mindset of an equally outrageous person, while simultaneously playing close enough to a truism about ourselves that makes us all laugh with familiarity. That is, when done well.

Unfortunately, the current Friday and Saturday main stage sketch show, Groundlings State Penitentiary, isn't strong enough to support an environment for all of these characters to thrive. Instead, top-heavy premises bog down many of the scenes early on, forcing the cast to overextend jokes in search of a solid ending that never quite materializes. This is actually a common issue with character-heavy sketch shows currently being done all over the country: sometimes, taking an unusual character (say, a befuddled and diabetic grandfather) and placing him in a scenario in which their comedy can shine (the R & D testing wing of a children's toy manufacturer) can sometimes require so much setup that the payoff needs near perfection to achieve.

It's no secret why the cast for Groundlings State Penitentiary have been specifically cast to anchor the Friday and Saturday night main stage shows: they're really great. Ryan Gaul and Laurel Coppock shine particularly bright, but each player brings a commitment to the stage that you'd be hard-pressed to find at any other venue in town - an absolute testament to the Groundlings school and instilled work ethic. But, with poor writing and a meandering direction, the show felt more disjointed than anything. Occasional punctuations of genuine laughter would dot a particular sketch (or, more likely, one of the improvised scenes that scatter throughout the latter half of the show), but only one or two full pieces felt completely fleshed out and on point. In those moments, with an audience varying from out-of-towners familiar with the brand to avid supporters of the stage and its players, the room felt completely in sync. We all knew what was funny, and Groundlings State Penitentiary was going to keep taking us there. Sadly, those moments were scarce.

The Groundlings is a great organization in the world of comedy and beyond, and they deserve repeat business. Their shows change often and they host a bevy of sketch and improvised options meant to keep players sharp and audiences locked up in their seats. So, while Groundlings State Penitentiary may not hold the key to the comedy you've been looking for, don't be surprised if you find yourself pulled into the space on Melrose some night in the future, laughing in the dark as the future star from that show you're going to love heaves themselves around the stage, committing to the best character you've ever seen.


Groundlings State Penitentiary
Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 8 & 10pm
The Groundlings Theater
7307 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90046