If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to tank an audition in front of Bob Hope or get hit on by Chuck Berry, comedian and actor Laraine Newman can tell you. Her new memoir, May You Live in Interesting Times, is only available from Audible.
Newman, best known for having lived through being a cast member on the first five seasons of Saturday Night Live, is definitely a person who ought to be doing exactly this kind of audio reminiscence. The bulk of her acting for the past 20 years has been voicing characters in basically every movie that is beloved by eight-year-olds. From the mom in Monsters, Inc. to fear itself in Inside Out, Newman’s laundry list of “additional voices” credits guarantees a ring of familiarity with her sound.
In narrating the memoir, she seamlessly transitions in and out of killer vocal effects, adding a cornucopia of hilarious energies that help articulate how truly weird and singular her life has been. The crisp clarity of Newman’s natural articulation is also lovely, a well-balanced blend of warmth and jadedness that suits her comedic chops.
May You Live in Interesting Times offers an opportunity to hang out with Newman for nine hours. The first two hours go by in a classic whirlwind of Beverly Hills High malaise smoothed by a glossy sheen of drug use. Newman spent a year studying mime in France with Marcel Marceau and was a founding member of the legendary improv and sketch comedy troupe The Groundlings, but she doesn’t pause very long to examine the historic uniqueness of these positions before getting on to the main event: in 1974, Lorne Michaels scouted her at a Los Angeles show for inclusion in a Lily Tomlin television special.
A year later, Newman was packing her car and driving across the country to New York City to join the founding cast of Saturday Night Live. The city welcomed her with open arms—arms that stole her car with all her possessions and comedy notebooks on her very first night in the city.
Newman did not love NYC, but she did love SNL and the majority of the memoir focuses on those five years. She was the youngest cast member, for better and for worse, thrown in with legends: Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, and Gilda Radner. Radner often felt like a mother to her, but the impulse to look after Newman sometimes disappeared when Radner got distracted by boyfriends.
Chevy Chase—the first person to ever tell Newman the famous Aristocrats joke—assumed the role of her older brother. This was a cantankerous relationship glued together mostly with cocaine, which would sometimes rocket Chase’s obnoxiousness to unbearable levels. Though Newman initially resented him for leaving the momentum of SNL so soon in pursuit of his individual stardom, their friendship was healthier once he left the show.
By that point, she and Garrett Morris were the only two cast members who were still suffering from a lack of substantive roles in skits and good corresponding press coverage. Naturally, she used drugs to shut out her sense of failure and later in the memoir admits to spending a year in the company of heroin.
Is it still possible to do any kind of “tell all” treatment of the early days of Saturday Night Live in the late ’70s? The rampant sexism in the writer’s room, the extreme love-hate cooperative-competitiveness among cast members, and the proliferation of eating disorders and heavy drugs are hardly a secret at this point. But there’s something oddly great about hearing one of the female cast members nonchalantly reference many of the iconic skits and well-known conflicts generated by the show.
Consider the only three women who were there. Radner was the instant superstar, universally beloved and acclaimed. She released her highly personal memoir, It’s Always Something, shortly before her death from ovarian cancer in 1989. It did very little to acknowledge these things about SNL that now seem obvious. Curtin’s star truly began to rise when Chase left and she took over his role in the recurring “Weekend Update” skit. Though Curtin and Newman arrived and departed SNL at the same time, Curtin found additional starring roles for a half-decade in the ’80s in Kate & Allie and a half-decade in the ’90s in 3rd Rock from the Sun.
Curtin has never released a memoir and is mostly mum on the ways that SNL was a cesspool. Because Newman never quite cracked mainstream stardom and because she ultimately shifted to voicework, she can afford to be more honest in approaching many touchy subjects floating in the background of any conversation about the early days of SNL.
Because she can do this memoir, can admit that those were “interesting times”, with the full weight of acknowledgment given to both the holiness and the terrors of it, it’s fair to say that Newman survived those early days of SNL better than almost anybody else. A few of the cast members became too famous to properly admit how messy it used to be. A few of them became so messy they either died of it like, Belushi, or went full isolationist shaman-like Murray. Newman, however, can now be found behind a microphone more constantly than anybody else who was there.
The last three hours of the memoir are devoted to anecdotes from her life after the show. Highlights include getting shot at by Warren Zevon, dating Mark Mothersbaugh of the band Devo, trying to get clean in rehab, and schlepping her kids around to cheerleading practice. Nowadays, neither Newman’s life circumstances nor her self-esteem is particularly messy. As Newman’s mother asked with great sadness on her deathbed, wx1it’s dull to be good, isn’t it?
Say what you will about Laraine Newman, but her life has not been dull. She takes responsibility for her long history of doubts and failures without getting too dark and somber about it. A beautiful thing about this memoir is its overall unapologetic tone. This is Newman’s one-of-a-kind funny story and she has opted to keep it real, meaning that May You Live in Interesting Times need not provide a moralizing lesson about the perils of drug addiction or function as a how-to self-help book for aspiring comedians.