From SNL To SpongeBob, Laraine Newman Chronicles ‘Interesting Times’

When Tracy Newman was younger, she remembers walking past the door to her little sister’s room: Laraine was “a little bit of a loner,” Tracy recalls. Her “fantasy life was very active. … I’d walk by her door and hear voices like she was talking to somebody, but it was always just her doing voices. … It always made me laugh.”

Laraine Newman went on to make many more people laugh as one of Saturday Night Live‘s original cast members. She chronicles her comedy career in her new audiobook, May You Live in Interesting Times.

Newman wasn’t necessarily happy living in New York, working on a show where everyone competed 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 the early years of SNL when Newman was in the cast. “I was nuts about her,” he recalls. He remembers her fearlessness in particular; “You can give her a script and she would find a way to make it work,” he says — plus, he loved her “weird voices.”

Newman played some of SNL‘s signature characters, like Connie Conehead, a parody of an intrepid reporter on Weekend Update, and, perhaps most famous of all, the Valley Girl Sherrie.

Newman first created Sherrie in 1968 before she got to SNL. “I was so fascinated by the way people from the Valley spoke … ” Newman explains. “I’m always fascinated by dialects … and the genesis of dialects. Sometimes they’re a corruption of a different dialect. Sometimes they’re an amalgam of several dialects.”

At 19, Newman and her older sister Tracy were founding members of the comedy troupe The Groundlings — which has become a launch pad for numerous SNL cast members including Phil Hartman and Maya Rudolph. Newman says The Groundlings started because a group of actors wanted to learn and practice improvisational theater, the art of acting out a scene without anything but a prompt from the audience, and each other.

“We had professional actors in the group, people that were relatively well known, but who had an interest in developing … ” Newman recalls. “Everybody was just curious about, you know, expanding their abilities, and that’s a wonderful way for people to gather.”

They started out putting on shows for themselves, and then began performing for audiences.

“It’s about cooperation, it’s about adding, and I always like doing that, I always like supporting a situation,” Newman says. “If I could say anything about myself in the context of improv, it was that I could move the scene along and I could add information.”

Tracy Newman says her sister has always been “meticulous” about her craft: “She won’t even do it unless she thinks it’s pretty much perfect,” Newman says.

Newman did not audition for SNL. Lorne Michaels discovered her when he brought Lily Tomlin to see a Groundlings’ show. He was helping Tomlin cast a comedy special and they ended up giving Newman one of the parts. Later, Michaels 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 voice acting classes; “I saw her name and I thought: Say what?!” Adler remembers.

Newman was pregnant with her second child — and ready to work. Adler thought it took guts for someone who’d been a star on Saturday Night Live to show the kind of vulnerability you need to learn a new skill.

“I just thought it was miraculous — and I still do — that Laraine has that capacity,” Adler says. “Her ego had nothing to do with anything. She was just wanting to learn something that was important to her, very important to her … which she was born to do.”

Newman says she took Adler’s voice acting class because she knew that voicing characters in animation “was a different craft” than acting in person. While Newman thinks she’s better at creating characters than she is at improv, there is a lot of on-the-spot creativity required when doing voice work.

“We get an illustration sometimes or we get a description of the character,” says Newman, “and then the rest is on us. … You don’t have any other tools but your voice.”

Adler hired Newman to be the voice of the mother in the Nickelodeon series As Told by Ginger. “I couldn’t believe what was coming out of her,” Adler says. “She blew everybody away.”

“She has so many different voices in her,” says Andrea Romano, a recently retired casting director of animated movies and TV shows. Newman has voiced dozens of different characters for her projects over the years.

In The Adventures of Puss in Boots for DreamWorks, Newman was cast as a talking cow. The producers wanted Newman to give the cow a Scottish accent — and it wasn’t coming easily. “So she went off and worked with a dialect coach week, after week, after week …” Romano says. “Her Scottish accent is totally believable and something she can just kind of fall into now. But I love the fact that she’s not above, you know, asking for help or taking classes, or going back to whatever roots she needs to to do the work.”

In her memoir, Newman says her career has been, “modest but steady and extremely fulfilling” and that she makes “a terrific living at a job” she “adores.” But it has not been easy. As a young adult she struggled with drug addiction.

“No matter how bad off I was in terms of drugs — and I was really bad — every day I would wake up with the thought that maybe today could be better…” she says. “Part of me wanted to die, but a part of me really didn’t.”

A moment of clarity came after a particularly bad audition — when the casting folks called her agent and said they were worried about her. “I realized that this last avenue I had into the world — that door was going to close if I didn’t do something,” Newman says. “So I checked myself into a chemical dependency unit on April 28th, 1987. It worked.”

Newman says her mother told her and her siblings they could do anything they wanted — except for show business — but entertainment seems to be in the family DNA. Big sister Tracy Newman is a musician and former TV comedy writer. Her brother is a musician. And now her two children are following in her footsteps: Spike Einbinder is in the HBO comedy Los Espookys and Hannah Einbinder does standup.

Laraine Newman’s new audio memoir is called May You Live in Interesting Times – and she certainly has.

Nina Gregory edited this story. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

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