Mike Ragogna, Music Biz Vet
A Conversation with The Groundlings’ Tracy & Laraine Newman
Mike Ragogna: Forty years is a long time! How did you come up with the group’s name and how did it all begin?
Tracy Newman: In 1973 or so, when we were doing shows at the Oxford Theatre–before we built the current Groundlings Theatre on Melrose–we were just a group of 25 or so actor/improvisers who were taking classes with Gary Austin, our fearless leader. We had a meeting to come up with a name for our group. A few people–including Laraine and I and I think, Mary Cross–wanted “The Working Class,” and Gary, or someone, suggested “The Groundlings.” In Shakespeare, “groundlings” were the people in the cheap seats at a show–from Hamlet–“Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise.”
Laraine Newman: There have been several versions of this and I don’t know which one is true. I don’t know who came up with the name, all I know is we put two names to a vote: The Groundlings and The Working Class. I felt we would outgrow the style of a name like The Groundlings. That it was a Renaissance Fair kind of notion. I thought The Working Class was great because we were a class and I liked the double entendre of the political reference. It’s a good thing I’m not a gambler.
MR: What does it mean to be a Groundling these days?
TN: Well, if you’re in the main company or the Sunday company, and you’re in the shows, you get the enviable opportunity to perform for TV and film people who are looking for talent. It didn’t used to be like that at the beginning, but after Laraine Newman was plucked out of the company by Lorne Michaels, for a new NBC show he was launching–a little, live comedy show called Saturday Night Live–The Groundlings were on the show bizz map.
MR: What are some of the highlights of your time together? Are there any that were life-changing on a personal level?
TN: Do you mean with The Groundlings or with Laraine as my sister? Having Laraine as my sister is completely inspiring and life-changing. I love her. She’s brilliant. Even as a little girl, she had me laughing all the time. Being in The Groundlings was life-changing because I got to be involved on the ground floor of the new wave of comedy in LA. I was laughing all the time and because there was so much writing and re-writing, I was totally prepared for my TV writing career.
LN: Tracy is responsible for my being in The Groundlings and the rest is history. If that isn’t life changing, I don’t know what is. She is so amazingly talented and inspires me by how she continues to explore her talent. She has a particularly brilliant daughter as well. I think just working with Tracy and peeing in our pants. Laughing till we couldn’t breathe.
MR: Why do you think The Groundlings has such a loyal fan base?
TN: Because they’re home-grown. They’re a staple here in LA. Come rain or come shine, you can count on big laughs at The Groundlings. You’re sure to see the stars of today and tomorrow every time you go to a show. It’s a guaranteed good time. Where else can you pay $15-$20 and sit in a 99 seat theatre and see Laraine Newman, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Paul Reubens, Lisa Kudrow, Melissa McCarthy–the list is endless–in an all improv show, just because they happened to drop by or had a free night? Where else can you see so many brilliant kids who are just starting out and will most likely soon be on SNL or in a movie or sitcom?
LN: I know what it means to me to be a Groundling today. I’m so proud of the incredible creativity and talent that has come out of the company. I don’t ever consider myself to be an erstwhile Groundling. I will always feel connected to it as I do to SNL. As for the current people coming through the school and company, the sky is the limit. There is no other place I can think of where you can get the kind of training that is offered there. The Groundlings has created their own technique for crafting characters and writing for them and as far as I know, that is singular to them. My God, I never imagined it would be so venerable but, if you can make it there…..
MR: It’s unusual to jump from comedy to music or back and forth. How do you merge the worlds? Laraine, do you have other juggling tricks?
TN: Before I joined Gary Austin’s class that became The Groundlings, I was a singer/songwriter. When I was in The Groundlings, I started the song improv class. After a few years, I turned it over to the astounding Phyllis Katz, who was and is the strongest song-improviser I’ve ever seen. When I wrote for TV, I often placed my songs in the shows I was writing for. When I left TV writing, it was only natural that I would go back to being a singer/songwriter. The worlds were always intertwined. In fact, on Wednesday, May 21st at 10PM, I’m bringing my band to The Groundlings to do a one-hour show. It’s part of the 40th Anniversary month of the company. Gary Austin is a singer/songwriter now, too, and I was going to open for him, but he’ll be recovering from surgery at that time, so I’m doing the show alone… well, with some surprise guests.
LN: The work I do in animation is a natural progression from doing characters and employing the technique of improvisation. Through the years, because I love my work so much, I’ve simply sought to explore dialects and stretch my voice for the sake of it, never knowing I’d be able to use those skills. Unlike Tracy, I’m not a singer. I realized that when I took singing lessons from her teacher. Sure, I can carry a tune and I discovered I have a 4 octave range and that’s why I can sound like a baby, a small child, a teenage boy or an old crone..but can I sing? F**k no.
MR: What was the creative process like for the material?
TN: We would improvise in class, and when there was a particularly funny scene, we would recreate it, and perform it over and over to make it better. In the early years of the Groundlings, a scene could stay in the show for two or three years. I was in a sketch called “Reunion” that opened the show for years!
LN: I worked a lot with my sister Tracy and there was no better cheerleader, judge, and teacher. She pushed me to explore my characters and brought out material I never even considered. Sometimes we created sketches through improv but more often, since my main work in the show were ‘in one’ character monologues, I would have things I wanted to say as my characters and would start with a big rambling piece of crap with some pretty good jokes in it. Then night after night of performing the pieces, each time improvising something and keeping the stuff that worked, I’d arrive at a crafted piece I was happy with.
MR: Where do you go from here, post 40th anniversary?
TN: Well, you know, there is life after The Groundlings 40th Anniversary. For me, it’s continuing my singer/songwriter career, which is really fun for me.
LN: Home, where I take off my makeup, put on my pajamas and eat in front of the TV…..oh, did you mean what’s next? Well, I have a pretty great animation career that keeps me quite busy plus stage shows that are tremendous fun and sometimes an on camera role here and there that actually pays some money. You can look for my upcoming shows on Facebook or https://www.larainenewman.com
MR: What is your advice for new artists?
TN: If you like the show at The Groundlings, and you feel you’ve found your home, take the beginning class and find out if it’s really where you belong. If it is, then be persistent and keep taking classes until you either get in or start getting work in the business as a writer or whatever. More importantly–make friends in class. These people will be the future of comedy, and you want to be a part of it.
LN: Read books and other things but read! Work hard. Get plenty of sleep. See as many other performers as you can so you can be sure what you’re doing is original. Be supportive of other performers. This is your world and your family.
Click here for info on the Tracy Newman / The Groundlings event happening May 21, 2014: https://tracynewman.comevents/the-groundlings-theater-hollywood-ca/