LARAINE NEWMAN ON THE POWER OF COMEDY
At just 24, Laraine Newman was part of a renegade group breaking down doors for the next generation as a member of the Not Ready for Primetime Players on Saturday Night Live. But that's only one of her many accomplishments in her multi-decade career. She's appeared on hit television shows like St. Elsewhere and Friends, and worked in film with legendary directors like Guillermo del Toro. Laraine is on the board of San Francisco Sketch Fest, regularly appears in the long running award-winning Broadway show, Celebrity Autobiography and has written for Esquire, the Believer and McSweeneys. And she's one of the most prolific voice over actors in the business, lending her talents to animated classics, including Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., Despicable Me and Shrek.
IN THIS EPISODE
[00:01] On accepting the Passionistas Persist Icon Award
[00:03] On what she’s most passionate about
[00:03] On the atmosphere for women in improv in the 1970s
[00:04] On being in the original cast of the Not Ready for Primetime Players on Saturday Night Live
[00:06] On she, Gilda Radner and Jane Curtain supporting each other
[00:06] On the process of creating a character
[00:07] On the power of comedy
[00:08] On her dream for their future of her children, Spike and Hannah Einbinder.
[00:08] On the advice she gives her kids
[00:08] On a moment following your passions that would be most inspiring to people
[00:09] On the phrase Power of Passionistas
Passionistas: The night that Saturday Night Live premiered in 1975, we slipped downstairs after our parents went to bed to watch the show with our older siblings. Our lives were changed forever. Before that moment, the comedians and actors we saw on TV were our parents contemporaries. But when the Not Ready for Primetime Players blasted through our set, we saw our sisters on the screen.
At just 24 Laraine Newman was part of a renegade group breaking down doors for the next generation. Laraine hit the SNL stage with impressive credits already on her resume. She had studied mine with Marcel Marceau in Paris, was a founding member of the legendary Los Angeles improv troupe, the Groundlings and honed her skills developing original characters.
SNL launched Laraine into rockstar status. But it's only one of her many accomplishments in her multi-decade career. She's appeared on hit television shows like St. Elsewhere and Friends, and worked in film with legendary directors like Guillermo del Toro. Laraine is on the board of San Francisco Sketch Fest, regularly appears in the long running award-winning Broadway show, Celebrity Autobiography and has written for Esquire, the Believer and McSweeneys. And she's one of the most prolific voice over actors in the business, lending her talents to animated classics, including Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., Despicable Me and Shrek.
As she says in her memoir, May You Live in Interesting Times, she bore witness to and participated in many significant cultural moments in the country. And that's pretty cool. And through it all, she persisted. So it is our distinct honor to award the Passionistas Persist Icon Award to Laraine Newman.
Laraine: Thank you so much to the Passionist Project for this award. It's a privilege to be able to follow your passions in life, in my case, all things comedy, and to ultimately make a living at it. I don't take that lightly. The field I work mostly in now, animation voiceover, is very egalitarian because nobody can see you. You're anonymous.
They just know what you can do with your voice. What I've learned is that in a business like mine, you have to be good enough at what you do as to be undeniable, and that takes courage in the face of so much failure and rejection. Well, courage and what the hell else am I gonna do? I don't have any hobbies.
I continue to try and improve my skills to learn new things and see what other people are doing, New voices, points of view and style, that inspires me so much. Although I've worked hard, I suspect I've had less obstacles than the other people that are championed by this wonderful organization, the marginalized to be specific.
As the mother of two LGBTQ children, I see progress. The world is more open to them than it might have been say 20 years ago, but we have a long way to go and thankfully there are entities like the Passionistas Project that are the uplifting gatekeepers, if you will. Again, thank you so much.
Passionistas: What are you most passionate about?
Laraine: Well, I'm passionate about, I guess justice, in the first place. I'm passionate about my kids. I'm passionate about my interests, which range from cooking to comedy. So I guess you could say that's a distillation of some of the things I'm passionate about.
Passionistas: You were one of the founding members of the Groundlings with your sister Tracy. So what was the atmosphere like for women in improv at the time?
Laraine: Well, we had a great director, Gary Austin, and he was, uh, you know, it was a meritocracy for sure. Whoever had something funny, that's what went up. And, um, I think that the world of comedy at that point was just at a turning point. You know, the Comedy Store had just opened, uh, there were lots of clubs along Beverly Boulevard.
There were drag clubs, there was Waylon Flowers and Madam. There was a great, uh, Australian comedian named Daphne Davis, who was also an impressionist. And, um, there was a, a openly gay comic at the Comedy Store named Falstaff Wilde. So I think, you know, even though there is a polemic about women in comedy back then, uh, I never experienced that.
Passionistas: So you went on to be part of the original cast of the Not Ready for Primetime Players on Saturday Night Live. So talk a little bit about what it felt like to be involved in creating this iconic show, and if you ever even imagined the groundwork you were laying or the doors you were opening?
Laraine: Well, it was impossible to have that kind of perspective. Uh, I just knew that all of us represented a different kind of style and tone from the disparate parts that we came from. Chicago, you know, um, Toronto, New York, um, California. And it was just, it was a great kind of stew of a whole new generation of people that represented something that you'd never seen on TV before.
We, you know, were so kind of, you know, the redheaded stepchild for NBC, wanting to just slam something into that time slot, you know, because Johnny Carson didn't want the reruns on Saturdays. So, um, we never even imagined anybody was watching us, but it was thrilling to be able to say, Hey. I wanna, uh, write a sketch about a girl who's from the valley as a stewardess. Well, I'd have done that in the Groundings, but, you know, uh, can I do that? Yes, you can. What? Great. You know, so it was that kind of thing.
Passionistas: Do you feel like you and Gilda and Jane supported each other, leaned on each other back then? And what kind of ways did you do.
Laraine: Because we all came from an improv background, that's a very cooperative art form. So, um, naturally we supported one another. You know, uh, the high stakes competition we weren't really aware of until later. But we all knew that none of us could do what the other one could do. So it wasn't a matter of competing with each other. We were really competing with ourselves.
Passionistas: You were one of the queens of creating characters. So what's that process for you?
Laraine: The process of creating characters is, uh, my God, usually in the beginning for people, it's an amalgam of the people they grew up with, the things that they noticed. And I was such a myna bird. I mean, I just, uh, I was fascinated by dialects and there were just characters all around me that I later exemplified.
Passionistas: What's the power of comedy?
Laraine: It offers so many things. It offers, uh, the ability to frame things in a way that, uh, tells the truth without being necessarily threatening. I think George Carlin's a really, a good example of that because he distilled things and he arranged the anatomy of things like hypocrisy and corporate greed and, and, you know, organized religion.
He arranged it in such a way that people could see, you know, the uh, the flaw and the argument. And um, so I think if anything, you know, hopefully it furthers, uh, the dialogue on things.
Passionistas: You have two incredibly talented children, Spike and Hannah Einbinder. What's your dream for their future?
Laraine: They're already pretty much self-supporting, which, you know, it's like I've done my job as a parent, you know, uh, I'm so proud of them for that.
They have a great work ethic, so it's not like something that I have to worry about them having they already have it. Um, I hope that they see a world that is a lot better than the one that is around right now.
Passionistas: What advice do you give to them?
Laraine: Like they would take my advice. I've learned as a parent that, you know, unless it's solicited, it's perceived as criticism. So if they seek my advice, then, you know, always it's like, uh, continue to learn. That's all I can say.
Passionistas: Is there a moment in your journey of following your passions that you think would be most inspiring to people?
Laraine: The moment I decided to, uh, pursue voiceover, even though it was really hard world to break into. I just knew that I, I figured out that that was what I was perfectly suited to do. I wasn't as invested in being an actor or being on camera. I loved the idea of working and acting with my voice, and I. I auditioned for shows for two years and I, I got roles, but I didn't get series regular roles.
And then I studied with a guy named Charlie Adler and Chris Zimmerman. And you know, I think the willingness to continue to learn and recognize that there are certain aspects of a technique that you might need help with, being willing to do that is so important. Being willing to continue to learn is everything.
Passionistas: What does the phrase Power of Passionistas mean to you?
Laraine: Passion drives everything we do. The wish to, uh, achieve, the wish to evolve. Um, so, you know, I think helping others to recognize the process of achievement and the struggle of achievement is a really great endeavor.