Laraine Newman Reflects on Her Life, Career in Memoir ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’

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Malina Saval
·7 min read
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Laraine Newman was 23 years old when she was cherry-picked by Lorne Michaels to join the inaugural cast of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” in 1975, along with Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris and Dan Aykroyd. During her five-year tenure on the iconic show, Newman skyrocketed to fame for playing memorable characters such as Connie Conehead and Sheri the Valley Girl. A founding member of the legendary comedy troupe the Groundlings, the Emmy-nominated comic would go on to appear in Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” and in TV series such as “St. Elsewhere” and “Laverne & Shirley.” Newman would later carve out a thriving career as a voiceover artist, behind characters in such blockbuster animation projects as “The Incredibles,” “Minions” and “The Secret Life of Pets.” She’s also continued to hone her comic chops in the Drama Desk award-winning show “Celebrity Autobiography,” which was created by Eugene Pack. On March 11, Newman’s memoir “May You Live in Interesting Times” will be released on Audible. In the book, Newman recounts the road to showbiz success, including her stint studying with Marcel Marceau in Paris, overcoming an addiction to pills and alcohol and the night she said that last goodbye to Gilda Radner.

‘It’s supposed to be a Chinese curse.’

When I was coming up with a title for my book, I looked it up: “May you live in interesting times.” I can’t remember the actual specific source of it, but there are other Chinese curses that are like that, that walk on the edge of what it really means, which is, that you would live during a time where there’s upheaval.

‘I think that Jews are more attracted to humor.’

I wouldn’t say that we were like a typical Jewish family — my mom was an atheist and my dad was literally our cowboy, with a horse — but there was certainly the attraction to humor. We had all the comedy albums, you know, the ones by Allen Sherman, and I just was always attracted to it. And I can’t say whether it’s relevant to my Jewishness, but I certainly do identify with the singularity of it.

‘I just noticed all through my life that I would seem to be at the beginning of things.’

Seeing a lot of stand up when I was like 15, you know, on “The Merv Griffin Show” and “Your Show of Shows,” they would have all the New York comics on, I was really so interested in it. I was exposed to so many styles. I’ve always been a fan of comedy my whole life. When I was in this improv workshop that we eventually formed the Groundlings from, I would see everything that was playing in town. And I would see the acts at the newly opened Comedy Store. I was still underage, so I couldn’t get in, but I would look in through the entryway. And I’d see Freddie Prinze and Richard Pryor and Jay Leno, back when he had long black hair. That was really kind of the beginning of the comedy scene.

‘ “SNL” was a cultural event.’

It was like, comedy became king. There was rock and roll, and then there was comedy. And I had a front row to it all. And I thought that would be interesting to write about. In the book, I chose to write about all the ensemble sketches that I thought were great, and, of course, all the stuff we had to deal with in terms of bad taste and censorship. There were so many people I met back then that became influences — Madeline Kahn and Richard Pryor and Eve Arden. These were people at the forefront of modern American 20th century comedy. These are comic icons. I don’t want to say it was luck. But it was a magical kind of convergence of all of these people that would go on to become American pop cultural icons. When I got on “SNL,” I’d never seen anybody like Danny [Aykroyd], had never seen anybody like Billy [Murray] or John [Belushi]. You know, it was just a confluence of lots of incredibly original styles. Even after the show, there were so many things that happened — good and bad. I had some friends that eventually became very famous. I was close friends with Phil Hartman, and Susan Berman, who was Robert Durst’s last victim. These are kind of some of the unhappy things that I bore witness to.

‘I never allowed myself to consider the possibility that Gilda wouldn’t survive.’

The last time I saw Gilda was at a party for my 36th birthday. It was a last-minute thing and it really came together just through word of mouth. We got fixings for sandwiches and drinks and ice and moved furniture around so people could dance and that was about it. And then around three in the afternoon, flowers started coming in, and you know, in walk through the door people like Sam Kinison, Steve Martin, Anjelica Huston. Eventually in walks Jack Nicholson, who was looking for Anjelica. Lorne Michaels was there. I think Penny Marshall, although I’m not sure. And Bill [Murray] and Jon Lovitz. Bill took it upon himself to be the DJ and in his recounting of it, he said, I did not have a very good selection. But he’s wrong. I have a really great record collection. So, you know, people started rolling in. At one point I was upstairs and I saw Steve Martin in my bedroom, alone, with [my] dog in his lap. Which is so sweet. And Gilda came with Robin Zweibel. I’m not sure if I can recall what stage she was — if this was the second time where the cancer had come back — but she looked great. Everybody was telling her how great she looked. And I turned to her and I said, ‘Yeah, just what I want to hear on my birthday, how great you look.’ Which made her laugh. At one point, Danny and Billy lifted her up on their shoulders, and walked through the house — upstairs, downstairs, the living room, the den, the kitchen, the dining room and back. And then Billy, it was either Billy or Danny that said, ‘Say your goodbyes. Now she’s a goner.’ But it was great. It was a wonderful feeling. Because it really was the first time we had all been together —Danny, Billy, Gilda, me. And it was all from this kind of last-minute word of mouth party that just clicked. And that was the last time we saw her. And I can’t speak for what everybody else thought. I just know that when people I care about are seriously ill with something that is usually fatal that I go into big-time denial. And I always think that the person I care about is going to beat the odds. I didn’t think that would be the last time I saw her.

‘I felt like he gave me this monologue that incorporated every bad thing a critic ever said.’

I have one scene in “Stardust Memories,” and it’s in the beginning of the film. I found out that Woody [Allen] had written more for me, which I was really excited about. I remember, he’d just come out of his trailer I think, and I saw him eating a plate of ribs. And I said, “You remind me of a ‘Heckle and Jeckle’ cartoon. There should be a typewriter sound effect while you’re eating.” And he laughed. He totally got it.

‘Comics can make their own shows.’

What’s so great about social media and YouTube and all that kind of stuff is that there’s also this great homemade stuff coming out by unknown people, especially now during the pandemic. You know, if they can make a product that people want they have a lot more power in their hands. The resources are there for young comics coming up today to put on any kind of show they want. Comics today really have a lot more power.

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