AICN’s own “Capone” got hold of Laraine Newman, one of the five surviving cast members of the original “Saturday Night Live” (and Michael O’Donoghue’s favorite) to discuss Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season, which finally hits DVD today!
Here’s our man closest to Joliet:
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. Sometimes I can anticipate certain interviews I may get offered, and sometimes they just drop out of the sky like a little unexpected slice of heaven. I don't do many DVD reviews or television-related interviews, so when I received a call inquiring whether I was interested in talking to original "Saturday Night Live" cast member Laraine Newman, I was a little taken aback, I'll admit. But why wouldn't I want a chance to talk to Newman. She's a part of television history, and the prospect of Universal actually releasing entire seasons of SNL on DVD is more exciting than words can explain. The music clearances must have been a nightmare, but I hope they keep putting these out because I'd buy every season, even the shitty ones just for the music acts. Anyway, Laraine is a woman who loves talking about he role on the show, and that's exactly what we did. Enjoy...
Capone: Thank you so much for doing this. It's a real honor.
Laraine Newman: Oh heck.
C: I've avoided over the years ever buying any of the "SNL" collections that have been centered around various hosts or cast members because I was hoping something like this would be released.
LN: Yeah, this is pretty unique in that it's showing sketches that really haven't been seen in 30 years.
C: The prospect of being able to watch entire shows, entire seasons, opens up a whole new set of sketches and musicians that people haven't seen since they first aired. Are there any moments from that first season that pop into your head that maybe never made the standard clips shows or previous DVD releases that you are glad people are finally going to get to see again.
LN: I haven't had a chance to watch all of them, because I just got them yesterday. But of what I've seen so far, there was a commercial parody [from the first episode] written by Michael O'Donoghue called "Triopenin," which was a arthritis medication. And it was just a shot of Chevy [Chase]'s hands, and it describes the symptoms of arthritis, and his hands are indicating the pain in the joints. Then they have the product Triopenin, and this was just at the beginning of childproof caps, so everybody knew that they were hard as hell to get off. And it just shows his hands. People just don't realize how funny he could be with just his hands, and it shows him trying to open it. And the final tag, you see the image of the bottle that's been broken open. Things like that I've never seen since they first aired.
C: Hearing you describe it, I absolutely remember that bit because my father used to tape all the old episodes, and somehow he got this copy of the first show with George Carlin hosting, so I've seen that one a dozen times at least.
LN: There's other fun stuff. I watched that George Carlin show, the very first show. And when we needed extras...there was a courtroom scene, and Richard Belzer is one of the people in the jury box. And we all knew him from Lampoon albums and from doing stand-up, and it was fun to see who's an extra.
C: This is really our first chance also to get a sense of the flow and pacing of these shows, and it was more than just sketches and musical guests. There were short films, comedians like Andy Kaufman.
LN: Those short films by Albert Brooks are absolutely fantastic. I was familiar with his stuff from seeing a short that he did about a school for comedy, which was absolutely brilliant. It shows him giving a tour of it, and he's passing a room where it's just a class on spit-takes [Sounds familiar to fans of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"?]. And these people were sitting at desks with glasses of water, and the teacher would say things like "I wrecked the car," and then comes the spit-take. His stuff was so on target, and one of the things he did on our show, I think it was the Rob Reiner show. And Rob and Albert went to Beverly Hills High School together, so it was exciting for Rob to introduce Albert. But he did a thing on coming attractions for new TV shows, I think it was called the Super Season. And it showed things like what eventually became "Three's Company" called "The Three of Us," you know, a guy wanted a menage a trois was living in an apartment with two girls, and every scene you see him trying to get the other girl to come into bed with them. There was also a Hallmark-like show where they had children doing a production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN. There was a show called "Black Vet," where it was a black Vietnam vet who was a veterinarian. You know how at the time, in commercials for shows, they would show people laughing together apropos of nothing? that kind of joviality. It showed a scene of the guy laughing with a horse. So brilliant.
C: The characters that you tended play, the writers always seemed to take advantage of your California roots by playing the laid-back person or a more ditsy character. Did you have to fight to have your voice on the show initially?
LN: I think everybody felt they did, and I certainly felt that. The valley girl character that I did in "Godfather Group Therapy," that whole speech was from a character I did with the Groudlings and that whole monologue was one she did. But it was a sensibility at a time that I don't think others could write for that character, they had a tough time. I was used to writing monologues, but I wasn't used to writing sketches, so it was hard for me to be effective on my own behalf and get my characters into sketches. I was happy to have whatever I had, so the times they tried to accommodate existing characters that I had, I was very grateful. But I certainly loved the stuff that they wrote for me that I was able to do.
C: What was it that you brought to the mix that you feel none of the other cast members did?
LN: Well I think everybody there was equipped to do just that kind of work. I definitely was their character utility person, as was Danny [Ackroyd]. The problem for both of us was that we tended to disappear because of it. But I think you offer your own perspective. Gilda [Radner] did a very mainstream comedy, slapstick and physical. Mine was very idiosyncratic and specific. Jane [Curtin], people didn't really know the gallows humor that she had. They never really knew how to give her a chance to do that, but later on, when Bob Newhart hosted our show--and hopefully all that will come out--we did a "Dating Game" and she played a dominatrix. And it was so perfect.
C: When you say that you and Dan Ackroyd would disappear, are you talking about in a chameleon-like way, so much so that people may not realize what you were like as normal people?
LN: We weren't personalities. Jane and Gilda were personalities, and so were John [Belushi] and Chevy.
C: But you and Ackroyd, I always remember, both shared a gift for doing voices, regional accents, upper- and lower-class dialects. Is that something you've always been good at?
LN: I've just always been fascinated with dialects. I grew up in Westwood Village, which is a college town, and so my friend Julianne's mother was a Boston Brahmin, who would pronounce the 'h' in words like "Whhhat!" and "Whhhen!" and "Whhhite!" And my other friend's parents were from West Virginia. I also had very bad eyesight, so I think my hearing was very acute. But I've always loved, and continue to love, dialect. In my neighborhoods, there are a lot of South Africans, so for my own edification--I have nowhere to apply it--but for fun, I do it the accents alone in my car. Or I do my do impersonations of my daughter's teacher in Hebrew school, who's Israeli.
C: But you still do a fair amount of voice work in animated productions, right?
LN: Yes, I get to do it a lot in animation. And it's really fun. For "Wild Thornberries" I got to pull out my pathetic Scottish accent. That was fun. Not necessarily dialects, but characters and children.
C: In looking through the list of hosts in the first season of "SNL," one sketch that came to mind as one of my favorites you were in was when Madeline Kahn hosting, when all the women...
LN: The slumber party!
C: That's the one. That's a great sketch. Tell me something about that one.
LN: That's Marilyn Miller, her writing. She also wrote the Judy Miller stuff for Gilda, the hyperactive kids who's a Brownie. And she did, when Mary Kay Place hosted our show, she did a sketch called "Married in a Minute," and it was three bachelorettes trying to get married. Her stuff was very idiosyncratic, very specific, very funny. She wrote the song I did as Barbra Streisand called "Me." I was hanging around in her office, and I said, "God, one of her movies tanked." I think it was A STAR IS BORN, but I said to her, "Even if it tanks it makes money." So one of the lyrics in the songs, for which I had the distinction of saying "sucks" on the air before anybody did, was "Even if one of my films sucks/It still makes four million bucks." That's all Marilyn.
C: Remember the female cast members, was their more of a camaraderie or a bond?
LN: It was both. We all shared one dressing room until the thirds or fourth season, unlike the boys who each had their own room. So we were bonded, but we also were very competitive, but not in a snarky way. The difficulties that each of us had, we were dismayed on behalf of the others, but we really couldn't do anything about it. I think I suffered the worse, or at least I felt that I did, because Gilda was obviously the breakout star and Jane had "Weekend Update." So I was sort of struggling for everything I got. But I always sensed that I got emotional support from them.
C: Of course, getting to see the episodes in their entirely, we talked before about people rediscovered great lost sketches. But the flipside to that is that may be a few moments that nobody wants to be remembered. Were there any you remember that you wish had been lost in the vacuum of time?
LN: I can't even say that yet, because the general feeling was always, "You people never have endings." That's true, and they still suffer from that. The show still has that problem. It's a crap shoot, especially when it's the third show of the month, and everybody is so burnt out. Those shows really suffered. But yeah, when you see these you'll definitely seen sketches and go, "I can see why that sketch was never seen again. That was completely underwhelming."
C: Did you have any favorite hosts?
LN: Steve Martin was always a good host. Buck Henry was always good, because his personality was such that he become a player and not a star. Also Richard Pryor was one of our greatest hosts. It's funny when you watch these, you'll see progression of really trying to solidify the show's pace and style. A lot of the first show is George Carlin's stand-up, and it is with Robert Klein too. But slowly you can see that the best hosts were those who could do sketches. And even when we had people who were against type. If there acting persona was specific, it was a revelation to see them in sketches doing something completely against type.
C: One of the most exciting aspects of seeing these DVDs is seeing the musical performances, which have probably been seen even less throughout history than the sketches. That's the one "SNL" product that I do own, is that five-disc set of just music performances. The show was always one of the greatest American showcases for live music. Was there much co-mingling between the actors and musicians, especially during that first season where things seemed much more egalitarian.
LN: Hardly every, except when the Rolling Stones were there. No there wasn't really, because their rehearsal time was different than our time to be at the studio, and we only encountered them the day of the show. So there was never a chance to hang with the musicians during the week, unless there was a previous friendship.
C: Were there any cast members that you liked working with the most?
LN: As trite as it sounds, I really liked working with everybody. I really depended on the material, more than anything else, what kind of fun you had.
C: Maybe the better question would be, were there any particular writers you liked working with?
LN: I like everybody's style. The stuff I ended up appearing in the most were written by Tom Schiller or Michael O'Donoghue or Rosie Schuster and Anne Beats. They were really the writers whose style was more conducive to the kind of things that I could do or be allowed to do. Even though I would have loved to have been in everybody's sketches. Alan Zweibel is a really funny writer, but he really favored Gilda as one of the women in his sketches. I didn't get a chance to be in a lot of his stuff.
C: Do you know if the powers that be are planned to continue to release all of the season now that they've gotten to ball rolling?
LN: They haven't told me, but I can't imagine they wouldn't. It's hard to predict, because I could never have predicted that the show would have gone on this long, or that there would be any interest in the first five years, because when you see the shows, you'll see how dated they are. They reflect the Ford administration, the Reagan administration, and lot of the then-current things. Even our commercial parodies reflect the commercials that existed at that time, so for young people they have absolutely no context for them, unless they were unto themselves. If there was someway to get our hands on some of the commercials we were parodying, that would give it context.
C: I guess that would be ideal, if we could watch these shows with their original commercials. That's always fun. Well, thank you again. This was fun.
LN: Thank you, I really enjoyed it.