The Two Worlds of Tawny Newsome

Career-wise, comedian, actor, and musician Tawny Newsome is having a very diverse year. She’s a recurring standout guest on some of comedy’s best podcasts, starred in Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, can currently be seen on BET’s The Comedy Get Down, and is wrapping up a music tour with Jon Langford’s Four Lost Souls, a band whose album was recorded in Muscle Shoals and released earlier this month. But despite her recent output of work, she – like many performers of color – feels like she’s still trying to find her place in the entertainment industry. “I feel like I’ve wedged my way into a couple of roles that weren’t totally right for me that I made my own…it can be hard to find a place right now, so I think I just need to create that place myself.” I talked to Newsome about balancing comedy and music, her upcoming podcast, and her plans to create her own space in the field.

I became familiar with you through your appearances on Comedy Bang Bang and Spontaneanation. You kept popping up as a guest so often I was like, “I need to see what else she’s doing.”

Yeah, they can’t shake me.

I see that you have a lot of Chicago connections. Is that where you’re from?

I’m from Northern California, but I moved to Chicago in 2001 and lived there for 15 years before coming to LA. I went to Second City there, so it’s technically where I got my comedy start.

Where did you start doing music?

Other than doing little kids’ musicals when I was a child, I joined my first band in Chicago after going to theater school, getting my degree, and trying to go down the road of doing very earnest, serious theater, both musical and non-musical. I got kind of bored and wasn’t getting hired to do that stuff and realized that, one, I’m more interested in doing comedy and lighthearted, whimsical things, and two, that I prefer my music and acting to be separate. They are their own weird beasts. I started seeking out little bar bands and cover bands, which is how I met Jon Langford and started working on official albums and stuff with him.

That’s such a cool connection. When I was coming out of a pretty deep punk rock phase I started getting into more of the folkier, storytelling stuff. The Mekons were one of those bands that made me feel a little more grown up when I listened to them.

You definitely were.

How did you two meet and start working together?

Interestingly enough, doing theater. I did this musical play that had been written about Jon’s music. They kind of fictionalized some characters that pop up in his solo album Goldbrick that he released in 2004. I guess it was 2008 or 2009 when a local playwright and this company Collaboraction decided to put together this extremely experimental theater piece. It was a two-man play, me and this guy Larry Yando. Jon came by rehearsals and even though he’s not from the world of theater, he is such a multi-dimensional artist. He kind of fit right in with that world. We started working together because he was doing this album with Roger Knox. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Roger, but they call him the Black Elvis. He’s from Australia and he’s an Aboriginal crooner with this Elvis-y Blue Suede Shoes kind of sound, but he’s singing about race and Aboriginal issues. It’s an incredibly political take on this weird sort of ‘50s crooner sound. Jon needed someone to sing alongside Roger on this album. From there we just kept working together.

What was it like to record an album in Muscle Shoals? It seems like a dream for any musician.

It was crazy. We went there three days after the election, so we weren’t really prepared for that. We went with the Four Lost Souls, a new band that is me and Jon, my longtime friend Bethany Thomas, who is also a black woman my age, and our friend John Szymanski, this young, sweet guitar wizard little white boy. We go down there as this motley crew of British and black people to this 400-person town in Alabama a few days after the world blew up. I was legit scared. My husband and I had this road trip planned through Louisiana where we were going to do the old Blues Highway, but I was like, “I can’t drive through Klan country right now. I think we need to just get there, get in the studio, and get to work.” I had this really romantic idea about it that got kind of dashed because of the political climate. But when we got there, in addition to them being the greatest session players in the history of country music, they also had this little liberal enclave down there because they’re all musicians. It was like this little safe harbor in a weird storm.

Do you have any other musical projects you’re working on right now?

I’m doing this podcast with Earwolf. It hasn’t been totally greenlit, but I think it’s going to be, so I don’t mind talking about it even if it goes away. My long-time Second City collaborator Alex Kliner and I had this idea to do a supergroup podcast where we basically assemble musicians and comedians each week and take seven days to write a song. The podcast is us talking about the writing process. It’s a way for me to keep working on music without having to commit entirely to a new band and touring project. It gets hard trying to juggle TV stuff with touring in a band. As much as I would like it to, the two worlds don’t really go together.

You said that you like to keep comedy and music separate, but this podcast seems like it’s bringing those two worlds together. Will you be taking the role of serious musician and if so, what are you hoping the comics will bring to the table?

It’s really important to me that the song is earnest. There are so many comedians I’ve met that are also amazing musicians. The first episode has Paul F. Tompkins, who has this high tenor ‘80s wailer voice that I really wanted to feature in an earnest way. But because we’ll have comedians on the podcast it will still be fun and funny.

Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ is one of those shows that got great reviews and built a following, despite being on a niche paywall service like Seeso. Now that Seeso is gone the show is in limbo, but the fourth season is already done and just needs a place to air, right?

Yeah, it’s completely edited and done. It just needs a network. It’s surprising to me because there are so many famous people in the show. I know that I’m a nobody and half of my cast are nobodies – which, no shade to them, they’re all rapidly on their way to becoming somebody because they all have other jobs now – but our guest stars…Alicia Silverstone is in an episode. Steven Yeun, Randall Park. As a network, how do you look at this show and not pick it up? It’s also so cheap to make. Kulap (Vilaysack) is very transparent about her budget and how she does what she calls “using all the parts of the animal,” like using and reusing locations, turning them inside and out so that they look like different places. Our wardrobe department works miracles making us look like these luxury people with stuff that is not expensive. It seems like a no-brainer.

What can you tell me about The Comedy Get Down and your role in it?

The show is about the five comedians who toured as The Comedy Get Down: George Lopez, Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley, Eddie Griffin, and the late Charlie Murphy. The first season has 10 episodes and Charlie was thankfully there for all of them. They played themselves and it’s basically all of their behind-the-scenes tour stories. They gave all of those anecdotes to a writer’s room and the writers extrapolated on them and created this 10-episode season arc. I play their tour manager. When we get to set they look at the script and say, “This is sort of how it happened, but not really.” So even though we have a scene written, once we start filming Cedric and George are going to say whatever they’re going to say because they lived it and know how it actually went down.

What do you want for the next phase of your career?

I want to run my own show. I’ve learned so much from watching Kulap be such a gracious and incredibly smart showrunner. I’ve had a lot of strange experiences and I’m always best when I blend them together. I have these pitches that I’m working on with my writing partner, who lives in New York. I think we are going to pitch around and see if we can be in charge for a little bit. As much as I’m doing, it still feels like there aren’t roles for me. I feel like I’ve wedged my way into a couple of roles that weren’t totally right for me that I made my own. When the breakdowns come out, they’re still looking for a lot of white people, frankly. It can be hard to find a place right now, so I think I just need to create that place myself.

Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

The Two Worlds of Tawny Newsome