|Emmy-winning comedy writer returns to her first love—music
By CARL KOZLOWSKI
You might not know her name, but you probably know her work. In 1997, Tracy Newman won an Emmy for co-writing the historic “coming out” episode of Ellen DeGeneres’ ABC sitcom, “Ellen.” In 2001 she was co-creator of the eight-season hit sitcom “According to Jim.”
She’s more than a comedy writer, however. In fact, in addition to being one of the first performers in the groundbreaking Los Angeles-based comedy troupe The Groundlings (which launched the careers of many “Saturday Night Live” stars including her own sister, Laraine Newman, and Will Ferrell,) and a member of the popular singing group the New Christy Minstrels, she was at one time considered the foremost (and possibly only) female card-manipulator in the world. That means, when you saw a woman’s hands expertly dealing or handling cards in a movie or on TV, they were most-likely Tracy’s hands. In 1974, she shared her expertise on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” first doing a sketch with the legendary host, and then talking cards with him on the panel.It’s the current phase of Tracy’s life that excites her most, because it’s the most personal work she’s done to date. She’s joined the over-populated, underpaid ranks of singer/songwriters in the Los Angeles area, slinging her acoustic guitar for shows at such venues as Kulak’s Woodshed in Studio City, The Talking Stick in Venice, and Bob Stane’s nationally-regarded Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena.
In 2007, along with singers Lorie Doswell and Gene Lippmann—known onstage as the Reinforcements—she recorded the CD, “A Place in the Sun.” Now immersed in the recording of her second CD, Newman takes time to reflect on aging and a life spent in constant creativity.
“I think because we live longer and stay healthier, you need to plan your next occupation while you’re entrenched in your current one,” says Newman, speaking over coffee in the spacious Hancock Park home she calls “California Practical.” Her “Ellen” Emmy and Peabody awards are perched prominently on a kitchen shelf. “I love writing songs and the idea that I can get up in the morning, sit at my computer with my beautiful Goodall guitar, and spend the whole day writing and rewriting a song is my definition of winning the lottery.”
Newman, who started playing guitar at age 14 while growing up in LA, began writing songs in her 20s after a surprisingly young teenage stint in the New Christy Minstrels with whom she appeared on “The Vic Damone Show.” In 1964 she moved to New York. She played all the folk clubs including the legendary Bitter End at a time when groundbreaking comics like George Carlin were first making waves, and ultimately decided to pursue comedic acting back in LA as a founding member of the Groundlings. She performed, taught and directed there for 15 years, and it was there that Newman learned the value of rewriting scenes until they were perfect—a skill that would pay off years later when she became a staff writer for classic sitcoms including “Cheers” and “The Drew Carey Show.” Perhaps more importantly, she teamed up with fellow troupe member Jonathan Stark to launch her TV writing career.
“Aside from all the shows we worked on, we wrote eight pilots before ‘According to Jim’ sold. It was a big thrill to have that happen, but it was also mixed with the reality that now as executive producers we were responsible for producing a funny show week after week,” Newman says. “And though I’m proud of the show, eventually the fun went out of it for me, and I moved from producing to consulting on the show after three or four years.”
Newman’s music career is an equally happy challenge. She’s enjoying the feeling of getting back to her early passion and kind of starting over. “By the way, I didn’t stop writing songs when I was working in television,” she says. “I wrote many songs for ‘Ellen’ and ‘According to Jim.’ I even wrote the theme song for a sitcom that stayed on for one season, called ‘Hiller and Diller,’ starring RichardLewis and Kevin Nealon. That was very cool.”
The success of “According to Jim,” with Jim Belushi, allows Tracy to pursue music without having to worry about money. It’s also a pioneering time with Internet marketing, where performers can put out their own music and maybe even make a living. Tracy’s TV credits are a big help in that regard, she says. “But there’s a difference between being a successful writer and being a successful actor who might be recognized for his/her accomplishments. I’ve made this switch to music, but I’m not well-known on sight, so unless someone introduces me as co-creator of ‘According to Jim,’ the audience has no idea of me other than as this older woman who sings her own songs and plays guitar pretty well.”
Newman promises to have as much success with her music career as with her writing. Her song “I Just See You” was recently announced as a winner in an international contest with entries by more than 350,000 songwriters. As a result, her song will be part of a high-profile compilation CD released this fall called “Life in the Years,” with superstar artists like Carly Simon and Natalie Merchant performing songs to raise awareness about health care issues for the aging.
She’s also involved with producer Travis Allen’s website, www.myrecordlabel.com, designed to be a major hub for independent artist. “I’m really having a ball with that website,” Newman says. “In fact, I’m having fun with every aspect of this business. I’m sending my songs out to contests, mostly losing, but sometimes winning. I’m getting airplay on radio shows and fan email from all over the world. Besides enjoying my music, I think people are fascinated by the fact that I’ve returned to this career and I’m over 50… way over 50. And I’m a woman. Who’s going to be interested in seeing or hearing me? The odds are against it.
“In 1985, I was trying to ‘make it’ as a songwriter. I had a lot of songs, but there was one in particular called ‘I Would Fly.’ I thought it could be a hit single. I lived in LA and everyone told me I couldn’t sell a country song to a country artist without going to Nashville and hanging out and getting to know people. At the time, I couldn’t leave LA. So, I did a great demo of the song, and then I hired someone to help me send it everywhere. We sent it to producers and artists who were looking for material. We sent it unsolicited to just about every radio station that played anything remotely country. (It was already published, so we didn’t send it to publishers.) Finally, after 30 days, I got a call at home from Billy Strange who was producing a duet album of Mel Tillis and Nancy Sinatra. They wanted to do it! It was the leadoff song on the album, and I thought, oh man, that’s it, I’m gonna make it as a songwriter.
“Well that didn’t happen, but the strategy was sound. I had a lot of faith in that one song, and I got it placed, even though the odds were against it. The only way to fail is to stop. Hmm, am I quoting Dr. Phil? If I had to send that song out for six months, to 20 people a day, do you think that I could fail if the song’s really good? At some point someone is going to listen. The only way you’re not gonna sell good songs is if you stop playing them for people.”
Tracy Newman’s CD and performance schedule can be found at www.tracynewman.com.