Los Angeles Theater Review: GROUNDLINGS ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE and LET THEM EAT SUNDAY (The Groundlings Theatre in West Hollywood)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on March 17, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


The best part about cleaning up my DVR last weekend was catching up on Raising Hope, the hilarious FOX comedy. It’s funny, surprising, naughty, sometimes dirty, and wholly original. In one episode they give Cloris Leachman a beautifully timed joke about how she could only have an orgasm with her late husband when he was choking her. The down-market show also has the gift of patience: Martha Plimpton’s husband paints a large pink spot on her bare leg, but we have no idea why because the scene itself is about something else entirely; only at the end, when Plimpton puts on pink pants that sport a giant hole, do we get the joke.

In the last episode, a romantic arc was resolved by using a comedy sketch and improv club as the lynchpin of the story. They called the place the Room for Improv-ment; a perfect, mangled pun that doesn’t work at all, yet within the context of the show it makes you laugh. It was entirely coincidental that I was watching television about a fictional comedy sketch and improv troupe a mere hours before going to an actual Groundlings sketch and improv show.

And I was in the mood. I’ve always loved the Groundlings—an L.A. institution for almost forty years. Famous alumni include Will Ferrell, Julia Sweeney, Kathy Griffin, Phil Hartman, Lisa Kudrow, Jon Lovitz, Kristin Wiig, and “Pee-Wee Herman” among many other veterans of SNL and MADtv.

It’s sad to report that the two newest Groundlings offerings, Groundlings Zombie Apocalypse and Let Them Eat Sunday, are flabby, poorly written, unimaginative, and so dumbed-down you feel like your brain is drowning in formaldehyde.

Along with being entertainment in its own right, one of the most useful functions of sketch comedy and improv in general, and the Groundlings specifically, is to be the laboratory for the Next Big Thing. So when a television sitcom’s depiction of improv and sketch comedy is vastly superior to live comedy, something has gone seriously, desperately wrong.

In Raising Hope, predicaments include characters sleeping with pantyhose over their heads to avoid spiders crawling into various orifices; the secret shame of men who shave their feet; a drunk mayor as a sort of genie that can grant wishes; and a single dad who raises his daughter alone when her serial-killer mom is executed.

Zombie Apocalypse’s moribund targets include Die Hard, preteen nerds, automated customer service, fortune cookies, annoying coworkers, being unpopular in the seventh grade, and speed dating. Speed dating! What is this? 1992?

A cast of six white guys and one woman tackles their mundane material with an inbred comedic philosophy that seems to boil down to the idea that louder is always funnier. It’s not. Mikey Day, Lisa Schurga, and Greg Worswick come off well enough in various sketches, but even Day shows little of the inventiveness and easy charm that made him one of the brighter spots on the American remake of Kath & Kim.

The Groundlings draw an interesting crowd, atypical for live theater—mostly straight couples, youngish, ready for a good time. The troupe gets some laughs, but the disappointment in the room was infectious. The happily expectant crowd waiting to get in before the show seemed tired and dispirited upon exiting.

The next night, I held out hope that the Sunday show would be a victory for the underdogs. The Zombie cast comes from the Groundlings main company. Let Them Eat Sunday is cast from the junior varsity team; company members perform new original sketches and improvisations every Sunday. If they turned out to be better than the main company it would be a heartwarming Cinderella story.

It was not.

Sample sketch: A white guy brings home an African-American girlfriend to meet his mother, who makes a mess of trying to seem like she isn’t freaked out. That might have been a funny idea—in 1974—when the Groundlings began, but now the material smacks as a self-promotional means to become the Next Best Thing; it’s simply not about cutting-edge, provocative, up-to-date humor, which is what the Groundlings used to be known for.

I’m not one of those people who mistakes nostalgia for critical observation. But in this case, the shows really were better back in the day—the casts were more talented and the writing more keenly observant. I can remember audiences standing en masse and cheering, with tears of laughter running down their faces.

Maybe Let Them Eat Sundays gets better in the second half. I’ll never know. I unashamedly broke the code of a critic and ducked out at the intermission.

photos by Shawn Bishop

Groundlings Zombie Apocalypse
scheduled to end on April 21

Let Them Eat Sunday
runs indefinitely
The Groundlings Theatre in West Hollywood (Los Angeles Theater)
for tickets, visit http://www.Groundlings.com

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