Laraine Newman: More Than Ready for Prime Time

Having now already written about all of the other original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, completion mania demands that I give attention to Laraine Newman (b. 1952). Not that it’s a chore! I have always been a fan. It’s only that, in an outcome that would have surprised anyone in the late ’70s had you been able to tell them the future, Newman’s career has wound up lagging far behind those of all her fellow cast members. Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and (to a lesser extent) Gilda Radner were all movie stars (and Radner had two hit Broadway shows). Chase, as well as Jane Curtin and Garret Morris went on to further success in television. But Newman, though she has worked almost constantly since Saturday Night Live went off the air in 1980, has done so almost anonymously. She did not continue to be a star; instead she got swallowed up, and almost instantly.

This is surprising, because she seemed to be a peer of all of her SNL cohorts in all respects. She was just as funny, just as talented, just as engaging. In some respects, more so. I was between the ages of ten and 15 during her SNL years. As the show’s token hot female I assure you she commanded my undivided attention. I reiterate, though, she was funny. But she also had that niche among the cast, meaning there was ALWAYS a role for her in sketches. Curtin and Radner got all the cuckoos, cranks and crones. But if there was a model, a stewardess, a secretary, a bimbo, a hooker, a teenage girl, a lady reporter, a Hollywood starlet, or that sort of thing in a sketch, Newman always got that part. And this is comedy — so there were ALWAYS those roles. And this was the ’70s! So there was always some vapid disco bunny or porn actress for her to play. That wasn’t her only niche. She was the only cast member from the L.A. scene. She added that voice, which was very au courant at the time. She was one of the first comediennes (maybe the first) to do a Valley Girl character. Her star quality was not unlike that of Veronica Lake’s. Yet (to employ a Gilligan’s Island analogy), though she was Tina Louise, she wound up “…and the rest”.

Though she was a founding member of the Groundlings, and had worked with Lorne Michaels before, Newman was a little bit of an outsider. Like Jane Curtin and Garret Morris, and unlike the rest of the cast and most of the writers, she was not from the Second City/ National Lampoon/ Toronto/ Chicago/ Greenwich Village axis. But Curtin and Morris were older than Newman by several years. They were comfortable in their skins; they had the confidence that came with experience. Newman was only 23 when the show launched, younger than everyone else on the show. Behind the scenes, it seemed to combine with her outsider status to alienate her. Like many others on the show, she did drugs. But she developed a problem that was worse than that of others on the show. She became addicted to heroin, in addition to being anorexic. And she withdrew into herself, famously playing solitaire in her dressing room while her colleagues were bonding.

When the show went off the air in 1980, in contrast with most of her castmates, she fell off the face of the earth. She did almost nothing in 1981 aside from a few talk show appearances. In 1982 she was the female lead in Wholly Moses! an interesting artifact that unfortunately flopped, which we wrote about here. In 1985 she had good parts in Perfect and Invaders from Mars. In 1993 she resurrected her SNL role in the Coneheads movie. Mostly she did (and does) guest shots on network TV shows and voice-overs in animated films and kid’s shows. As I said, she works constantly (I should get such work!) but she didn’t get what MIGHT have been hers. Where’s her starring sitcom? Where’s her big on-camera role in a major Hollywood film? Ya know how Andrea Martin played the mom on Difficult People? THAT’s what this fan wants for Laraine Newman. She’s a comic talent. She deserves it, and so does the audience.

[Postscript 2021: I kind of got my wish. Newman’s daughter Hannah Einbinder co-stars on HBO’s Hacks, and she is terrific! So that’s 50% of Newman’s DNA respresentin’ right there]