You Be ‘Ellen:’ Tracy Newman traded in an Emmy-winning television writing career for her first love: folk music
By Michael Aushenker
From folk musician to Emmy Award-winning comedy writer to folk musician again – not the career trajectory most Hollywood types would imagine pursuing. Then again, Tracy Newman is not your typical talent.
The singer-songwriter, along with her band, The Reinforcements, will perform from 8-10 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12 at the Talking Stick, 1411-C Lincoln Blvd. in Venice.
Good songs, Newman confided to The Argonaut over lunch at a Marina del Rey gourmet burger bistro, are “much harder to write than television.” As opposed to creating telescripts by committee in a writers room with a show’s star and network executives often weighing in on what’s good and what’s not, Newman’s songs are singular and personal, and she describes herself as her own harshest critic. “Carpool” came from her adventures taking daughter Charlotte Dean (today an accomplished painter with whom Newman is collaborating with on a book project) to school. Another ditty, “Waffle Boy,” won Newman first place in the folk category of the Indie International Songwriting Contest.
Drawing from her two albums, “A Place in the Sun” (2007) and “I Just See You” (2012), Newman on Sept. 12 will likely play “Table Nine,” her homage to one of her musical heroes, country legend Merle Haggard. Then there’s “Fire Up the Weed” (self-explanatory).
And there’s also “Laraine,” an ode to her younger sister of nine years, comic actor Laraine Newman, one of the original “Saturday Night Live” Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players, dating back to when producer Lorne Michaels’ ongoing comedy sketch show franchise first aired in October 1975.
Originally a folk singer back in the early 1960s while attending the University of Arizona, Newman got involved with Tucson’s local folk scene and she busked playing Bob Dylan covers. The folk movement led her to New York’s Greenwich Village, where she performed and emceed at the Bitter End and fell into a milieu of comedians working Bud Friedman’s Improv. For a short while, she dated then-up-and-coming comedian Rodney Dangerfield, but his well-documented struggle with drugs and alcohol derailed their brief relationship.
By the early 1970s, Newman returned to Los Angeles to become a founding member of The Groundlings, the exclusive comedy troupe from which Hollywood, including shows such as “Saturday Night Live,” has poached many a comic actor. From there, with writing partner Jonathan Stark (a fellow former Groundling), Newman wrote teleplays for a succession of hit TV shows — “Cheers,” “Bob,” “The Nanny,” “The Drew Carey Show” and, most notably, “Ellen,” for which Newman and Stark won an Emmy for the famous “coming out” story (1997’s two-part “The Puppy Episode”).
That led the pair to write for the short-lived Richard Lewis vehicle “Hiller & Diller” before they created the hit comedy, “According to Jim,” starring Jim Belushi.
“It was clear to me that the future of comedy was there,” Newman said of The Groundlings Theatre, the L.A.-based improv group in which she and her sister Laraine were founding members. Newman described the Groundlings in the 1970s and 1980s as a “comedy writing farm,” where actors Tim Matheson, Craig T. Nelson, Pat Morita and Jack Soo were among its earliest performers. “SNL” producer Michaels was quick to hire Laraine Newman, not through the Groundlings directly but because Laraine had played in a Lily Tomlin show at the now-gone Oxford Theatre near Koreatown, one of the Groundlings’ homes before it settled into its current Melrose Avenue digs.
But her sister aside, Newman said Michaels was slow to enlist Groundlings talent, but eventually comedians who could also write, such as Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman, followed Laraine to “SNL.”
Newman, who had taught at and performed with the Groundlings for 15 years ( late night talk show host Conan O’Brien and actress Lisa Kudrow were among her students), entered the world of sitcoms after another pair of Groundlings, Bill and Cherie Steinkellner, had become writers and producers on “Cheers.” When the couple asked Stark to contribute a script to the hit series, he turned to Newman, and the pair soon found themselves working as a capable writing team.
Nevertheless, the Steinkellners rejected their ideas for about a year, Newman explained, before she and Stark sent them a “Murphy Brown” script which convinced them they were ready to board “Cheers” as “the lowest of the low” of the staff writers on its 10th season.
Thanks to “Cheers,” Newman and Stark were able to work as staff writers on the short-lived “Bob” in 1992-93. Despite comedian Bob Newhart’s tremendous success on the network with “Newhart” in the 1980s, there were executives at CBS, Newman claims, who did not treat Newhart with the respect he deserved. That said, Newhart always took the high road and handled situations with aplomb, Newman said.
“I never wrote for anyone who was easier to work with than Bob,” she said, gushing, adding that if he didn’t like a joke, he would gingerly ask, “‘Can I say this instead of that?’ And he was always right?”
Newman characterized Stark as “a terrific performer and one of those guys who never thought he would make a living.” Newman also had high praise
for DeGeneres and for Alex Herschlag, a writer DeGeneres employed on her stand-up material who later wrote on “Will & Grace,” whom DeGeneres had brought into the writing room fold.
“She would demand new jokes all the time,” Newman remembered of DeGeneres. “She would nail it in two takes. She would remember the jokes she liked. She had a really good memory.”
While Newman overall enjoyed her experience on “Ellen,” she said Stark was not completely comfortable working with some of the quirks and politics behind creating the show, especially in the ramp up to the famous episode in which DeGeneres’ character reveals herself to be a lesbian to her circle of friends. Stark could feel the weight of what was coming, she recalled.
“He didn’t like being so visible,” Newman said. “He thought this episode was going to ruin our careers; or make our careers.”
What it did was win the pair an Emmy Award. (Newman and Stark wrote the first half of the story arc.)
Newman says she and her writing partner very much enjoyed their experience on Fox’s “Hiller & Diller,” which starred Richard Lewis and Kevin Nealon, in 1997.
“I loved every minute of it,” she said.
Unfortunately, it only lasted 13 episodes, only 11 of which aired.
It took about eight pilots before one of Newman and Stark’s concepts, “According to Jim,” sold to ABC.
“We were more unhappy than we’ve ever been,” Newman said.
The show first aired in 2001. Stark stayed with the show for eight years; Newman for three. By 2004, she had had enough.
“I left to go back to being a singer,” she said. It took time (“I had to get my chops back”) but, three years later, she had recorded an album’s worth of tunes.
On Sept. 12, Newman will perform a variety of her own compositions, many of them humorous, with The Reinforcements: Gene Lippmann (guitar/background vocals), Paula Fong (background vocals), John Cartwright (bass), and Doug Knoll (drums).
Newman, who resides in Hancock Park, enjoys the Venice vibe and has made something of a residency at The Talking Stick, where she and her band alternate on the second Thursday night of each month with her brother’s band, Dutch Newman and the Musical Melodians.
Writing and performing music has liberated Newman, who draws from a variety of influences.
“How can you deny Bob Dylan?” she said. Jackson Browne, James Taylor and The Beatles have also inspired her music career.
The writer and songwriter appears heartened by the reception to her own compositions every other month at Talking Stick.
“I’ve watched every single night grow and grow,” she said.
Newman says she is having a good ol’ time making music.
Working on shows such as “Ellen” and “According to Jim,” Newman got to see a lot of Burbank, where studios such as ABC and Disney are based. So she knows with certainty one aspect of her sitcom staff writer job she will definitely never miss.
“Getting stuck in Hollywood Bowl traffic!”