Cheri Oteri and other Groundling Theatre and School alumni will accept Sierra Spirit award this Saturday
Mammoth Lakes Film Festival (MLFF) will honor The Groundlings this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Forest Service auditorium.
The Groundling Theatre and School, established in 1974 in Los Angeles, has been the launching pad for countless television and film actors over the past four decades, and has been a de facto Triple AAA farm club for NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL).
Groundling alumni who’ve made the jump to SNL include Melissa McCarthy, Phil Hartman, Kristen Wiig, Jon Lovitz, Laraine Newman, Will Ferrell, etc.
Three Groundling/SNL alums will participate in this weekend’s event (Jordan Black, who wrote for SNL, and Julia Sweeney and Cheri Oteri, who performed as cast members). The non-SNL alum, Ryan Gaul, is doing just fine, thank you, as he currently appears in the hit series “The Last O.G.”
The Sheet spoke to Cheri Oteri this week about her life and career, so perhaps the following will give you a bit of a warmup for Saturday’s moderated panel.
As Cheri Oteri was growing up in the Philadephia suburbs, her dream wasn’t to be a Groundling, or on SNL. Initially, she wanted to be a singer. Which made sense, as her father Tommy was a music producer. But she didn’t have the voice for that dream, so she moved to Los Angeles and got a job at A&M Records, working in radio promotions.
But from the first, it was pretty clear that Oteri was a spitfire.
“A lot of people told me I should try stand-up,” Oteri recalled. “Do stand-up, do stand-up, but I didn’t really pay attention. Until someone told me I should do Groundlings, and I said what’s that? And they said Improv. And I said, “What’s Improv?”
Intrigued, she tried out and began taking classes.
How Groundlings Works
As Oteri explained, there are a few rungs on the ladder at Groundlings.
A person starts by taking three levels of classes. If you’re promoted through the classes, they’ll place you with the Sunday Company. And the final rung is the Main Company, which performs two shows nightly every Friday and Saturday.
Oteri spent two years taking classes, two-and-a-half years with the Sunday Company and one-and-a-half years with the Main Company before landing her gig with SNL.
Unlike many of her peers at Groundlings, Oteri kept her day job. This led to a few rebukes from her higher-ups, as Oteri would often write sketches at work.
There was a guy in the office, Bill Brown, said Oteri, “I’d send my stuff to him, and when I’d hear him laughing in his office, it was literally an endorphin release.”
As Oteri rose through the Groundling ranks, her commercial agent at the time told her to quit her job and audition. So she exited a job she loved for a temp job in Disney’s legal department.
But the transition, overall, was rather fortuitous. The internet was about to destroy the music industry as it existed and a lot of people Oteri knew at A & M were soon looking for whole new careers.
The Big Break
Her big break occurred when SNL came out to see Chris Kattan.
This was unusual as SNL hadn’t recruited Groundlings for several years and had passed over talents such as Lisa Kudrow (who made history with “Friends”) and Kathy Griffin (who made history with a severed head joke gone sour).
For the SNL visit, because SNL was coming out to recruit a specific person, Kattan got a “showcase” that evening – that is, virtually every sketch involved him.
Oteri had one solo piece that night, a “down left” monologue delivered from the side of the stage.
So one can imagine her shock when she was told the next day that SNL wanted to fly her back to New York for an audition along with fellow Groundlings Kattan, Will Ferrell and Jennifer Coolidge.
“My timing was the best timing ever,” explained Oteri. “They’d just cleaned house [at SNL].” Only a few writers had been retained, along with cast members Norm MacDonald, David Spade and Molly Shannon.
Oteri and Ferrell won spots that year. Ironically, Kattan wasn’t brought on until the next year, 1996.
Her Groundling training proved critical to her success at SNL.
“I rarely got written for,” she explained. Most of the writers were young men who were most comfortable writing for young men. There were many, many times where Oteri might be working on a sketch with Will Ferrell and a writer would come in and say, “Oh, hi Cheri,” and then, “Hey Will, you got a second? I want to run something past you.”
Oteri also didn’t do impressions prior to SNL, but that changed quickly.
Her first impression was of Barbara Walters – mostly because of timing. Walters had just done a special where she’d interviewed Lisa-Marie Presley and Michael Jackson so she was topical.
And even after she tried the impression, she wanted to drop it. But the word on high from Executive Producer Lorne Michaels was, “You have to do it.”
When asked what the key to a good impression is, Oteri said voice, modulation and cadence. “And the more I did it, the more I understood her and the better I got at it … I’m still doing it to this day.”
*If you wish to see a real classic, google Barbara Walters interviewing Barbara Walters. Oteri, as Barbara, interviewed Barbara as part of her 2014 going-away party from The View. Oteri slays it.
Sheet: During a Howard Stern interview with Carol Burnett back in 2015, they talked about Tim Conway, and how he thrived on Burnett’s variety show, but in large part, beyond Burnett, no one knew what to do with him and his talents. Does this experience apply to you in any way?
Oteri: Absolutely. I created so many characters [on SNL], but that meant that no one knew what I was as an actor. And I never got recognized on the street. Maybe because I’m below eye level (Oteri is, well, not tall). So I painted myself into a corner a little bit. I would get offered parts as a crazy lady. That became my m.o., because I wasn’t afraid to look bad.
Sheet: SNL alum Dana Carvey recently said something to the effect of, “Hollywood is just a string of disappointments, and it’s all about how you manage them.” What’s your take?
Oteri: I wholeheartedly agree with Dana. There’s a compare and despair aspect [to Hollywood]. I’m the luckiest person in the world to do what I’ve done. But it’s been a struggle. A real struggle. Just don’t take it personally.
Oteri elaborated by talking about the chicken-and-egg part of the business. If you have a job, you can get a high-powered agent, but once you’re out of a job, an agent doesn’t want you.
The same thing can be said of bank loans.
A final thought. Oftentimes, we don’t comprehend the mountain we’ve climbed, or the obstacles we’ve overcome, until we’re transported to a different place.
For Oteri, this a-ha moment occured when she shot guest appearances on the sitcom “Just Shoot Me” in the late 1990s.
It was the first time she had been written for – and it was a walk in the park. And it made her realize just how hard she had worked and how much she had hustled.
She was nominated for an Emmy for her guest work.
Oteri’s short “Turkey’s Done” will screen at Saturday’s event. She is the co-writer and star. It’s a character piece dealing with infidelity.
Fellow Groundling Ryan Gaul’s sbhort “Jack” will also screen. He stars as a blue collar guy taking his terminally ill cat to the vet.