Laraine Newman bore witness to some of the most incredible movements in comedy and pop culture. From growing up in Los Angeles with movie star neighbors, beholding the music scene in the ‘60s and seeing the rise of comedy in the early ‘70s, to studying mime in Paris under the tutelage of Marcel Marceau to becoming a founding member of the seminal comedy troupe The Groundlings, it’s no wonder Lorne Michaels offered Laraine Newman a spot in the original cast of “Saturday Night Live.” There, along with famous cast members John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garret Morris and Gilda Radner – Bill Murray was passed over at first and joined in a later season – Laraine was part of the show that changed TV – and comedy – forever. But it isn’t all yuks and glamor. Her captivating new memoir, “May You Live in Interesting Times,” delivers an inside look at her journey as an artist, along with her struggles with addiction and self-doubt. Narrated by Newman, this exceptional audiobook explores the entirety of her life, warts and all, and is delivered with her one-of-kind wit and charm. It’s a laugh-a-minute thrill ride only a comedian of her caliber could achieve.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Laraine Newman to discuss breathing life into her exceptional new memoir, baring her heart and soul to the masses and bearing witness to amazing moments in pop culture history.
Your new memoir, “May You Live In Interesting Times,” is an absolute delight. Tell us about what made now the time to bring it to the masses.
I’ve actually been working on it for many years. I also wrote a lot of other stuff through the years to avoid writing the book! [laughs] It was so daunting! A book is a form that I had never attacked before. I had always written essays, character monologues and magazine articles but that was about it. It was all short form, essentially. I got an offer from Audible and that was really the catalyst to get serious about it! I had my friend, Paul Slansky, who is an editor, work with me to cull through all the drafts that I had written in hopes of pulling out the best stuff from each, along with pulling in some of the essays I have written. He would also cite chronology, fact check and determine what I didn’t need to have in there, which was considerable!
One of the most interesting and surprising things I learned about you from this book is you are shy. That’s not something I expected from someone who has been in the spotlight as long as you have. Was it difficult to bare your soul with this project?
Yeah. Part of it is cathartic in a way. I think we all want to be known, to some degree, in terms of our spirit and in our life, but it also took me a while to realize how exposed it would make me. Again, I had never written and had available all this information about myself and now I was going to do it on a pretty grand scale, hopefully! [laughs] It was something I considered later in the process; how naked I would be.
With many drafts written through the years, were there milestones you achieved with any of the drafts?
No, I wish I could say the answer was yes, but that was one of the problems that made it so difficult. I was terribly disorganized and really had no idea how to write a book. It was just kind of an amalgamation of everything I could think of. Then, as I write in the preface, I really believed and assumed that the second would just be spelling and punctuation! [laughs] Then I saw the problems with my writing in the sense of it being a list. For example, it was like, “… And he was very nice…,” or “…and that was fun…” or “…this was cool.” OK! How about we embellish a little bit! [laughs]
Was it difficult to determine what you wanted to leave out?
Not really! It actually became quite apparent the further I got into the process. It took the form that it did during the course of editing this thing and putting it together. I’ve later learned that people’s reasons for writing a book change during the course of it and that certainly happened for me. The thread that I always had was that I felt that I was a witness to or present and a part of things that changed pop culture in this country. I thought about how lucky I was for having those experiences and felt a bit like Forrest Gump in a way or Zelig! [laughs] It was just little things like taking a bath in the tub that Jim Morrison died in a couple days later. The proximity that I had to so many events, just by accident, was something I felt was kind of interesting. I knew that people would expect, understandably, a lot of content about “Saturday Night Live,” but I couldn’t remember a lot of it. First of all, I was doing it, so it was hard to observe it in terms of when the show was on. Obviously, I could write about things leading up to it. I just thought it would be nice to celebrate my favorite sketches; sketches I thought should be reexamined. They were mostly ensemble sketches because I don’t think that’s ever been written about and I thought it would be entertaining. The more I delved into what my favorite sketches were, the more I remembered that applied to the time period leading up to that.
In the book you read from some of your journals at the time. Then you mention having copies of some of the original scripts and you even recite a poem that was written to you after you had a nose job. Those are amazing artifacts! What type of archives did you keep when it comes to your career?
I kept a lot of personal letters. There were a lot of letters that I would have liked to include but, then again, I felt it was personal and a lot of those people are well known. I don’t think that they necessarily would have wanted to be exposed in that way. It was a choice of leaving that stuff out. I had a lot of letters from Phil Hartman and a letter from Cameron Crowe that I did not want in there. It was also important to leave out opinions that I’d formed a long time ago and since changed. That was important to me to recognize the necessity for that.
I imagine delving deep into this material unearthed a lot of things you had long since forgotten.
Absolutely! It’s such a “Rashomon” kind of thing because I did talk to people from the show to make sure my account of something was accurate. They added stuff to it that I had absolutely no recollection of and that was really fun! For instance, calling Jane Curtin to double check if she remembered the incident with Mick Jagger as I remembered it! She said, “Yeah. That’s what happened.” I said, “What do you think he wanted?” She said, “I don’t know. Maybe a quickie?” [laughs] Talking to Joey Arias about when Bowie hosted the show and a lot of stuff that happened that I have absolutely no memory of was an amazing experience. He told it to me and then I recounted it in the book. There is a lot of that that’s happened and ends up in the book. I realized that my projection of how I was seen was really a reflection of my inner demons and not so much what was going on at the time.
What was your biggest takeaway from the process of writing this book?
I need chapter headings! [laughs] Boy, am I an amateur. Chapter headings would be good. To be honest, I don’t know how to answer that question. I’ve never really looked at it. As I say frequently in the book, I’m not a big picture kind of person! I can’t believe I even got the thing done! While it was in development for all these years, it really took a year to write it as you hear it. I realized that, like I said, that you don’t need everything. I also realized something very important from something someone pointed out to me. Alan Zweibel said to me, “You have a happy ending.” I didn’t actually see that either. I love my life now. Even though I know that I’m happy, grateful and I feel so fortunate, it took someone outside of me to point it out.
As a longtime SNL fan, there were many amazing details in this book that flesh out those early years in a beautiful way. For example, something as simple as your description of the offices at 30 Rock and the world each contained. You built these scenes beautifully and I felt like I was shoulder to shoulder with you witnessing this rich history.
Thank you! That’s so great to hear. It’s really like one of those time lapse photos. Back then, those offices were empty. They didn’t even have individual offices. It was just an empty floor. Then you see offices being built. Then you come back 20 or 25 years later to visit the show and it’s like a hive! [laughs] It’s so different than what it was in the very beginning, which is thrilling! It’s thrilling to see what has become of the show and the advances they have made in every aspect of it.
You are no stranger to voiceover work. You did an incredible job with this book but I’m sure that presented challenges. What went into finding the right direction?
That was something I was pretty insecure about because I always do characters. You’ll find that a lot of people who do characters don’t really have much of a persona themselves. I certainly never felt that I developed one but, through voiceover, at least I could be more presentational than I had previously thought I might be able to be. However, I still felt very naked and insecure when I wasn’t doing characters or dialects thinking, “Oh my god! I hope my voice isn’t boring! I hope I’m not droning on.” I was fortunate to have a superb director, Megan Holloway. She really helped me a lot by keeping me on track and not allowing me to drone on. She encouraged me to give more life to the performance.
The performance is wonderful. You take us on quite a ride!
Thank you, Jason. I need you as my daily affirmation.
Well, I can record some things and send them on over. It’s no trouble.
Another thing I love about you, which shows up almost instantly in the book, is your love of music. All of the things you’ve seen and experienced in that realm is mind-blowing. What artists had the biggest impact on you?
It’s tough to say. I continue to be inspired by music. Having gone to Coachella every year since 2010, I’ve had a chance to discover new music along the way. I could say Taj Mahal from when I was a teenager and David Bowie when I was a bit older. There are just so many people. Now, it’s Of Montreal, Tame Impala and Skrillex. It just keeps happening. I keep discovering new bands and DJs. I really love EDM. It’s never stopped being a situation where there is a single album that inspires me. It didn’t stop in the ‘60s or ‘70s.
I love that about you. You mention, in the book, being at a Skrillex show at the same venue you saw a show decades before.
Yeah! It was Bowie to Skrillex at the Hollywood Palladium, which is a place with an incredible history!
My heart broke for you when you described moving to New York City to do “SNL” and having your record collection stolen!
Oh my god! Along with all my written material! [laughs] That was bad but losing the record collection was painful as hell!
“SNL” featured incredible musical performances in its early years, and you brushed shoulders with some of the greats. I loved hearing about how you, fresh from a photoshoot for “High Times” magazine, run into John and Yoko. John knew you by name!
You mention walking the streets with Gilda Radner and people would holler out lines from the show. So, there was no doubt people were watching the show and dug it. When did you realize the show had gone from a hit series to a cultural phenomenon?
I think it was during the last year of the show when the kind of people we were getting to do the show became stratospheric. There were so many things that had already entered the vernacular. A lot of “Coneheads” expressions like “parental units” and “mass quantities” were already part of the vernacular and it didn’t take that long to happen. It was those kind of things that really drove home that it was a cultural phenomenon but I had no idea that it would become so much of one. I watch a lot of TV, Jason. I watch a lot of foreign shows, stuff from Sweden, Japan, Germany and so on. I saw some Swedish show where they referred to “parental units” and I couldn’t believe it! The reach was amazing to me!
Are you surprised the show still resonates with audiences after all these years?
I’m not surprised that it still resonates but I am surprised that it’s still around. I recognize that the cast and writers have grown with the passage of years, so they remain constantly relevant to a new generation. It’s definitely not mainstream comedy. It’s still appealing to a certain group. I’ve realized through the course of promoting this book that one could consider “SNL” the early form of Alt-Comedy on TV. It’s stayed that way and also made room for shows like “SCTV,” “Kids In The Hall,” “Mad TV” and “Key and Peele.” There have always been amazing groups but the tone that was set was that you could have very personal, specific content that is specific to the individuals that are doing the show at the time. It’s such personal stuff, so then you could do “SCTV” and all these other shows because they were writing for themselves and the audience responded because they were tapping into something that was true but not mainstream.
“SNL” pushed the envelope when it came to content back in the day. You revisit some of the racier and sometimes arguably cringeworthy sketches in the book. I’m sure it’s difficult to find a balance in any era. What’s your take on the current climate of political correctness and cancel-culture we are currently experiencing?
I have a problem with it. It’s so black and white. I guess, because this whole thing is in its infancy, it’s not being applied with critical thinking. That’s a problem. I think that there have been people who should definitely not have been cancelled. I think that it undermines the credibility of the people that are calling these people out because they are not seeing any gray areas. I know this will probably get me into trouble, but that’s how I really see it.
You’ve been a part of many great projects and ensembles. What is the key to great collaborations?
I think celebrating other people’s gifts is a big part of it and being able to work alongside that. If you have a background in improv, the very ethos of that is supporting others because it supports you. I think that carries through in anything you do. I can work with people who I think are more talented than me or not as talented as I am, but they all have something. I can’t resent the people who are more talented than me because I’m in awe of them. I also recognize the people who might not be are just less developed and need time.
When did you come into your own as a performer?
Voiceover has really given me that foundation of confidence. It’s a tough and competitive world but I’ve been able to work steadily in it. That’s very affirming for me. Through the years, I have also recognized and accepted a lot of my limitations, which are quite monumental! [laughs] At first it kind of broke my heart and sometimes it still does but it is what it is. Am I willing to go to acting school? No! I know there is a barrier for me to be exposed in that way. I’m not as comfortable on camera as I am off camera. So, it’s worked out quite well for me that I’m doing voiceover! [laughs]
How does bringing a new character to life in the world of voiceover compare to the ones you create for television?
It’s only different in the sense that I’m not writing the content. In terms of creating character, it’s pretty similar. I think everybody comes to character work with a compendium of things that they’ve observed and catalog during their lives and that becomes their trunk, so to speak, with all their props and wigs inside of it. Most of the time, that’s what I draw from. However, from time to time, there will be an illustration and a character description that I’ve never done before and, somehow, it’s come to me. I’m always amazed when that happens because developing a new character out of thin air is not that easy, but I’ve been able to do that in voiceover. I absolutely love that part of it!
What do you look for in the material and projects you take on at this point in your career?
Everybody has a different vision and tone; some shows more than others. There is a show I did called “Metalocalypse” for Adult Swim. Brendon Small, the guy who created it, does the voices, writes, and plays the music. He has a very specific vision that absolutely lines with my sense of humor and irony. It’s thrilling to be on a show like that! Doing the Pixar stuff as well. They work so hard on their scripts and they don’t do anything until the script is ready. I just admire that so much and it shows in the work and what you get to do in those movies. There is another show I do called “Apple and Onion.” It is very specific in its sensibility and it’s almost a little beyond me. There are a lot of shows that I read for or that I’m even on where I’m like, “Uh, I don’t get it.” [laughs] Somehow it seems to work but there is room for everybody!
In the book, you mention how you stayed connected with a lot of your “SNL” castmates and how it’s very much a family. Does the same hold true with the competitive world of voiceover work?
Absolutely! Quite often you find yourself working with the same people. It is a small group of people who get cast. Even though we do have to audition, a lot of times we are just given roles. I’ve done countless series with the same people, over and over. Cree Summer, Grey DeLisle, Frank Welker, Maurice LaMarche and Rob Paulsen are all people I’ve done many series alongside. It is very familial and wonderful. Tom Kenny is another one. I did a series in the ‘80s with Tom and ended up doing a series in the past few years with him as well as doing “SpongeBob.” It’s a wonderful continuity! It’s a rare experience and the same is true of The Groundlings, both past and present. We have been doing a lot of Zoom shows to keep the theater and school going. They do retrospectives where they have a lot of the early Groundling women and, my god, we have known each other now for 50 years! [laughs] I’ve known Paul Ruebens for 50 years! He pointed that out to me, and I couldn’t believe it! [laughs] These were formative years for us, and we were all together doing that. We’ve all witnessed one and others youth and still hold it in our memory, where most people in our lives who might have had that, like our parents, are gone. It’s a very meaningful camaraderie. So, yes. The Groundlings is a family. “SNL” is a family. All of the people I have done voiceover with are a family. The people at Sketchfest are a family. I think that’s one of the big allures for performers; you can choose your family in that way.
Greatly. This year for Sketchfest, it was all online. I think you can still see it; it was a 3-hour show! Everybody has adjusted quite remarkably. I think some things will not go back to the way they were. Zoom makes it possible for people in different time zones, who previously might not have been able to be there, to be there. We’ve done it with Sketchfest. We’ve done it with The Groundlings. “SNL” did it in the very beginning. Everyone has really adapted and it’s wonderful! We’re like ants or cockroaches, “WE WILL SURVIVE! No matter what!” [laughs]
Getting back into the book, there is a great moment where you recount the time Richard Pryor hosted “SNL.” You tell a story about how you ended up making soup for him for the entire week. I was captivated by that.
Oh, yeah. That was so wonderful for me. Also, it’s great to cook stuff and have people like it. I’ve always cooked and was making soups from scratch. He was kind of in a healthy moment in his life at that time. He was trying to stop smoking, so he was chewing on this cinnamon stick. He gave me one, which I saved for the longest time and then lost! [laughs] He was my idol so to end up doing a show with him was amazing. The encounters I had with him over the course of my life and towards the end of his life, he always treated me so nicely and warmly. I cherish that! It makes me feel special that he treated me that way.
I love how cooking has played such a role in your life. You even detail how watching an episode of Julia Child’s show ultimately led to an “SNL” sketch, Gilda’s lemon chicken recipe and more.
[laughs] Yeah! Well, I wrote for a food magazine for many years that my friend Amy Ephron created. It’s an online food magazine called “One For The Table.” It was people who don’t do food for a living writing about food. So, we had things like John McCain’s chili recipe or selections from Angelica Houston. It was all these amazing people writing a story that pertained to food. It’s really a wonderful website (http://oneforthetable.com) and I think it’s still going. There were so many amazing contributors! My mother was a great cook, and she wrote a cookbook. It’s been a big part of my life. It’s very relaxing and meditative!
Until you start cooking for your kids!
[laughs] Oh god! The gauntlet! You feel like a million bucks if you can just get some fucking broccoli into them!
You also detail your love of horror movies. You gave some great suggestions I wasn’t previously aware of. For example, “Ghost Story” with Fred Astaire.
Oh yeah! And you’ve seen “The Black Cat” haven’t you?
Oh my god! It’s so amazing and it’s only an hour!
What spoke to you about that genre?
It’s a thrill ride! You’re watching people be in more trouble than you’ll ever be in from the comfort of your own home or in the theater with popcorn where you are nice and cozy. Meanwhile, these characters are freezing their asses off and a monster is chasing them! I identified with the monsters to some extent, but I also just loved being scared!
You worked with one of the genre’s greats, Tobe Hooper on “Invasion From Mars.” That’s such a fun cult film and I believe Shout Factory put it out on Blu-ray recently. What was it like working with him?
It was not a great time in my life. I was still pretty heavily into my addiction. There’s that aspect of it but we shot all the family scenes in a house that was used in “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” with Carey Grant, and I was working with Tim Bottoms, who I had worked with on Broadway. I loved Tobe and I knew him socially before I worked for him, so that was an easy gig in that sense. There was a common language we had because of our love for horror movies. That was great. He was really an interesting guy. His demeanor was so kind of cracker but he’s an intellectual, you know. He was so many contradictions, and I just loved the guy so much!
You have an affinity for those complicated fellas!
Yes, I do! Busted! Yes. [laughs]
You were also a part of another cult classic in “Witchboard 2.”
Oh god. Please, Glgod! No! [laughs] Nooooo! Those are the movies, that and “The Red Baron,” where I wake up sweating in the night because I learned that it was released! Ugh. Just the worst. I now know that I’m not the only actor in the entire universe that has ever done this, but you make a choice and then it’s wrong. So wrong! You watch the movie and it’s just mortifying but it’s there in perpetuity. There is a record of your folly and that’s a terrible feeling!
I see where you are coming from but so many people love that stuff. In the book, you mention talking to George Clooney on a set and mentioned how much you loved “From Dusk ‘Till Dawn.” It’s a fantastic film but it didn’t seem like he loved it as much as you did!
It’s so good! No, I don’t think he got how great it was! Probably because he wasn’t necessarily a fan, which was disappointing. However, that’s not the first time I’ve said to somebody, “I love this,” only to have them say, “Oh god! No! Don’t mention it!” I think I talk about telling Paul Schrader how much I loved “Blue Collar” and him launching into a list of everything that was wrong with it. It’s so amazing because you never imagine people would have any doubts about something you love so much!
You seem to be in a great place these days with the release of the book and many great voiceover roles. Where do you see yourself headed in the future?
I have been performing semi one-person shows at The Groundlings and at Sketchfest. I may go back and develop that. I have a whole show about Coachella and another whole show about auditions that I think I could develop into maybe intersecting content. I just don’t know at this point. I may just be too old, fat, and lazy to do something like that and just continue writing. I have written a pilot for a show, but I’ve never shown it. This is the thing, I have so much stuff that I just have never shown to anybody because I didn’t want the tyranny of a deadline. I just kind of took in stride that I’m a beginner at this, I had a lot to learn, and it was not ready. It just means going back to that stuff and learning more about how to do it.
Also, because of the pandemic, I’ve been forced to watch a lot of TV. Well, let’s face it, it’s not forced. I’m just a big couch potato! I started doing this thing on Instagram of this character, a little Jewish woman that I called Bubby, who is just making comments on the shows she is watching. That’s become a whole series now on my Instagram. I may do something with that, I don’t know. I don’t really write stuff down as much as I used to. Much of that is because this book was so much writing that I’ve kind of enjoyed taking some time off. It’s always when the spirit moves me and then I will just breeze on through. I’ve never had what is known as writer’s block, for better or for worse! [laughs]
I also have a podcast with Emily Fleming (Good Mythical Morning, @Midnight) because, God knows, there aren’t enough of those and they pay so well! [laughs] It’s called “Eatin’ In Front of The TV.” We’ve done one episode so far. Our guest is a guy named Henry Zebrowski, who is one of the three guys who host the “Last Podcast On The Left,” which talks about serial killers, cults and UFOs. He is hilarious! He is one of the funniest people I have ever met and one of the greatest improvisers I’ve ever seen. We have one episode available now on iTunes and are getting ready to do another one with Leslie Hendrix. She is a character actor who often played the coroner on “Law & Order.” She’s just not what you would expect! We give them a list of shows and if those are the ones that they binge watch, then we choose that show to discuss. We also talk about what you wear when you binge watch and what happened to that article of clothing that caused it to sink so low. Then we touch on what you eat when you’re watching TV, sometimes we will do recipes, and then we talk about the show!
That sounds like quite a ride as well! I’m adding it to my queue as we speak! Before I let you go, I have to thank you for all the hard work you put in on the “May You Live In Interesting Times.” It’s been a pleasure to listen and chat with you about the book!
Bless you, Jason! Thanks for helping me promote it in a great way! I appreciate it!
‘May You Live In Interesting Times’ is available now, only on Audible.com. Follow the continuing adventures of Laraine Newman via social media on Twitter and Instagram. Visit her official website at www.larainenewman.com.