Funnyman Fred Newman Makes Some Noise
Garrison Keillor brings his Prairie Home Companion style show to Richmond at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. Among the cast members appearing with Keillor is sound-effects man Fred Newman. WCVE's Dan Rosenthal spoke with Newman who revealed that he had a learning disability he didn't have a name for until college.
Newman: Dyslexia. I mean I didn't know that everyone didn't learn to read with pictures. I was in third grade before I really was able to read and I couldn't--you know the words were just confusing. And I remember the word 'book' had two eyes and bookends on either side; and 'look' had the two eyes in it. An infamous big word that I could never get was 'squirrel' and I saw the squirrel's tail in the 's'; and saw had a 'w' in it. So, every single word had a picture for me. And, then I finally got with the phonics of it and it's sort of ironic now that I do a public television show called "Between the Lions" where I teach phonics to kids.
How has dyslexia changed what you do professionally?
Newman: It's pretty much everything I do. Because the gift of it--my particular kind is that I have very little working memory. Like RAM in a computer, I have a fine hard drive and a fine processing speed, but I don't have much work memory, so I can't memorize anything, which is fantastic for music, for comedy, for improvization. It's great and it works out that something like "Prairie Home Companion" is--that's perfect for me. Garrison is constantly improving and so when he's throwing out sounds and making up penguins on fire jumping out of an airplanes, that's my strength.
You're a graduate of the Harvard Business School. I don't suppose there were many classes there on sound effects.
Newman: No. You know there was just a classic moment that happened there that I got called on by a finance professor that took present the case; and if you can't lay out the case, then you fail the course. I'd been out the night before and didn't prep, and I normally did; but, I didn't. And, so I just--the finance professor was on the board of IBM and just very serious guy with a little thin tie--said, 'Newman, lay out the case.' I got up and I held my hands out and fluttered them like wings and I went "bzzzzzzzz....", and got up and flew around the room and then stuck on the back wall, like a fly. And, he started stuttering. He did not know where to place that. He had no idea. And, he went on and called on someone else and after class (I peeled myself off the wall) and sat down; and after class I went up to him and said, "Sorry about that, I wasn't prepared. I wish there was some way I could make it up." And he said, "I thought that was a very creative solution." And I actually did pass the course.
You worked at Newsweek after college. And, is it true that you told your boss you were going to the men's room, but you accidentally found yourself at an audition at the David Letterman Show?
Newman: That's exactly right.
Newman: Well, I said that, you know, I knew I had his audition to go on the Letterman Show, told my boss I was going to the john. Went over there, did an audition and, you know, (old horn sound, other sound effects) and do all these things and he said come on the show. [I] come back to the office and I told my boss that I was going to resign from Newsweek, because I figured like if he'll let me come on then I've got-I can do something else, besides just be an office workert here. And he looked at me and said, "What happened in the men's room?" Like I'd had some epiphany. I guess I probably did.
You've certainly got an impressive resume. You've worked with Jim Henson and the Muppets voices and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit;" the Disney series "Doug", where you did a couple of characters; "Men in Black" and you mentioned your phonics work on the PBS series "Between the Lions" where you've won two Emmys for writing. How in the world do you have time to go out on the road and hit fifty cities with Garrison Keillor this summer?
Newman: All that might sound impressive, but, it's just a guy pulling a scam. You know it's just a guy talking, you know. And, I am doing what I used to do sometimes behind teachers' backs. You know, this is, of all the things that I've ever done, working with Garrison is Barbie's dream job. The people that he has--there's this little clock work and also sort of a little crucible of musicians, that everyone is in just top form. That they can play anything, that they just keep getting better and they turn on a dime. If Garrison says a word differently, if I do a sound effect differently, the music underscore from Rich Dorskey on piano--boom!--it changes. That you just don't get that assemblage of people and so you make time. You know, yeah, I'm going to miss the vacation with the kids in August, but, you know this is worth it. And I will, because we're going all over; and especially because we're going to Richmond, places that are near and dear to me that I love. Any time I can get down south, I love that.
How many sound effects will you make during a typical show?
Newman: I never thought about that. You know really I've thought about charging by the sound effect, so I could really work them in there. No, it really does depend. Each show is so different because of the improvizational nature of it. There're sometimes where we might even have done a script before on a tour like this, but, Garrison will approach it differently, from a different point of view and then, I'll hear a different thing. And, so every show is so different.
Do you have a signature sound effect? One that those in the business will say, "That's gotta be Fred Newman?"
Newman: I don't know. You know, like I say, no one is more amazed that I do this than I am. You know, because it really is a twelve-year-old who swings his legs on a Coke box honking and I get to do that. People actually--I always look at them like, 'Why are you listening to me?' You know, because it's such an odd thing, funny thing to do. You know what, I really never did the water drop behind the teachers. Everyone did the water drop. What I did learn--the most difficult sound--I have a book out called 'Mouth Sounds', and in there, the most difficult sound--and it's rated that way--is two whistles from the corners of your mouth. (Makes the sound). If you do that, you can't tell where it's coming from and I used to do that whistle and the teacher would go over the adjust the steam heat in the windows. And then I started playing 'It's Crying Time Again' and I'd pull out (makes whistling sound to the tune). Could you hear that?
I could, indeed.
Newman: Well, you can imagine the teacher. When I saw her sending off a memo to the principal saying the steam heat is playing 'It's Crying Time Again', I'm quite sure. And she would stop and everyone in the room would act like we didn't hear it. And she would just sort of look around the room and she'd hear this like she was the only one hearing this. It was really funny.
I guess, depending upon the context of the story, that same radiator leak could be turning a crystal set radio.
Newman: Yeah, there are a lot of multipurpose sounds, things that, sounds come different ways, while here's the sound of a Chrysler on a sharp turn (makes sharp steering sound) you know, like the steering does. I'll hear that--that's just distinctive sound, you pick that up. So, I'm always listening. But, the other way is that you find multiple uses for sounds. One of my best examples is a whistle like a taxi whistle (makes the sound); that kind of whistle. Well, if you hum with that you get (makes hum/whistle sound); you get like a machine of some sort. If you take that whistle and vibrate your bottom lip, you get a loon (makes the sound). Or, you can blow through it and get (makes the sound) a plaintive loon. And then, if you want a tire stuck in the snow or dirt--in Georgia where I came from, it'd be mud--(makes the sound) "Come on, Ludge, keep 'er rowing!" So, it's the same sound you can sort of do variations--you can hum and whistle at the same time.
Well, I'll look forward to seeing you in Richmond on Friday. Actor and voice actor and sound effects man for "A Prairie Home Companion", when it's on the road, Fred Newman. Fred, thanks so much for being with us this morning.
Newman: (makes horn sound). Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
Can you take us out with that freight train that looks like it's coming past the studio?
Newman: (makes train whistle and train sounds on tracks).