Now focused intently on her singer/songwriter career, Tracy and her charming band, the Reinforcements -- Gene Lippman (back-up vocals, guitar), Rebecca Leigh (back-up vocals) -- are performing tonight at an art opening for her daughter Charlotte Dean's at the Talking Stick in Venice, CA. Joining mother and daughter is Tracy's rather famous sister, Laraine Newman, who will be reading from her forthcoming memoir.
Tracy's renewed singer/songwriter career is no mere vanity exercise. In April, her witty “Fire Up the Weed” won first place (special music category) in the Great American Song Contest. And, following that success, her song “Waffle Boy” recently took first place in the folk category of the Indie International Songwriting Contest.
Tracy began life as an upper middle class kid in L.A. who became enamored of the purity and simplicity of folk music in the transitional and turbulent late '50s. She'd sit on the diving board of her family's swimming pool, strumming earnestly while Tom Dooley hung down his head in anticipation of societal retribution. Those were heady days.
When college called, Tracy wandered through the desert to the University of Arizona in Tucson where folkishness was rampant, but soon the allure of strumming and singing on sandy street corners for cash and approbation superceded the pursuit of erudition. She wasn't writing songs yet, but when people like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell became prominent "we realized we could write," she says with a chuckle.
She spent "about a minute" in The New Christie Minstrels before heading to THE folk music scene in New York in 1964 to become a folk music star and wound up with an opening act/MC gig at the legendary Bitter End for two years, complete with proletariat-empathy garb. She also hung out at Budd Friedman's original Improv, grooving with Richard Pryor, Rodney Dangerfield, Lily Tomlin and the like.
Newman returned to Los Angeles and "sort-of quit show biz" before she took an improv class from Gary Austin, with whom she eventually went on to form The Groundlings. "We built The Groundlings theater on Melrose, and the rest is history," she says.
Tracy taught, directed, and MC'd with The Groundlings for 15 years, nurturing and developing an astonishing array of talent, including her sister, Laraine Newman, who was the first Groundling recruited by Lorne Michaels for Saturday Night Live. Other SNL/Groundlings include Phil Hartmann, Jon Lovitz, Julia Sweeney, Will Ferrell, Will Forte, Kristen Wigg, and Chris Kattan.
"Having spent the time in New York MCing and hanging around The Improv, I was so aware of being in the company of people who were the future of comedy," she says. "And then Saturday Night Live started [in '75] and we became a farm team for them."
How did that impact you? "For me, I was teaching, directing, and MCing there and not performing very much and I didn't feel jealous or competitive with the performers like my sister Laraine because I had a different role. I was more like a facilitator. I was good at creating an envoronment where people weren't afraid, because with improv, that's what it's all about."
"It wasn't until I got back into being a singer/songwriter that I became competitive: 'Why were you picked for that work? I'm here, too!"
Were you an owner of The Groundlings? "No, I probably should have been. There is no owner - it's a non-profit. They pay $10k a month to rent that building, now. When I was there we could have bought that building for $160k - we just didn't have the foresight."
"What I was doing in The Groundlings was a lot of rewriting, creating sketches, then rewriting them. At some point I looked at what I was doing for free and said, 'Wait a minute, this is what comedy television is: they get an idea, they write a script, then they rewrite it until they get it perfect before you actually shoot it.'
"So to move from writing for The Groundlings to writing for sitcoms was kind of a move sideways - you're doing that work already. It's like going to SNL from The Groundlings: sure, there's more pressure, but you're dong the same things you were doing before, creating characters and bringing them to life"
What was the specific step from The Groundlings into TV? "I had met a very funny improvisor named Jonathan Stark and we wrote some spec scripts and got our first job with Cheers. When your first job is a show that successful, you keep working. We got better and better and worked more and more - we never stopped working. After Cheers we worked on the Bob Newhart series AFTER The Bob Newhart Show, called Bob.
"We were on The Nanny for a year, The Drew Carey Show, Ellen for about five seasons. We wrote the 'coming out' episode for Ellen and won the Emmy and Peabody Award for that episode. After that, you kind of write your own ticket."
Were you ever suprised by your level of success? "My philosophy has always been the only way to fail is to quit. It's the same thing as writing a song: if you stop working on it, it won't write itself. My feeling about television was 'I have this funny partner, and I can be funny too, and I know how to write a story, we know some people in the business, and we're just going to keep writing specs until we get a job.'"
When you're going from show to show, how much do you have to modify your approach? "You don't - it's always the same job. Pay attention to who the characters are. There are some sitcom writers who are pure joke writers, but most of us are story tellers who can write a funny exchange between two strong characters. You're writing character-driven dialogue. If it's funny, then, good."
You get rich and famous! "I don't know about famous, but you can get pretty rich. Creating a show is the lottery. We created According to Jim, with Jim Belushi, in 2001, which ran for eight seasons, and you know, the creator always gets paid, forever. That put me in a position to 'do whatever I want.'
"That's how you can be 'older' and go sing in coffee houses and there's three people there. It's essentially starting over again entirely, except that I did have the skill of singing and playing and I had been writing songs all along. I put a lot of songs in the shows I was writing for including Ellen and Jim. I even wrote the theme song for a show that was on for one year, Hiller and Diller (Richard Lewis and Kevin Nealon).
"After about the third season of Jim, we had a great staff, they didn't much need me anymore, Jon stayed on, but I looked at my situation and I was divorced, my daughter [Charlotte] was grown, in her early 20s, and I realized I just didn't have to go to a 9-to-5 job -- well, really 10-to-midnight -- anymore. I started practicing singing and playing, then left television and instead of writing 22-minute stories, I was write 3 or 4-minute stories.
"So that was 2005, I've been at it for a while again, and we are very active, playing around three shows a week at the coffee houses around L.A. It's like a real job, and I don't really have any other responsibilities. It's a great position to be in. I'm still healthy and strong and achievement oriented. My first CD, A Place in the Sun, came out in '07 and now I'm working on another one - it's a pretty great life."