One of the first TV shows to make an impression on me was Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and my newest interview subject, George McGrath, played a large part in making it so memorable. Whether he was voicing Globey or writing episodes of the show, George McGrath helped make a big impact on me. Later on, I would be witness to his great writing on projects ranging from Tiny Toon Adventures to Tracey Takes On…
I reached out to Mr. McGrath about an interview recently, and we spoke on July 6th. I hope you all enjoy getting to know this incredibly creative man.
Say hello to George McGrath!
Johnny: Hello, Mr. McGrath.
George: Hello, Johnny.
Johnny: Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to do this interview.
George: No problem.
Johnny: Alright. I have my questions ready to go, starting with this: Was being a performer what you wanted to do when you were younger, or had you initially had a different career goal in mind?
George: I originally wanted to be a performer.
Johnny: Alright. What led you to The Groundlings?
George: I had seen their show, and I was in an improv class. The head of The Groundlings at the time invited me to take a class there, and I did it.
Johnny: Alright. As I asked your fellow Groundling, and our mutual Facebook friend, Sherri Stoner, when I interviewed her in 2018, what were some of your favorite characters and sketches to work on as part of the group?
George: I love Sherri Stoner, by the way. I adore her. My favorite characters included Nat Caulfield, who was a talk show host who would interview people from the audience. I loved doing that. The nun was really popular. My favorite sketch I ever wrote was called “Idioms”. It had Phil Hartman in it, and John Moody and Edie McClurg. That was one of the first things I wrote over there. “Idioms” was a sketch about an adult education night school class called “English for the Foreign Born.” Edie played the easily frustrated teacher, and the topic of the class was idioms. She would explain the idiom and have us use it in a sentence. My character was from Guatemala, and took the idioms literally “You have a bee in your bonnet, are you trying to make honey on your head?”, Phil’s character was German and made everything sexual “Hey you fellows I have someone over a barrel, let’s have sex with them” and John’s character spoke no English at all and would just repeat the idiom. It got funnier and funnier as Edie got more frustrated and the audience could anticipate what each of us would say misinterpreting the idiom.. I would say that’s about it. I mean, I had a million different characters and a million different sketches, but those pop out.
Johnny: Okay. To jump into the present for a question, as you still have some involvement in The Groundlings, how’s the group riding out our current chaos?
George: Well, they’re suffering, of course, because there’s no shows, and that’s how they make most of their money. They’ve been able to keep the school online to a much smaller degree. I’ve been teaching my classes for them, and a lot of other people have as well. They’re making a little bit of money doing that, but the shows are an enormous amount of income, and the regular school is also a large amount of income, so they’re suffering.
Johnny: Well, I hope things will get back to normal sooner than later, and you’ll all be at full speed again.
George: Me, too.
Johnny: To jump back to the 80s, what can you tell me about the production of the cable special Cheeseball Presents?
George: (Laughing) Okay. I don’t get that question a lot. Cheeseball Presents was this sketch show. A guy named Alfred Sole produced it. He came to The Groundlings and saw the show, and asked me if I would do some writing and performing in it, so I wrote a couple of sketches for them. I did a Nat Caulfield thing, and I was in a couple of sketches with Phil Hartman and Lynne Stewart. It was for ONTV, which was a cable service at the time. ONTV shortly went out of business after we did it, and it played on The Playboy Channel for a good many years. It was kind of raunchy. There were a lot of topless women in it. It was super-fun to do.
Johnny: It’s currently on YouTube, and I definitely think it was a very fascinating look at that era of Groundlings humor. I liked your sketches, of course. I really liked the whole special. I also liked Joan Leizman’s riff on Barbie and Ken, turning them into 80s punk rockers. That was hilarious.
George: Yeah. I love Joan, too.
Johnny: As mentioned in my introductory e-mail, I first came to know of your work as both an actor and a writer on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. What do you think has given that show the staying power it has?
George: Well, there’s always new kids, and I think people who were young at the time when it was on continue to buy it or rent it for their kids to watch. I have a YouTube channel where I put up the theme song to Pee-wee’s Playhouse, so I get comments all the time like that. They love the show. It reminds them of their childhood, and they’ve been watching it ever since. I think that’s part of it. Also, it was just a great show. I mean, at the time, it was groundbreaking and absurdly popular, you know? It was on the cover of Life Magazine and was nominated for a million Emmys, so it was really popular, and it continues to play on various networks at various times. Most of the comments I get on the theme song page are positive.
Johnny: That’s fantastic to hear. It is a fantastic show, speaking of which: Which episodes of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, whether you wrote them or just acted in them, were you mosr proud of?
George: That’s a good question. I only acted in two of them. One of them was Playhouse In Outer Space, where I played Zyzzybalubah, and another one was from the first season. I don’t remember the episode title, but I played a cop on the phone with Pee-wee, so I really enjoyed doing that. I would say Pajama Party was a favorite of mine, and anything where everybody came together for something in the Playhouse was always fun. I liked The Cowboy And The Cowntess. That was a really fun episode to do. I didn’t write it, but I really enjoyed being in the Christmas Special. That was a lot of fun.
Johnny: Yeah. The Christmas Special was definitely a blast, and so many great talents besides the cast were in it.
Johnny: All those great cameos…
George: Plus I got to meet Cher and have my picture taken with her. I’d loved her forever, so that was super-fun.
Johnny: Absolutely. Staying with the character of Pee-wee, you co-wrote Big Top Pee-wee. What are your favorite memories of writing that movie?
George: Well, when we were writing that movie, Paul and I wrote the second season of Pee-wee’s Playhouse ourselves. We had an office at Paramount, and we were writing both at the same time. Randal Kleiser was directing it, and he had a house in Hawaii. We went to his house in Hawaii a couple of time to write it. It was fun. Paul’s very fun and funny. We spent every day together for a year writing those things. It was fun to write.
Johnny: Big Top Pee-wee was actually one of the first movie I ever saw in a theater, albeit a drive-in theater. I saw it in a double feature with Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
George: Oh, wow!
Johnny: I’m actually interviewing Joanna Cassidy tomorrow. I’m going to have to tell her about that, but staying with you: Moving to another TV project, what went into the creation of On The Television?
George: Okay. I had written and starred in a special for Nick At Nite called The Do-It-Yourself Sitcom Search, where people would write in and say, “My family’s like a sitcom. My brother’s a clown, and blah blah blah”. We picked three finalists, and I wrote three different sketches of fake TV shows for them. We shot them, and they really liked it. They said, “If you have any other ideas, let us know”, and I had the idea of On The Television, which was a fake Siskel and Ebert reviewing fake TV shows. We pitched it to them, and they said, “Go ahead”, so we made a special. It aired on April Fool’s Day, and a couple of weeks later, I’m reading the TV Guide. I don’t know if you remember, but they had the Cheers and Jeers column. I was reading it, and no one had told me about this, but they had given a Cheer to On The Television. It was a really nice little write-up, and so we blew that up into a poster and sent it to Nick At Nite, and they ordered a series of 13 episodes. We did the 13 episodes, and then they ordered 26 more episodes, so that’s how it happened.
Johnny: Cool. Did you ever get any feedback, either positive or negative, from the talents who worked on the shows spoofed on On The Television?
George: I’m trying to think. After that, I was the head writer on Later With Greg Kinnear, and I think Roseanne had seen it because she looked at me and said, (slipping into Roseanne’s voice) “I know you”. (Back to his own voice) She got scared of me, so I don’t think she cared for it, but no, I really didn’t get much feedback from the ones we spoofed at all.
Johnny: Alright. Can you recall any sketches written for On The Television that you hoped would get on the air, but were rejected by Nick At Nite Standards & Practices?
George: There was nothing I or the regular staff wrote that was not put on the air, but there was an episode written by another writer. I believe it had something to do with gingivitis. It was called A Mouthful Of Love, and I guess they didn’t like it or whatever, so that episode never aired. Even though we did 40 episodes including the special, 39 aired.
Johnny: Alright. Staying with television, you produced and wrote a kids’ show for the country music group Riders In The Sky. I enjoyed that show, although it was short-lived. If it had gone on to a second season, what would you like to have done with the show?
George: Well, I was very proud of the puppets, and the actors in the supporting cast. There were a lot of funny, funny people. The problem with Riders In The Sky, and this may be a weird thing to say, was the Riders In The Sky. They were used to doing a college-touring kind of vaudeville act, and they didn’t have a sparkle in their eyes. I had done the same thing with Pee-wee, and Pee-wee was magical. It was hard to get the Riders In The Sky to light up the screen. If we had gone to a second season, I might have kind of rejiggered it and found out a way to get the band to sparkle (laughing), you know? I wish I did.
Johnny: Fair enough. I liked what you had done. I still think what made it to air was good, and you played a large part in it.
George: Thank you.
Johnny: No problem. You wrote, with Sherri Stoner, one of my favorite Tiny Toon Adventures shorts, Party Crasher Plucky, all about Plucky having bad luck trying to get into a star-studded party. Did you have similar experiences in your earlier years in the entertainment industry?
George: No. I’m not a star-studded partygoer anyway (laughing). They hired me to do that because they knew I had a familiarity with pop culture and the people that were in that. That was really fun to write.
Johnny: Yeah. I really liked the jokes in there, like the plate of the John Candied Yams and Plucky trying to get people to acknowledge him by doing a line-of-sight name, looking at a magazine cover and calling himself a Bush Quayle, and having all the celebrities paying attention (laughing). I thought that was pretty funny.
George: That is amazing. I do not remember one bit of that, but I thank you.
Johnny: Oh, no problem. Going into 1993, you wrote a parody of TV movies entitled Based On An Untrue Story. Mel Brooks once said something along the lines of how he could never parody something he didn’t love, so were you a fan of the TV movie genre in the 80s and 90s?
George: A lot of the parodies I wrote for On The Television were things that I loved or was familiar with, and a lot of my favorite sketches from On The Television were spoofs of that kind of overdramatic TV movie. I don’t feel I was a fan of them, but I sure watched a whole bunch of them. I like overacting. It’s a fun thing to play. With Based On An Untrue Story, I liked having so many complicated, ridiculous storylines for all the various actors and actresses in it. I really enjoyed writing it. It was fantastic that so many great stars wanted to be in it. The table read for that was like, “Oh my god, there’s Harvey Korman! There’s Dyan Cannon!”. It was super fun to write. I wasn’t in love with the final product, but it’s one of those things where the people that love it really love it. I still get the occasional Facebook message or e-mail. I found it was very popular in Brazil. I get a lot of fans from Brazil saying how much they love that movie. There’s a group on Facebook called Dr.Meir Based on an untrue story fan page that’s a tribute page to the movie.
George: There’s a lot of people that like it. Some people were just brilliant in it. It’s definitely something I wrote that was my sense of humor, you know?
Johnny: Any Morgan Fairchild stories?
George: She was delightful. I got to almost stab her in the shower because I got to play a little part in there as well. Super nice, super nice.
Johnny: I’m glad. I met her at the Chiller Theatre convention in April of 2019, and I found her to be very friendly. I’m glad you had a good experience with her.
George: Very good.
Johnny: Moving into the late 90s, you wrote, produced and appeared on several episodes of Tracey Takes On. How did you land that gig?
George: It was just a fluke. My agent called me up one day and said that “Tracey had fired a writer. Do you want to go and meet her?”. Honestly, I was not a fan of Tracey Ullman’s. I hadn’t really seen much of her except her original Fox show. I had never seen Tracey Takes On because I didn’t have HBO at the time, but my whole career, if somebody wanted to meet me, I met them, and when I met Tracey, we just hit it off. We were making each other laugh. We were playing around with each other in a way as if we had known each other for a while. It was probably my favorite job I ever had in show business. She was the most talented person I ever worked for. You know, I’ve worked with a lot of actors on various things, and she was the real deal. She could write as well as anybody on the staff. She always gave 100 percent in performances and table reads, and she was just so much fun to be around. I loved that job. It was one of my favorite things I wrote, and definitely my favorite job to show up to and be there. After that was over, we wrote a TV movie together, and we wrote a pilot together. We worked together for a while after that, and I love her. I just can’t say enough good things about her.
Johnny: Very cool. Of all the episodes of Tracey Takes On that you helped write, which would you say was most emblematic of your work on the series?
George: Wow. Well, it was a wonderful staff of really talented people. There were certain characters that I wrote a lot for. I wrote a lot of Linda Granger, the B actress whose career was kind of washed up. I wrote a lot for Ruby, the old makeup lady. I wrote for pretty much every character over the term of it, but I wrote the most for those two characters, so I guess episodes that were heavy on that. I liked the Religion episode because I’m in it (laughing). That one won a GLAAD Award, so that was a lot of fun to be in it.
Johnny: When it does come to Tracey Takes On, it was severely edited when released on DVD, so do you have the uncut episodes saved yourself?
George: I do. Not only do I have them saved myself, but somebody fantastic had downloaded them from I don’t know what years ago, so I felt the same way. I brought the DVD collection and was like, “Hey, where’s this? Where’s that?”, including my appearance in the Religion episode. I feel terrible that I can’t remember this guy’s name, but he sent me all the episodes from the seasons that I worked on, and I put them all up on my YouTube channel, full-length.
Johnny: Fantastic. That’s why, even though I loved Tracey Takes On, that’s why I was reluctant to buy the DVDs, because they were so severely edited.
George: How did you know they were severely edited before you brough them?
Johnny: Well, I didn’t buy the set. I saw it on the Wikipedia page for Tracey Takes On. Under the home entertainment release section, they mentioned that the sets were severely edited, with some episodes only running three minutes.
George: Oh, wow. I don’t know why they did that.
Johnny:It’s the same reason why I can’t watch Saturday Night Live after Season 5 in online prints, because that show is severely hacked up. All musical performances after Season 5 are missing. If a sketch has copyrighted music, unless it achieved memetic status, it’s gone. It’s just disappointing, and you’re not getting the whole experience, but to stay with your own work: You appeared on several episodes of the British incarnation of Whose Line Is It Anyway?. Were you ever asked to appear in the American version, either the Drew Carey-hosted version or the Aisha Tyler-hosted version?
George: No, but I did do an American version for one season that was on Comedy Central. They filmed it in New York, and I did an episode then of that. It wasn’t really my thing. You know, my improv style is sort of character-based, and Whose Line Is It Anyway? was like buzzers and bells. BUZZ! Say something funny! BUZZ! Say something funny. I wasn’t really that comfortable doing it, but I had a great time when I went to England. I’d never been to Europe. They sent me to England for work, and they picked me with a handful of other Americans to do the season as guest stars. Most of the guests they picked were people who were sort of well-known, so I was very little-known compared to the other people, but it was super-flattering and super-fun to do. The guy who produced it, Dan Patterson, was such a doll, and we stayed in touch for many years after that.
Johnny: Alright. Returning to The Groundlings, when it comes to the relationships between them and other improv groups, are the relationships friendly or competitive?
George: I don’t really think there’s anything that competes with The Groundlings. Of course, Second City is more famous and prestige in a way, but the shows they do are not really like The Groundlings’ shows. The Groundlings is its’ own kettle of fish. Broad characters, wacky wigs and costumes…All that stuff really doesn’t happen anyplace else. The UCB does improv, but it’s pretty much street clothes improv. Even sketches at Second City aren’t big, musical, wacky stuff like The Groundlings do, so I don’t think The Groundlings feels competitive with anybody, and I don’t think the other people feel competitive with The Groundlings.
Johnny: Alright. I read that former adult film star Tracey Adams had trained with The Groundlings. Did you ever cross paths with her?
George: No. I taught there for the ten years I was there, but I never crossed paths with her, no.
Johnny: Alright. To wrap up this interview, once things get better, what can we look forward to from you next?
George: Well, I still perform with The Groundlings. They have a show on Thursdays that has Groundlings and alumni in it, so I do that on a pretty regular basis. I did a show there last year called Party Of Two, with Groundling Michael Churvin sharing stories, and I do this thing called Instaplay. Instaplay is where we get suggestions from the audience for a musical and a title, and we do a full-blown musical. We’ve done that since the 80s, and we still do that four or five times a year. That’s what I do.
Johnny: Alright. Actually, I do have one more question. This is also a question I asked of Sherri Stoner when I interviewed her. Has any of The Groundlings’ material ever been taped or archived?
George: I would say, in the last ten years, very much so. When I was there, there were the occasional 20th or 25th anniversary special that was taped. I haven’t seen it, and I don’t know if it’s been lost or whatever, but I have some video of certain things, and I’m not sure if the whole show was taped at that time. Probably not, but I also have videos of rehearsals and sketches. Right now, the stuff that they’ve been doing for the last few years has been filmed, but not so much prior to that.
Johnny: Alright. On that note, I do thank you for taking the time to speak to me. I mean, Pee-wee’s Playhouse was really a show I enjoyed growing up, and then, as I matured, I grew to enjoy Tracey Takes On, so it was an honor to interview you about that and so much more.
George: My pleasure. Thank you for asking me.
Johnny: Oh, no problem. Thank you again for your time, and I hope you have a wonderful afternoon.
George: You, too, Johnny. Thanks a lot.
Johnny: No problem. Bye.
George: Bye bye.
I would like to thank George McGrath for taking the time to speak to me. Coming soon to the Flashback Interview will be conversations with the wonderful actress/musicians/health advocate Greta Blackburn, and the great Joanna Cassidy, who, among many other credits, appeared in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which, as I mentioned in this article, I saw on a double-bill with Big Top Pee-wee at a local drive-in.