Laraine Newman was a founding member of improvisation group The Groundlings and an original Saturday Night Live cast member. She has now voiced dozens of animated characters. She is pictured up in Los Angeles in June 2015. Richard Shotwell / Invision / AP Hide caption
Richard Shotwell / Invision / AP
Richard Shotwell / Invision / AP
When Tracy Newman was younger, she remembers walking past the door to her little sister’s room: Laraine was “a bit of a loner,” Tracy recalls. Her “fantasy life was very active. … I passed her door and heard voices like she was talking to someone, but it was always just her voice. … It always made me laugh.”
Laraine Newman made a lot more people laugh as one of the original performers on Saturday Night Live. She records her comedy career in her new audio book. May you live in interesting times.
Jane Curtin from left, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman in February 1978. Marty Lederhandler / AP hide caption
Marty Leather Handler / AP
Marty Leather Handler / AP
Newman wasn’t exactly happy living in New York working on a show where everyone was fighting fiercely for airtime. She was in her early 20s, prone to self-sabotage, and missed her friends and family in Los Angeles.
Alan Zweibel was a writer in SNL’s early years, when Newman was on the cast. “I was crazy about her,” he recalls. He particularly remembers her fearlessness; “You can give her a script and she would find a way to make it work,” he says – and he loved their “weird voices”.
Newman founded Sherrie in 1968 before joining SNL. “I was so intrigued by the way people from the valley spoke …” Newman explains. “I am always fascinated by dialects … and the formation of dialects. Sometimes they are a corruption of another dialect. Sometimes they are an amalgam of several dialects.”
When she was 19, Newman and her older sister Tracy formed members of the comedy troupe The groundlings – which has become a launch pad for numerous SNL performers, including Phil Hartman and Maya Rudolph. According to Newman, because a group of actors wanted to learn and practice improvisational theater, The Groundlings began the art of playing a scene without anything other than a call from the audience and each other.
“We had professional actors in the group, people who were relatively well known but had an interest in developing …” Newman recalls. “Everyone was just curious to develop their skills, and this is a wonderful way for people to gather together.”
They started putting on shows for themselves and then performing for the audience.
“It’s about collaboration, it’s about adding, and I always like to do that, I always like to support a situation,” says Newman. “If I could say something about myself in the context of improvisation, I could move the scene and add information.”
Tracy Newman says her sister has always been “meticulous” about her craft: “She won’t even do it if she doesn’t think it’s pretty much perfect,” says Newman.
Newman didn’t audition for SNL. Lorne Michaels discovered her while taking Lily Tomlin to a Groundlings show. He helped Tomlin cast a comedy special and they eventually gave Newman one of the parts. Michaels later returned to see Newman again and eventually asked her if she would like to join the cast of the show that became Saturday Night Live.
“The world had a crush on Laraine,” says voice actor and director Charlie Adler.
Newman signed up for one of Adler’s language courses; “I saw your name and thought: say what ?!” Adler remembers.
Newman was pregnant with their second child – and ready to work. Adler believed that someone who had been a star on Saturday Night Live took courage to show the kind of vulnerability it takes to learn a new skill.
“I just found it wonderful – and I still do – that Laraine has this ability,” says Adler. “Her ego had nothing to do with anything. She just wanted to learn something that was important to her, very important to her … what she was born to do.”
Newman says she took Adler’s language course because she knew that tuning characters in animation was “a different craft” than personal acting. While Newman believes she is better at creating characters than improvising, language work requires a lot of local creativity.
“Sometimes we get an illustration or we get a description of the character,” says Newman, “and then the rest is up to us. … You have no tools other than your voice.”
Adler hired Newman as the mother’s voice in the Nickelodeon series As Told by Ginger. “I couldn’t believe what was coming out of her,” says Adler. “She blew everyone away.”
“She has so many different voices in her,” says Andrea Romano, a recently retired casting director for animated films and TV shows. Newman has voiced dozens of different characters for her projects over the years.
In Puss In Boots for DreamWorks, Newman was cast as the talking cow. The producers wanted Newman to give the cow a Scottish accent – and that wasn’t easy. “So she went out and worked week after week with a dialect coach …” says Romano. “Her Scottish accent is totally believable and something she can easily fall into right now. But I love the fact that she doesn’t stand above her, ask for help or take lessons, or go back to the roots that it takes to do that do work. “
No matter how bad I was about drugs – and I was really bad – every day I woke up thinking that maybe today could be better.
In her memoir, Newman says her career has been “humble but steady and extremely fulfilling” and that she makes “a great living doing a job” she “loves”. But it wasn’t easy. As a young adult, she struggled with drug addiction.
“No matter how bad I was about drugs – and I was really bad – every day I woke up thinking that maybe today could be better …” she says. “Part of me wanted to die, but part of me really didn’t.”
A moment of clarity came after a particularly poor audition – when the casting people called their agent and said they were worried about her. “I realized that this last road I had into the world – that door would close if I didn’t do anything,” says Newman. “So I checked into a chemical addiction department on April 28, 1987. It worked.”
Newman says her mother told her and her siblings they could do anything they wanted – except in show business – but entertainment seems to be in the family’s DNA. Big sister Tracy Newman is a musician and former TV comedy writer. Your brother is a musician. And now her two kids are following in her footsteps: Spike Unterbinder is in the HBO comedy Los Espookys and Hannah Einbinder stands up.
Laraine Newman’s new audio memoir is called May You Live in Interesting Times – and she has it too.
Nina Gregory edited this story. Beth Novey adapted it for the web.