High Times Greats: Laraine Newman

A 1978 interview with the sexy, skinny, spaced-out icon of early ‘Saturday Night Live.’
High Times Greats: Laraine Newman
Laraine Newman by Francesco Scavullo

From the July, 1978 issue of High Times comes an interview with Laraine Newman by Harry Wasserman and Carol Ryder. In honor of Ms. Newman’s birthday March 2, we’re republishing it below.

Laraine Newman’s first job as a paid performer came when she was a teenager; she appeared in a summer theater program in the parks of her native Los Angeles. Later she studied mime with Marcel Marceau in Paris and took classes in theater at the California Institute of the Arts. In 1972 she joined Groundlings, an L.A.-based improvisational group.

From these humble beginnings Laraine Newman has become the sex/comedy symbol of a generation, a peer of such mighty entertainers as John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin and Bill Murray. Every week on NBC’s Saturday Night Live millions of people watch in hypnotized hilarity as Laraine fulfills her role as the heir of Imogene Coca and Carol Burnett.

She can act, too. In the current box-office blockbuster American Hot Wax, Laraine has the challenging, difficult role of an aspiring young Carole King-type songwriter trying to get the attention of Alan Freed. Critics have compared her to Bea Lillie, Fanny Brice and Barbra Streisand. There are rumors that Laraine Newman will play the role of Wang Lung’s wife in the upcoming remake of The Good Earth.

Clearly an avatar of our time, Laraine Newman is the First Lady of hip rock comediennes.

High Times: Does marijuana help you create comedy?

Newman: Marijuana has taught me a lot of things. It’s an introspective high, and it’s made me very creative. I can work on pot, write on it and create things on it. With cocaine, however, it’s just “Wow, this is really groovy… and tomorrow we will learn Japanese…” And then I start writing the same sentence over and over again. Cocaine is a false-enthusiasm drug.

Two hits of Colombian is enough for me. I used to smoke Mexican in L.A., where you need about six hits before you get high. You come to New York and smoke Colombian, and it’s all of a sudden awaaaay… “Look at the trails, man!”

High Times: What was it like the first time you got high?

Newman: It was wonderful. I had already smoked twice before and not gotten off. But the third time: “It’s not working… it’s not working… Ohhh myyy God… I’m too light to put… my… foot… down… on… the… floor.” And then some of my friends put Taj Mahal on the record player, and I wanted a tuna fish sandwich—real bad.

High Times: Why did you agree to pose in a “Repeal POThibition” T-shirt?

Newman: Well, because marijuana is obviously harmless and there shouldn’t be penalties for it. A lot of people smoke marijuana, and it’s less harmful than alcohol. And now there’s the State Department’s statement that was issued about paraquat being sprayed on Mexican marijuana… if it’s true, and it may not be, it may just be something to intimidate people from buying it. If it’s true, it’s diabolical! You get cirrhosis of the liver with alcohol, but marijuana doesn’t harm you, so the government tried to devise a way to make it harm you.

High Times: Did you ever trip?

Newman: Yeah, I tripped a couple of times. But I never took a whole dose of the stuff. I always took quarters because that was enough. I’d say I tripped about ten times. When I did acid I felt so dirty. I mean, I could have taken a shower a minute ago and… “I got a layer of shit all over my body, and my top eyelashes are sticking to my bottom eyelashes and… ugh.”

High Times: Do the actors and writers on Saturday Night Live ever think of their ideas when they’re stoned?

Newman: Well, without incriminating anybody I’d say that we’re always a little stoned.

High Times: Is it easier to make people laugh if they’re stoned?

Newman: I don’t know. It’s easier to make me laugh if I’m stoned. I estimate that a great deal of viewers at home are stoned. I don’t know if the studio audience is stoned or not, but I’m sure some of them are.

High Times: When we interviewed Michael O’Donoghue [High Times, February ’78] he said that the show’s written with the fact in mind that 80 percent of the viewers are stoned. When you perform a script do you take that into account?

Newman: No, you can’t do that. Anytime you try to make a deliberate statement it’s going to stifle the inspiration. The only concession we make is that because we all know the experience of being stoned, that’s part of our orientation; that’s part of the way we write.

High Times: Do you think there’s a new kind of humor—doper’s humor?

Newman: No. There’s really just four kinds of humor—there’s recognition, there’s shock, there’s silly and there’s violence. Like the running joke on an early show where Chevy Chase was showing Gerry Ford having trouble trying to roll a joint. Eventually he rolls it and starts to stick it in his ear… that’s funny because it’s silly.

When Chevy guest-hosted the show recently, we did a skit where we’re trying to get past Customs, and I play a pregnant woman with enormous tits stuffed with cocaine, and at one point John Belushi nudges me because I’m not maintaining, and cocaine starts pouring out of my breast. That’s a sight gag, it’s a sight gag about people who could be sent to jail. It’s also incidentally about cocaine dripping out of my tit, but it’s those other elements first.

High Times: Did a guest host ever come on who was too drunk?

Newman: Yes, but I can’t mention any names.

High Times: Did they have to give him a cold shower to sober him up?

Newman: No, the terror of the situation sobered him up enough and he was able to carry it through. When you’ve gotta be real straight, the adrenaline courses through your veins… “I was speeding, officer? Oh, thank you so much!”

High Times: Did you ever get caught doing anything embarrassing on camera, like picking your nose?

Newman: There was one time I was playing a reporter and Dan Aykroyd was a soldier. At the end we were supposed to kiss, and I didn’t know the camera was on us for such a long time, so we were kissing a long time. I had a crush on Danny at the time so I didn’t mind it, but it was very embarrassing. I don’t know who put their tongue in whose mouth first.

High Times: Any taboo subjects on Saturday Night Live?

Newman: Religion is taboo, and sex generally is taboo. Religion more so, oddly enough, and I don’t know why.

High Times: Were you ever reprimanded by the censors for making any serious gaffs on the show?

Newman: Yes. On one show I took it in my own hands to say “pissed off” on the air. I was playing a character who would have said “pissed off” in that context. And Mr. Traviesas, who is the censor at NBC, was threatening to put us back on the seven-second tape delay, which would have meant technically we could not call ourselves “live.” All because of little me. So I called him up and pleaded, “Oh please, Mr. Traviesas, don’t put us back on seven-second delay… Ah swear ah’ll nevah do it agin… Ah know’d what ah was doin’, ah know’d it was wrong… an’ ah won’ nevah do it agin!” And he says, “Well all right!” That was the only time I ever got into trouble.

High Times: Anything else risqué that snuck by the censors?

Newman: When Richard Pryor did the show, he got away with saying “bitch.” He set the precedent, so that eventually Gilda Radner could call Jane Curtin “bitch” on the “Weekend News Update.”

We had to fight very hard to get “E. Buz Miller’s Animal Kingdom” on the air, even though our footage of insects and animals having sex was the same film that’s shown to junior-high-school students. But other than that the NBC censors leave us alone; they’re really wonderful. The show’s such a big hit, they give us a lot of freedom.

High Times: How come they pick you for all the sex scenes, like the ones you did with O. J. Simpson and Fran Tarkenton?

Newman: Well, this is the joke, that I’m the sex symbol of the show, which is a big joke to me, let me tell you. Like when Hugh Hefner was on the show, even before we had the writers’ meeting, everybody was saying, “Well, I guess Laraine’s going to have a lot of scenes with him.”

High Times: Did you ever want to do anything sexy on the show that they wouldn’t let you do?

Newman: Yes, we did a scene recently where everybody was trying to get backstage at a Kiss concert… and I had my jeans on with suspenders, and I just wanted to go on with no shirt, just the suspenders and my tits showing. Of course they wouldn’t let me.

High Times: Do you get any sexy fan mail?

Newman: I get a lot of propositions. One fellow wanted me to have all the money he had in his savings account. He wanted to build a city of diamonds and gold for me… this was a prison letter.

High Times: What’s the sexiest letter you ever got?

Newman: There was one guy who was really kind of a sickie, which I found annoying. He said that he loved it when I did Amy Carter, and he wanted to nestle his face between the cheeks of my buttocks and smell the baby powder.

High Times: What’s your favorite sex fantasy?

Newman: One can always conceive of things that are erotic, but the consummation of an act can sometimes be less erotic than the fantasy. So I really don’t want to do anything that’s going to show up on my face later, even in terms of a jaded outlook.

High Times: Are there neon signs on the show telling the audience when to laugh?

Newman: No, and we don’t sweeten it with canned laughter, either. What you see is what you get. Of course there’s the armed guards with guns at people’s temples yelling, “Laugh or die!”

High Times: What’s the future of
Saturday Night Live? Lorne Michaels recently said he didn’t want to produce it anymore.

Newman: Planning your life around Lorne Michaels’s decisions is like planning your life around loose mercury. After Chevy’s show there were some incidents that happened, and it was horrible, and Lorne said. “This is it, we got a couple of more shows, after May, that’s it, we’re off the air, I don’t want to produce it anymore. You guys want to stay, it’s fine.” And if he were to leave I would leave. Now he’s talking about going another year, so I have no idea what the future is.

High Times: Would the show go on without him?

Newman: It would go on without him because it’s a hit show and NBC, having a corporate mind, would not realize that it would never be the same. But I would only continue with him. I would not without him.

High Times: What happened when Chevy Chase left the show?

Newman: Well we missed him a lot, and there was always talk that we would fail without him. But people don’t realize that within a three-week grind, sometimes around the second or third week we have a lousy show. And unfortunately that happened at the time Chevy left, so people said, “Oh, it’s failing because he left.” And then we came back with some really good shows. We weren’t afraid that we couldn’t survive without him, but the press implied that and it was disturbing. But we want him to be happy; he’s our friend and we love him.

High Times: Is comedy the rock ’n’ roll of the ’70s?

Newman: That’s an interesting question, because I was asking Lorne Michaels what the future of rock ’n’ roll was, and he said “comedy.” Which I thought was a kind of pretentious remark. But again, I can’t be objective because I’m involved. Now, more than ever, comedy has a real audience. Even when Laugh-In was on, there wasn’t as much competition. There weren’t a million improv groups springing up around the country, as there are now. And it’s a lucrative business now, so I think in a sense one could say that comedy does have the power, in the youth market at least, that rock ’n’ roll had in the ’60s.

High Times: Steve Martin is getting a lot of airplay.

Newman: Yeah, and let’s face it, a comedy album isn’t usually good for more than two listenings, and that’s only if it’s excellent.

High Times: Right, they get played, and all of a sudden everyone’s saying lines like “excuuuse me”…

Newman: My god, every man I meet now is Steve Martin. I mean, “Hey… crazy guy… Hey, all right, we’re having some fun…” You know, I mean, who are you? It’s very strange… a lot of rock ’n’ roll people I’ve met, they all know Steve Martin, and they all know our show, and they all think they’re “continental guys.”

High Times: What were your favorite TV shows as a kid?

Newman: Zorro, because I was in love with Guy Williams, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., because I was in love with David McCallum, and Mission Impossible, because I was in love with Martin Landau, and… but I had a lot of favorite shows. I was definitely a TV baby. And there were a lot of cartoons that I loved. Rocky and Bullwinkle were very hip for a long time. I thought they were really great. They would have these little things, like Natasha would be in disguise in Tijuana, and her name would be Tequila Mockingbird. I didn’t get it at the time, but then I’d see it later and I’d realize how wonderful it was. Bugs Bunny was wonderful, and Popeye was wonderful, too. When they did the Arabian Nights in the Popeye cartoons, there was this great routine of Olive Oyl painting her toenails. She put a box with five cut-out circles over her toes, slapped some red paint over the box and took it off, and she had red toenails. Those kind of things fascinate kids, y’know, and it was just wonderful.

High Times: What’s the future of TV and movies?

Newman: Cable TV is an interesting idea. It’s becoming more sophisticated and Betamax is more available to the general public, so that it may indeed hurt and overpower the movie industry for a while. But nobody expected the ’70s to have movie hits like Jaws, Star Wars and Close Encounters. So the hits keep coming. People always lose sight of that. I’ve heard people say that there would be no nostalgia about the ’70s. But just because we’ve revived the ’60s and the ’50s doesn’t mean that nothing’s happened in the ’70s. We got Watergate, we got punk

High Times: Do you ever miss the ’60s?

Newman: I miss the ’80s. Boy, do I miss the ’80s.

High Times: Cloning will probably be a big fad in the ’80s. Would you want to have yourself cloned?

Newman: No, I wouldn’t, because the idea of childbirth is narcissistic enough in itself. I’ve never had an abortion, and I really wonder what I would do if I were faced with one. Obviously I couldn’t have a baby at this time, but I would go through serious torment in having to have an abortion because I’d be real curious about what the union of my lover and I would create. I would want to see what that human being was.

High Times: Would you want someone to carry on your work and ideals?

Newman: I don’t ever see it that way… I just see it as something to love.

High Times: Like a kitty cat or a doggie?

Newman: Sure, send it to Bide-A-Wee when you’re sick of having it around.

High Times: Have you ever seen a flying saucer?

Newman: I’ve never seen one, but I would love to see a flying saucer, and I’d love to go into space. And I imagine by the time I’m old I will be able to, and I’ll go for it. Just imagine: “And now, live from Mars, it’s Saturday Night!”

High Times: Why the big interest in science fiction now?

Newman: Because it was not provided in the ’60s when people were on acid. Now there’s a healthy form of fantasy in hallucinating about outer space. Close Encounters made me cry; it made Dan Aykroyd cry. It was emotionally overwhelming. Remember the innocence of the way we felt in the ’50s, when as kids we would see the monster from Mars and say, “Why are you killing him? Leave him alone!” And now they’re not only leaving them alone, they’re encouraging them. Science fiction today caters to our sense of curiosity as children, of wanting to be friendly and to learn from the aliens, and it’s a beautiful thing. Naive but beautiful.

High Times: If the aliens landed, do you think they’d be friendly or nasty?

Newman: I can’t see why they’d be nasty, unless maybe they were offended that we left some golf balls on the moon. I can’t see them getting too mad about that.

High Times: Have you ever thought of shaving your head after playing a Conehead?

Newman: No, actually, after ripping those off the process has practically been achieved already. I mean, I have no hair here… and here… because it’s anchored on with spirit gum, and so when that comes off your hair comes off. And when you have two minutes to change into your next scene, you don’t have too much time and it really hurts a lot.

High Times: Were you funny as a kid?

Newman: I wouldn’t say I was funny, I’d say I was frightening. When I was four I walked to school surrounded by a crowd of kids while I acted out scenes from horror movies, which I loved, and I’d always scare these kids. Later I did the first improvisational comedy show that was ever done at our high school—it was probably the first time the word “shit” was ever said on that stage.

High Times: What kind of family background are you from?

Newman: A West Coast Jewish household. But we were of the enlightened era of Norman Lear and Neil Simon. My parents went through est, and so everything was cool. L.A. Jews might as well be Presbyterian because they’re very assimilated. We never really observed any rituals. My father was from Arizona, his folks were cowboys and ranchers, and my mom’s from New York, so we were very assimilated.

High Times: When you started on TV did they say you should get your nose fixed?

Newman: No one ever said that to me because it wasn’t expected of me. When people talk about the casting couch, obviously it’s something I’ve never known, I mean, it’s just never come up.

High Times: Is your mother upset you don’t go out on Saturday night anymore?

Newman: I never went on a date in my life.

High Times: Never?

Newman: No… oh, I went on one date. It was a blind date, I was set up. This guy had been told that I looked like a model, which was a euphemism for being real skinny. And my mother tells me, “You’re not answering the door, you wait five minutes before coming to the door.” When the guy arrived my mom could not restrain herself from humming “Here She Comes, Miss America,” and the guy’s jaw dropped when he saw what I looked like.

First of all I had very bad acne, I was very thin. My nose was always this size no matter what size I was. My hair was kinky. It’s not just a matter of my thinking I was ugly, I was ugly. And I never went on another date, but I never suffered because I didn’t know what I was missing. But I’ve always known what it’s like to be very close to a man—I have a twin brother, and we shared the same thoughts by ESP when we were kids.

High Times: Are there any women comedians that you admire or try to emulate?

Newman: I never emulated anybody. I didn’t like Lily Tomlin’s early stuff on Laugh-In as the little kid and the operator, but I liked her later stuff, and I grew to see what was so extraordinary about it. I admire Lily tremendously now. I saw her show in New York and again in L.A. It was not only different—new material, new characters—it was improved, and to any comedian, to see that is overwhelming. And I admire Madeline Kahn.

There’s also a comedian no one knows of named Valerie Bromfield. She used to be Dan Aykroyd’s partner in Canada. Valerie was in Second City with Gilda, and she was in the Lily special with us. She’s influenced all of us, and unbeknownst even to us, we’ve probably stolen from her many times. She’s absolutely brilliant.

High Times: Do you feel women’s humor was self-deprecating in the past?

Newman: Some of it. Not so much Imogene Coca, but Phyllis Diller did do material about going to a hair dresser and asking for an estimate. But her humor was basically what it was like to be a housewife, which was fine for me.

Joan Rivers was definitely self-deprecating, and I don’t buy it. I don’t like it at all. She can be very funny, and, from what I’ve heard from people who saw her in the early days in the Village, she wasn’t always like that; she was unique at one time and quite wonderful. I don’t want to say she sold out, but there was obviously something that she did to become more commercial and to get more gigs in Vegas, I suppose. Because from then on it was the “my wife, my face” jokes.

High Times: Do you think the Lucille Ball character was more progressive because she rebelled against her husband, or was it still a “dizzy dame” stereotype?

Newman: It was still dizzy dame. Although I don’t mean to take anything away from Lucille Ball, it was still like I Married Joan. The plot was perpetuated by the stupidity and oversight of the people involved, which I always found kind of irritating. Sometimes it was funny, other times it was just irritating.

High Times: Do you think women are funnier than men?

Newman: I think what’s funny is funny.

High Times: Does humor have sex—are there men jokes and women jokes?

Newman: Yes, there definitely are. Obviously, if we do a scene on our show where women are discussing their menstrual cycle, women laugh for one reason and men laugh for a different reason. So you might get laughs unanimously but for different reasons. There is such a thing as women’s humor, but ultimately if you’re trying for a statement it’s not going to be funny.

High Times: Is there any sexual tension on the show, not in terms of let’s-go-to-bed sexual tension, but say, will Belushi feel threatened if you’re funnier than he is?

Newman: I don’t know, but Belushi wanted to come here with me today, and I said, “You upstage me and I’ll stick a knife in your lungs.” The guys are all different. Danny is very benevolent and yielding and understands because he used to be partners with Valerie. So he’s seen how excellent women can be, and he has the proper respect for them. The other guys, I’ve rarely seen them laugh at what we do.

High Times: Did you ever want to kick one of the guys in the balls?

Newman: Sure, I’ve gotten mad at all of them at one time or another. Just basically because they have not acknowledged or validated me at a time when it was necessary.

High Times: What’s it like being a successful woman in a male-dominated industry?

Newman: It’s unique, and at times I think women can get away with murder because of the uniqueness of it. Women who might be mediocre are considered more unique than they really are just because they are in a unique field for their sex. But for me, what it’s like is, it’s just my life.

High Times: Do the writers take the men on the show more seriously than the women?

Newman: Men in the writers’ meeting are louder than the women, and men generally tend to get up and talk, and the progesterone element can get up and perform, whereas the estrogen element would sort of say, “Well, I have this concept for… umm…” y’know, but it’s not a matter of taking anyone more seriously, it’s just whose voice is louder.

High Times: Do you do any writing for the show?

Newman: I’ve done some, but I’m not very prolific. A lot of times I get my material through improvising, though I really haven’t had a chance to improvise that much. It’s been hard for me to come up with new characters, which means I appear less in new things, and I’d definitely like to appear more.

High Times: If you had a half hour on the show, all by yourself, what would you do?

Newman: I have a couple of pieces that are already written and that are very prime and could be done. Like a piece I wrote for Titters about a model named Alice who wants more than anything to have men think she’s intelligent, but she’s not, and so everything in her life is completely dramatized. Like in the monologue when she says, “I tried to kill myself,” she means she took the hot pot off the stove without using a pot holder and dropped it on her feet and burned her hands and feet… this is her attempted suicide.

High Times: Ever want to do serious acting? Ever want to make people cry?

Newman: Well, in American Hot Wax I’m not doing a comedy role; I don’t get one laugh in that movie as a matter of fact.

High Times: How does the experience of working in a movie compare to working on TV?

Newman: Well, this particular experience was probably atypical because we improvised the movie. On the weekend the director, Floyd Mutrux, would call me up and say, “I want you to think about this.” So I write out this entire scene and I show it to him, and he’d say, “Say this,” and it was ultimately his lines. I had some scenes with Tim Mclntire, who plays the pioneer rock DJ Alan Freed. Mostly I appear with the four singers who play the Chesterfields, and they’re not actors, so it was on my shoulders to carry the scenes.

High Times: Does the movie take a sympathetic attitude to Freed, even though he was eventually arrested for payola?

Newman: Definitely sympathetic, yes. Evidently he was quite an altruistic fellow, he really wanted to bring rock ’n’ roll to the kids. It was the first thing that they had that was their own. And he would get his own play list, and it was usually black artists. But he was hassled because songs like “Tutti Frutti,” “Sixty-Minute Man” and “Rubber Biscuit” and all those songs were considered to be about prostitution and drugs and sex.

High Times: Since your boyfriend is the rock star Andrew Gold, you must have some insight into what goes on behind the scenes in the music industry. Is corruption more rampant today than in Freed’s time?

Newman: I don’t know, really. I do know there are a lot of forms and contracts that are specific now, that prevent any form of payola. But I’m sure other forms of it go on, whether it’s like, “Come on, I’ve got some lines laid out on this album,” or something else. I’m really not that familiar with it.

High Times: Who are your favorite rock musicians besides Andrew Gold?

Newman: I like Elvis Costello, LTD, Peter Gabriel…

High Times: How about punk rock?

Newman: I’ve heard the Sex Pistols, and they’re okay. But I think some of these guys in punk rock are really medium talents, and they’ve just gotten onto a good gig.

High Times: How do you keep so skinny?

Newman: I’ve been thin all my life, and when I first came to New York I lost about 10 pounds. I used to weigh 108, so actually I lost 15. I fluctuate between 90 and 95 pounds. If I have tremendous anxiety my stomach will be upset and I won’t eat. Or if I do a lot of enthusiasm drugs it will make me not eat. But I don’t do that as a habit, I mean it’s not what keeps me thin.

High Times: Any sports you’re into?

Newman: I do exercises at home, I do an hour ritual. I lift weights.

High Times: You lift weights? How much do you press?

Newman: Three pounds on each baby! I’m in very good shape. It was always a matter of macho because I was always short and always thin, so people assumed that I was sickly and weak. But while everyone else in the commune was humping, I was pumping.

High Times: If you were stuck on a desert island, who and what would you want to be stuck with?

Newman: My record player and all my records, enough contact-lens cleaner to last me my entire life and either Andrew Gold or Clint Eastwood.

High Times: Have you mentioned this to Clint? You could lift weights together.

Newman: No, I haven’t, but that’s a good idea.

High Times: Have you ever traveled to any interesting places?

Newman: I love all the places I’ve been to except Philadelphia. As W.C. Fields said, “On the whole I’d rather be…”

High Times: How do you want to go when you die?

Newman: I’d like to die in my sleep. I hate pain…

High Times: Do you have any religious beliefs?

Newman: Yeah, but they’re so ambiguous. I’m basically superstitious more than anything else. I’m telling you, every dandelion, every eyelash that comes out, every turkey wishbone, I’m there.

And I have immediate karma; if I do something bad I am immediately repaid. And my bad karma dividends come back at me at the worst times in my life. Something bad happens to me, like during the Emmy nominations. Gilda and Jane were nominated and I wasn’t, which was devastating, and the next day I got shit on my head by a bird.

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