Location: Los Angeles, CA
Marital Status: Divorced
Education: University of Arizona in Tuscon, left to pursue folksinging
It sounds like a joke—why did the Emmy-award winning FOF leave her burgeoning career as a television writer to sing songs about waffles? “I’m 68,” says Tracy Newman. “I was 62 then and felt like I had to go back to what I really wanna do.”
What she really wanted to do was become a folksinger. In her teens, Tracy would sit “on the diving board of her family’s pool strumming for hours” and “began playing on street corners for money” according to her personal website.
But Tracy took a detour from music in the 70s, when she started doing improv and joined The Groundlings, a legendary troupe which counts many famous comedians among its alumni. There, she met her writing partner, Jonathan Stark; the two would go on to work on sitcoms including Cheers, The Nanny, Ellen, and According to Jim. In 1997, they won the Emmy and the prestigious Peabody Award for writing the groundbreaking ‘coming out’ episode of Ellen.
In 2005, Tracy left television writing to return to folksinging. It may seem like a funny career move, but Tracy Newman has the last laugh. This past spring her song “Waffle Boy” took first place in the Indie International contest and her album “A Place in the Sun” ranked number 1 on the Roots Music Report’s Pop Country chart.
Where did you grow up?
And you still live there?
You got your big TV break in your 40s. What did you do before then?
I was a singer-songwriter, but it was hard to make a living that way, so I did other odd jobs—nursery school teacher, dental assistant, taught guitar lessons. I never waitressed.
How did you learn music?
I just started playing guitar when I was 14.
How did you get into comedy?
In the 60s (I was in my early twenties), I went to New York for a few years. I used to hang out at The Original Improv [comedy club]. I was probably the only singer-songwriter who hung around, so I got to sing there. I sang Beatles songs and got to be around all these comics—people like Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor and Rodney Dangerfield. Some of them were already well-known, and some were just starting out. They were all so good and they all improvised. When I came back to L.A., I wanted to do something like that. So I discovered this class—a bunch of people that got together and improvised. It eventually became The Groundlings.
What was The Groundlings like in its infancy?
It wasn’t what it is today, with industry people attending every show. It was just a class. But still, so many people wanted to join and you had to wait to get in. It got so big that at one point, Lorne Michaels offered parts on (the newly-created) Saturday Night Live to a couple of people there and they turned it down!
How did you segue from The Groundlings to TV writing?
In The Groundlings, sketches would be developed through improvisation, and then we’d rewrite them. Some sketches and characters would be in the show every week, and some would last years. I found that I really enjoyed that part of it—rewriting and helping people develop characters. When I got married and had a child I realized had to find something that didn’t keep me away from the house so much and could bring in good money. I had watched some of the other Groundlings drift into writing. So when a friend asked me if I wanted to write a spec script, I agreed. And as soon as we started writing, I realized, “This is for me.”
What was the first writing gig you got?
We wrote a Murphy Brown spec, and from that Cheers [producers] hired us. My friend Jonathan Stark was my writing partner for around 15 years.
And from Cheers to Ellen?
We did Cheers, then Bob, which was Bob Newhart, then we did The Nanny and various other shows that didn’t make it. We ended up on Ellen and were there for five seasons. We were lucky enough to write the “coming out” episode. After that, we could do whatever we wanted. We did a show called Hiller and Diller starring Richard Lewis and Kevin Nealon and Eugene Levy. We got the chance to be in charge of the show, but not have the responsibility for creating it, in front of the critics. That was really fun, but it didn’t stay on the air for more than thirteen episodes.
But eventually you created According to Jim.
After Hiller and Diller, we worked on several pilots and other shows, and finally we created According to Jim, and they pulled us back in. That was very fortunate—it ran for eight seasons. I left in 2005 or so to go back to songwriting.
How is writing songs similar to writing television?
Writing is writing. The only difference is, instead of writing 22 minutes, now I’m writing four minutes. Instead of writing for TV, where you have all kinds of people looking over your shoulder, now I’m my own boss. And I’m a much tougher boss on myself than anybody was on me. I won’t sing anything where I don’t know there’s a payoff, that won’t reward people for listening.
Which comes first, the words or the music?
I think the words.
Are there particular themes you write about?
I tend towards writing funny songs. I like to call it irony. I try to tell the truth, whatever that is. I try to find the core of something that’s very honest, that maybe everyone has gone through, and to say it in a different way than what’s been done before. My lyrics are very visual. I have a song called Waffle Boy about a kid learning how to make waffles in a waffle house.
How’d you cook that up?
I was at a waffle house and I saw the interplay between two of the workers there. As I was watching them, I just started writing things down. I knew I was going to write a song someday about it, and it took about a year. It’s a pretty intricately-structured story.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I get up with the typical aches and pains of someone my age. Then a good half hour is devoted to making sure that I’m not gonna suffer for the rest of the day, which sometimes means stretching, sometimes means going for a walk. And then I’m at the computer, with my guitar.
How do you look at stuff you wrote years ago, when you were just starting to write music?
Some of it, I look at, and I can’t believe I was ever there, mentally. It’s so stupid. And some of it, I’m shocked. I’ll look at it and think, ‘Wow, this was so insightful.’ Or it will have a form to it that I’ve learned recently. Once you understand rewriting, you learn that nothing’s sacred. You can go back to something you wrote 30 years ago even, just the germ of an idea, and get back into it, and all of a sudden the day goes by, just working on it.
Did you ever have times of doubt, having left such a successful TV career to go back to music?
Yes, sometimes I thought, ‘What am I doing, leaving a successful television show?’ I was scared to get back into it. I had to practice guitar a lot; my chops were rusty. And then I realized, “I’m as good as I can be today, and I’m just gonna assume that’s good enough, and keep working at getting better.” It seemed more important that I was doing what I wanted to do.
What would you tell someone who is looking to change careers in middle age or older, in the way of encouragement?
My first TV staff writing job was when I was 46. I like to tell people that, because I think there are people in their thirties who think they’re never gonna get their career going. It’s too late, or they’re too old. Most of the time, you’re not too old. If I was worried about where this was going, I wouldn’t be able to do it. A lot of people use time as an excuse. The say, ‘I’m a single mom. I have three kids…’ But if you’re passionate about something, you will put some time into that.
Who inspires you?
James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell. People like that from the 60s. Jackson Browne in the 70s. I’ve definitely been in the singer-songwriter direction the entire time. I have my own style of playing based on Taylor and Dylan.
What is your favorite restaurant in L.A.?
The Counter. If I’m gonna go out and have a hamburger, which I’d rather eat than anything, I’ll go to The Counter. For sushi, California Roll & Sushi Fish in Larchmont (California).
Where is your favorite place to shop in L.A.?
The Grove. It’s Disneyland for adults.
Is there a doctor in L.A. you could recommend?
Jay Schapira. I love that guy. He sits and talks to me. A menschy, good guy.
What is your favorite secret place in L.A.?
My house. I make it as much like a vacation place as I can.
class=”question”Which current TV shows do you enjoy?
Big Love, Nurse Jackie, The Office.
Read any good books lately?
I just finished reading all the Twilight books. They’re terrible, but the story is so good.
How do you rejuvenate?
I try to take a nap every day.