Laraine Newman expects that listeners of her new audiobook memoir, May You Live in Interesting Times, will come for the stories about Saturday Night Live. But she hopes they will stay for the chronicle of her formative years and learn how that time shaped and prepared her (or did not prepare her) for becoming a cultural and comedy icon.
“I really don’t like memoirs that sugarcoat things,” Newman told Vulture in a recent phone interview. And by “things,” she’s talking about her own fraught relationship with her mother, bouts of depression, her drug use (she was an addict when she was hired for SNL, she says), and feelings of envy, jealousy, and insecurity that occasionally plagued her during her five-year stint as one of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players on the long-running NBC sketch show. “The raison d’être for the memoir changed many times,” she said. “I had impressions about myself I wanted to justify, which is no way to write a book.”
It was not an easy process. She wrote, by her count, about ten drafts over the course of two decades. “I knew what would be expected of a book like this, she says, “which would be a lot of SNL. I knew I would be responsible for telling what most people would want to hear about the show, and I don’t blame them. I liked the idea of celebrating my favorite sketches and found I had the backstories to quite a few of them. I’m hoping that will sustain and satisfy people in terms of SNL, but what I realized during the course of writing this and reflecting on my life is that I really was witness to a lot of pop-cultural trends, and I dearly hope that people listen to the whole thing because there’s certainly a lot of ripsnortin’ good times after the show.”
“Do not go into show business,” Newman’s mother tried to impress upon her daughter. But when she appeared on the TV show Kids Say the Darndest Things at the age of 4 and got big laughs bantering with host Art Linklater, her career path was assured. She co-founded the Groundlings, the Los Angeles–based improv and sketch-comedy troupe. Lorne Michaels, then a young producer, caught her act and cast her in The Lily Tomlin Special in 1975, which won an Emmy. He returned to the Groundlings to recruit her for his new variety series for NBC, Saturday Night, that same year.
Since leaving the show in 1980, Newman has worked prolifically as an actor and voice artist in many animated films and TV series, including Pinky and the Brain, Histeria!, The Oblongs, Oswald, and The Goode Family. She last returned to SNL for its 40th-anniversary special in 2015, where she appeared in a star-studded edition of “The Californians” alongside Bradley Cooper, Taylor Swift, Kerry Washington, and Betty White.
A through line for Newman in writing the book, she said she “always pursued my interests with absolutely — and I don’t recommend this — no game plan. I just knew I was fascinated by many things, and I would pursue knowledge about those things to the best of my ability.” Hers is a memoir chock-full of boldface names. “I feel like Zelig,” she says. She also laughs at writing such sentences as “Upon Linda Ronstadt’s recommendation, I switched my accounting firm.”
“Sting told me I name drop all the time,” she jokes. “I just hope (the memoir) doesn’t come off that way. It’s my life.”
Below is an edited and condensed version of Newman’s recent chat with Vulture.
You are an artist of many voices and characters. Was it difficult narrating your memoir as yourself?
I was terribly self-conscious about this long span of not doing a character. I’m completely unaware of any personality that I might have. I’m so much more comfortable wearing a character. That is the craft of stand-up, where comedians really do develop their persona. But for people who do characters, boy, you just don’t feel like you have anything to hang on to.
Who were your comedy influences growing up?
Comedy was really big in our house. My dad was a very funny guy. He made a lot of puns; excellent ones. My mother was inadvertently funny. We had all the comedy albums: Alan Sherman, The First Family with Vaughan Meader. As I got older, it was Richard Pryor all the way. But seeing comedians on The Merv Griffin Show was really my education.
I liked Totie Fields a lot. I never got to see Joan Rivers until later, and I appreciated her. Her style was, from my perspective, more mainstream. Female comics really started to come into my consciousness in the alt scene that has grown in L.A. Just wonderful, wonderful comedians like Maria Bamford, Jackie Kashian. There’s such a huge list, including my kids.
You didn’t want to do stand-up?
I never imagined myself as a stand-up, and I never wanted to do it. I liked performing. I liked having all eyes on me. The audience reaction to me on Kids Say the Darndest Things was certainly the first time hearing that roar of laughter; you’re not going to hear that in kindergarten.
Contemporary SNL cast members often say that their dream was to be on the show. That couldn’t have been your dream, as the show did not exist. What was the dream for you?
I had no big-picture perspective on things. I was just putting one foot in front of the other, which I don’t recommend. I didn’t know I was auditioning for The Lily Tomlin Special or SNL when I was at the Groundlings. I didn’t know Lorne was in the audience. I was just doing this thing that was, for me, a way to not feel so alone. Because the characters I wrote were highly personal, and when those got laughs it was such a wonderful feeling. Sharing perspectives with people was the most gratifying thing. I had an identity.
What were your first impressions of the setup and people at SNL?
I had come from a company where I knew everybody and I felt supported, acknowledged, and known. I didn’t know anybody at SNL. Meeting Chevy Chase for the first time was scary. I have that in the memoir: We had found out that Tom Schiller had lupus, and Chevy was pontificating about what he saw as the future of the show. He said, “Years from now … of course, you won’t be there, Tom.” I was so young and so inexperienced. I was making my way. I just really felt I was always at a loss and trying to prove myself each time.
What is the sketch you consider to be your breakthrough that you felt you had proved yourself?
The Godfather group-therapy sketch [featuring Sherry, the Valley Girl stewardess] because my character’s monologue was something I wrote. It landed, and that gave me some cred. Even though I felt like I was always odd man out in terms of what to do with me, if someone wrote something with a character that no one had ever seen before, and I could rise to that occasion and score that way, that also gave me momentum and helped me gain some confidence.
Did you see Chevy’s breakout success and departure from the show coming?
It was a surprise. I could see how good Chevy was, but I could see how good everyone was. It never occurred to me there would be a breakout star. I was certainly happy for him, but I was stunned when he wanted to leave the show. I couldn’t believe he was doing this and was upset and worried that he would stop the momentum we had achieved. I have a lot of affection for Chevy. Even after he left the show, he was a very good friend to me.
John Belushi reportedly resented Chevy’s success. Was it different for the women? Did you have each other’s backs?
I envied Gilda’s success, and I envied Jane’s place on Update. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I think it’s important to talk about envy, jealousy, and insecurity. People don’t talk about that enough, and it’s a true thing. But I knew we all did different things, so I never felt I was competing with them, and I’m sure they didn’t feel they were competing with me. Girls can be so mean, but we all came from a sketch background, and so we all supported one another.
What SNL hosts impressed you or surprised you that they got the show?
There were a lot. I didn’t know about Monty Python. It only came on TV in Los Angeles by the time I had left to do SNL. I didn’t know Eric Idle. I didn’t know Michael Palin. They were a revelation (to me). I only learned who Buck Henry was when he started doing the show. And Steve Martin came from stand-up, and the question of quite a few people there was “Can a stand-up do sketch work?” And boy, could he. I think Kirk Douglas was really a pleasant surprise. To this day, I still watch the show. I just love it so much. The guy from Bridgerton — terrific. I love that. People like Christopher Walken are always playing heavies and yet are so goddamned funny.
For someone wracked with insecurity, how did you handle those first years when the Not Ready for Prime Time Players became household names?
I didn’t see myself that way. At all. I felt everybody else was, but I didn’t feel that I was. I know that sounds kind of pathetic, but I didn’t see myself that way.
Do you enjoy watching episodes from your time on the show?
It depends. Most actors have a problem watching themselves, and part of that is you’ve learned so much since and you know what you could have done better. That’s a pisser. Because SNL is such an amazing opportunity and it’s so fun. I had so much fun doing the 40th anniversary. I was so thrilled I got to be in “The Californians.”
Attitudes about depression and addiction, which are a big part of your story, have evolved over the decades. How did addressing those subjects in your memoir change over the course of those many drafts?
There was no way not to address them. But having it out there is a risk because you’re more exposed than you’ve ever been. I am still kind of wounded by people’s attitudes that addiction is not a disease. The attitude of You don’t have any willpower really stayed with me. You don’t choose to be an addict. The way social media is today, you realize that people can have all sorts of reactions to your heartfelt experience and your sincere efforts to write in a way that is transparent and that others can hopefully benefit.
Your mother advised you not to go into show business. Did you have flashbacks when your children — Hannah Einbinder and Spike Einbinder — told you they wanted to?
Hell yeah. My mom did not have it easy. She had two kids by the time she was 19 and then twins a decade later. She didn’t get any kind of mothering herself, so what would she know [about parenting]? So I, of course, became a helicopter parent in reaction to what I got. I was up my kids’ butts like you wouldn’t believe. But they are so wonderful, and I have such a good relationship with both of them, and the good news is they are both so talented and so funny and original.
So what can we learn from listening to the Laraine Newman story?
Someone asked me what my philosophy on life is, and I said it’s that line from “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”: “Be good for goodness sake.” In terms of advice, what I always tell people is to read books and to see everything you can, because that will be your starting point. You start where people have left off so that you are original.