A Secular Grief Observed

Upon initial glance, Pee Wee Herman’s ill-fitting striped suit looks dorky, childish even. Gary Austin, founder of the iconic improvisational company The Groundlings, wore this suit on the rare occasions he had to go for a formal job interview or a nerdy audition. But otherwise, this suit sat in his closet as Gary lived his life in white cowboy boots, a cowboy shirt, and blue jeans.

One day while teaching an improvisational acting class, Gary led an exercise where students were told to put on a set of clothes and then assume a character. Paul Rubens needed something to wear so Gary lent him this suit. Then, as if by magic, the character of Pee Wee Herman was born. As the cliché goes, the rest is history. 

At the memorial service for Gary, who died on April 1, 2017, Rubens relayed the origin of his iconic Pee Wee Hermansuit. That simple moment in class changed his life. 

His horse whisperer moves guided hordes of artists to discover their singular voice. If you’ve laughed at the original cast of Saturday Night Live and performers from the other casts that followed, then you’ve experienced his behind-the-scenes magic. And like George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life, no one really knew how many people Gary impacted until he was no longer in the wings.

Such was the essence of Gary, an artist who left behind the fundamentalism of his Nazarene childhood in Corpus Christi, Texas to pursue a career as an actor/singer. Early success with the legendary San Francisco improv group The Committee led to Gary’s ego rising until it burned in an alcohol-fueled blaze of glory.

When I met Gary in 1996, his recovery from alcoholism had transformed him into a softer, more spiritual soul—his classroom became his chapel and it was through here that he ministered to his students. 

At this time, I was a budding religious satirist based in New York City. I had been writing for now defunct The Wittenburg Door, the nation’s oldest, largest, and only religious satire magazine. Here I put my MDiv from Yale Divinity School to good use as I offered reworkings of the Bible and other theological texts through pieces like “The Book of Revelation According to Dubya,” “South Park Salvation,” and “The Ten Commandments According to the Clintons.” Along the way, I interviewed a range of Christian figures from Betty Bowers to William Buckley, and took perhaps a bit too much pride when my role as Senior Contributing Editor would grant me access to such venerable events as the 2004 Republican National Convention.  

Even though I was deconstructing the institutional church, I remained a practicing Christian, in contrast to Gary, who by then had left his childhood faith. Given my family history, I was relieved to have missed his hard-drinking angry atheist phase. The man I met possessed tenderness toward his students, all animals (especially those in need of rescuing), and his second wife (who incidentally became my vocal teacher). 

While my work was smart enough, I knew I needed a teacher who could help me how to physicalize my words and get me out of my head and into my body. Gary took away the intellectual safety net that I relied on to make my work witty and wise. He made me let go of being cool so I could get to this vulnerable place of being me. Then taught me the importance of bombing when I had to venture into the unknown.

Through him I learned how to stay on my breath, write on my feet and go. According to Gary, if I tried to make sense, then I would end up with boring, predictable sense. But if I stepped out and made choices that didn’t make sense to me, then I would be surprised at how the audience would make connections to justify my nonsense. 

Some of his exercises, like starting a scene in mid-sentence, struck me at first as jarring. But then I realized that this technique stripped away all the expository talk that attempts to explain life instead of just living.   

More importantly, Gary taught me that I am enough—all I have to do is “be.” I don’t have to try to create something interesting, for I am interesting enough as is. The first few times he made me just sit there and not try to think but be, I got bored to tears. Surely the other classmates must be yawning as well. But no, Gary was right. Simple is better. 

When I began working with Gary, he was developing a one-man show, Church, which chronicled the role the Nazarene Church played in his life as a child. By using seemingly simply actions such as changing his posture, his voice would then change as he assumed the persona of his father, mother, and other characters from his childhood. By staying on his breath and remaining true to his essence, these characters became fully-fleshed human beings and not just another stereotypical rendering of fundamentalist Christian parents.  

During each visit, I’d share my latest contributions to the Wittenburg Door. Under Gary’s guidance my work went from jokey top ten lists to using satire to explore the underbelly of the institutional church. The more I practiced his teachings, I found myself distancing myself the religious dogma imparted by religious institutions. Along the way, I learned how to love and laugh as I too was losing my religion while finding my soul. 

Off stage, we became friends bonding over our mutual love of Kinky Friedman and Bill Hicks, and my failed attempts to convert Gary to try craft beer that in my estimation was more refined than Widmer Hefeweizen. So far, this remains the only time I saw Gary choose commercial over craft.

Every few months I trekked up to Seattle where Gary had been coming up from Los Angeles to teach since 1992. By now I had left organized religion and was finding my way in the sacred sexuality and spirituality that defined the Pacific Northwest. While I found my unique voice with Gary during my New York City days, in Seattle, I found a family and a faith that sustained me. In coming here, I felt I could finally come into my own free from the Christian trappings that defined me as a professional Christian author when I lived in the Northeast. 

But something else also changed when I moved to Portland. Gary had developed a form of blood cancer that could be treated but not cured. Suddenly our work took on an urgency because we had to make every moment matter. As he told he, “I no longer teach beginning improvisational acting but PhD work.” In particular, Gary hated when people used the English language incorrectly or didn’t know who Nichols & May and other comedic legends were. “I would love it if before I left that people woke up and realized they really need to learn something.” 

He had no patience or time to work on any projects that weren’t up to par. Our most heated arguments came about over how to present my grandpa’s stories as a coach for the Navy Ford Islander football team based in the Pacific during World War II. Finally, we came up with a structure that let my Grandpa’s stories sing. When I read the first chapter during a staged reading of student works, I could feel him smile.

By the time I was ready to send him the fourth chapter, he was in the ICU. He had been hospitalized intermittently in 2014, so I thought this was just another short blip and he’d be back again.

But on April 1, 2017, he died. I would never hear him sing his country songs or listen to yet another animal tale. And he wouldn’t be guiding me on the completion of my World War II book. Cancer killed my creative collaborator. No amount of Disneyesque hocus-pocus would enable us to reconnect in some heavenly realm. No, Gary was gone. 

When I saw the memorials to Gary spouting up on social media, I realized that while he wasn’t going to appear before me angel-like, his work remained infused in me. While I hurt to my very marrow at the loss of my teacher and friend, I had 21 years of his wisdom embedded in my bones.

As I was penning this piece around the first anniversary of his death, I spoke to Wenndy MacKenzie, Gary’s widow, who informed me that she is now teaching Gary’s work. She isn’t Gary, obviously, nor can any supernatural intervention bring him to me through her. I don’t have delusions about Gary beside me like a cardboard character in some cheesy children’s Jesus song. But I now know that through his widow, his work will live on. 

Those of use connected to Gary would often use nonsensical words in our conversations that would cause any waiter or other outsider to shake their head in wonderment. But this shared language connected us at a much deeper level and brought us to a more profound truth than if we had been communicating using words that were merely witty and wise. And so I say:

Thanks be to Gary. Lung.

An earlier version of this piece was originally printed in American Atheist magazine, 2nd Quarter, 2018.  Previously, I wrote for Killing the Buddha about Gary’s life as a spiritual atheist. 

Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).