By Sarah Linn — firstname.lastname@example.org
For Tracy Newman, the transition from Emmy Award-winning television writer to acoustic country-folk troubadour came naturally.“I’ve always wanted to be a singer-songwriter,” said Newman, who performs Wednesday at Linnaea’s Café in San Luis Obispo.
“Writing comedy on television, you’re pretty much laughing a good deal of the day. I loved that,” she said, but she grew weary of the grueling pace and long hours.
“I went through some pretty tired years, exhausted years,” she said.
Music came first for Newman, who grew up near the legendary Troubadour club in West Hollywood.
At age 18, she joined the fledgling New Christy Minstrels, although the folk group dropped her three months later.
“I was too young,” she said.
Still, the revelation that she could earn $35 a night simply singing and playing her guitar in clubs stuck with Newman. She pursued music on and off for a couple of years, briefly attending the University of Arizona, until she discovered another passion: comedy.
Newman was one of the founding members of The Groundlings, the legendary improvisational and sketch comedy troupe formed by Gary Austin in 1974. She even introduced her younger sister, Laraine, to the Los Angeles-based group.
“I dragged her to one of those classes and … she was so good. So funny,” Newman recalled. “Everybody was blown away.”
Among the people impressed by her sister’s performance was television producer Lorne Michaels, then seeking talent for his new show, “Saturday Night Live.” He picked Laraine Newman to join the cast.
Rather than becoming an actress, Tracy Newman pursued a career as a writer.
In 1991, she and her writing partner, fellow Groundlings alumnus Jonathan Stark, finally landed a spot on the staff of “Cheers.”
“Once we were on ‘Cheers,’ it was like (we) could only sail upward. We had a career to ruin if we wanted,” Newman recalled. “We never stopped working after that.”
Over the years, the two wrote for some of television’s funniest sitcoms, including “Hiller and Diller,” “The Drew Carey Show” and “The Nanny.” During their stint on “Ellen,” Newman and Stark won Emmy and Peabody awards for co-writing “The Puppy Episode,” better known as the two-part episode in which star Ellen DeGeneres officially “came out” to her audience.
The duo also enjoyed success as the creators of “According to Jim,” starring Jim Belushi as a loving suburban dad. Although she liked the relatively leisurely life of a showrunner, Newman left after the sitcom achieved syndication.
Newman and her backup band, the Reinforcements, released their first album, “A Place in the Sun,” in 2007. Her new album, “I Just See You,” came out in September 2012.
Newman, who appeared on one episode of “According to Jim” as a folk singer, said the skills she learned working on sitcoms have served her well as a singer-songwriter.
“Writing a half-hour television show, telling a story in essentially 20 minutes … is what really prepared me for writing the songs I write,” explained the songwriter, whose brother, Paul Newman, is the frontman of the 1920s-style orchestral group Dutch Newman and the Musical Melodians. “I don’t think it’s a big leap to go from writing a story in 20 minutes to writing one in five minutes.”
Her ability to picture those storylines from start to finish can be heard on bittersweet songs such as “Waffle Boy,” about a teenage boy struggling through his first day of work at the Waffle House, and “Mama, I Know You Ain’t Santa,” about a sick, exhausted single mother who has dressed up as St. Nick on Christmas.
“You can picture the poverty and the sadness. It just comes through really well,” Newman said of the award-winning track.
Likewise, she credits her experiences with improv comedy with fueling her creative process and boosting her confidence.
“If you’re in improv, your ego is bashed constantly,” she said. “I’m not terribly afraid onstage.”
Like a true improv veteran, she takes her cues from the folks who turn out to watch her perform.
“The audience is always the proof,” Newman said. “If I get up there in front of an audience and they’re relating (to the song), I’m doing a good job.”
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