You don’t have to look far to find alumni of the legendary Los Angeles comedy troupe The Groundlings.
Turn on the tube and you’ll see Will Ferrell on “The Office,” Melissa McCarthy on “Mike&Molly” and Will Forte and Chris Parnell on “30 Rock.”
Raunchy comedy “Bridesmaids,” now playing in theaters, stars several former Groundlings, including “Saturday Night Live” cast members Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph. Meanwhile, Paul Reubens’ “The Peewee Herman Show” recently wrapped up a popular Broadway run.
On Sunday, The Groundlings visit San Luis Obispo for a hilarious evening benefiting the SLO Hep C Project. They’ll be joined onstage by Cal Poly’s own improv group, Smile and Nod.
“It’s an amazing form of theater,” current Groundlings cast member Edi Patterson said. “I can’t think of anything else where the audience is so viscerally involved in that way. They can feel the danger and the excitement and the intimacy of it.”
Patterson first found her knack for comedy in sixth or seventh grade. She and a few other girls created a parody of “The Dating Game” for the school talent show.
“To hear an auditorium laughing at the stuff I had written, it was like ‘Game over,’ ” Patterson recalled with a chuckle. “That was the first moment I (realized), ‘OK, this is what I do.’ ”
After graduating from Southwest Texas State University with a bachelor’s degree in theater, she performed with Austin Theatresports — a form of competitive improv developed by Keith Johnstone—before relocating to Los Angeles and eventually joining The Groundlings.
Founded by Gary Austin in 1974, The Groundlings ranks among Hollywood’s most influential comedy institutions.
Performers must undergo an extensive training program before joining the nonprofit organization’s main company, 30 members who write, act and teach at The Groundlings School.
“It’s incredibly, incredibly competitive in a good way,” said Patterson, who’s been a main company member for four-and-a-half years. “It makes for good shows and a fun time.”
Although a stint with The Groundlings has been a springboard for countless careers, Patterson said that most members are already active in the entertainment industry.
In addition to her two-person improv show “Mitch and Edi Making Love,” Patterson performs regularly with the Improv Theatre in Los Angeles. (She’s also one of the folks behind “Fellowship!”, a musical parody of “The Fellowship of the Rings.”)
“We actually do full-length improvised plays in different styles,” she explained, such as Jane Austen, William Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. “Nobody is really going for the joke. We’re all just trying to do a play, which is inherently funny because we’remaking it up as we go along.”
Central Coast audiences will recognize the actress from the indie comedy “Thanks,” which screened at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival last March. The Rita Rudner vehicle tied with “Language of a Broken Heart” for the audience award for best narrative feature.
Her small-screen credits include “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “The Jay Leno Show” and “The Underground.” This year she’ll appear on the eighth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Even with her busy schedule, Patterson said she loves being a Groundling.
“Even if you’re working steadily, it’s cool to have that place where you can be with your friends and do an awesome show,” she said. “It’s such a great thing to be part of and a great creative outlet.”
According to Patterson, Sunday’s show will offer a combination of short-form improvisation — “a fun, fast potpourri of a bunch of scenes,” she said — and a longer second-half sketch.
The Groundlings welcome audience interaction. Just don’t yell out the first off-color comment that pops into your head, she cautioned.
“Someone will always think they’re hilarious when they yell out ‘gynecologist’s office,’ ” Patterson said. “They have no idea that they are literally the thousandth person who has ever yelled that. They think they’re being really unique.”
Luckily, Groundlings are adept at thinking on their feet.
“I just think it’s so amazing that you get to go and do a different show every time,” Patterson said. “There’s something about discovering (the story) together when you’re improvising with someone, and it goes to some place that neither of you expected.
“Not to be cheesy, but it’s transcendent.”