By Talking Both Straight and Silly to Teens, Fred Newman Is Cable's Pied Piper of Puberty

updated 07/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

He combines Phil Donahue's candor with Steve Martin's wacko wit, and the mixture works magic in winning the hearts of that most elusive of television audiences, the 12-to-15-year-olds. The wizard is Fred Newman, the silver-haired, 31-year-old host of Livewire, a variety talk show on cable's Nickelodeon channel. Newman deftly addresses themes ranging from heroes to abortion to cheap thrills. He and his guests—both celebrities and experts—engage in lively discussions with an audience of 40 teenagers. Some examples: Fame's Gene Anthony Ray admitted he was called everything from Queen Mary to sissy for being the only boy in dance class. Phil Rheinstein, a deprogrammed Moonie, gave an absorbing account of his experience ("I thought I was helping save the world"). Taped in Manhattan, Livewire has tackled questions so pointed that adult guests cringe—or cop out. A drug specialist, asked if he'd ever taken drugs, refused to answer. "It was a fair question," says Newman. "That he couldn't be honest and say 'Yeah, I took drugs' negated everything he said."

Nickelodeon knows it's got a good thing with Newman, whose comic genius is dazzlingly displayed in the zany characters he has created and regularly plays. Among them are Marvin "The Nerd" Tuftbinder, purse-lipped consumer watchdog Constance Atworth and punk rocker Razorlips Newman, whose biggest hit to date is You're Preppy, I'm Punk ("The only thing we have in common is, your alligator and my hair are a bright green"). Since Newman started with Livewire in 1981, the channel's management has built more and more of the show around him, and recently he was signed to a new three-year contract.

Fred learned the art of conversation in La Grange, Ga., his hometown. As a boy he soaked up stories from the locals who hung around the courthouse and neighborhood grocery store. His father, who worked in the family construction business, taught him right from wrong in the form of parables.

A middle child, he was raised by his mother in an atmosphere of love and attention. Still, Fred was a shy kid. "I was ugly and got teased a lot," he says. "I had big teeth and ears and was real white and sickly-looking." Once, while walking past some girls jumping rope, he heard himself cited as one of the school creeps. "I can laugh at it now," he says, "but it hurt so bad then I thought I could never go back to school."

When he was 12, Newman was transformed into a popular kid, gaining acceptance by following social conventions ad absurdum: "If they said you must wear a coat and tie, then I'd wear a coat, tie and bathing suit." After graduating from the University of Georgia in 1974 with a major in economics, he eventually got an M.B.A. from Harvard and accepted a job in Newsweek's marketing department.

In his off-hours he capitalized on a unique talent he had developed—soundmaking. Newman can imitate some 450 sounds and in 1980 wrote MouthSoundS, a practitioner's manual for making noises with your mouth. Complete with record, the book includes his simulations of dripping water, growling stomachs and an entire orchestra of instruments. After two years he quit his job to go on a promotion tour for MouthSoundS, ending up as something of a talk show expert after 200 interviews. In his travels he guested on Livewire, and the producers were so impressed with him that they later asked him to host the show.

Newman, who says he wants to stay "tapped into kids, but not necessarily forever," has a lot of options. He lectures extensively—and profitably—around the country on sounds, and his newest book, Zounds!, a kid's guide to soundmaking, has just been published. He continually works up new comedy routines, is a contributing editor of Muppet Magazine, has written "tooth wars" stories for the American Dental Association, is mulling the idea of a one-man comedy show, and is planning a collection of short stories entitled Lost Combs, based on a collection he's made of combs he's found on the streets.

Newman's idea factory is his fourth-floor walk-up on Manhattan's Upper West Side. There, along with his IBM computer and sophisticated sound system, are toy baby arms sticking out of flower pots, sunglasses perched on a green plant, windup toys, banjos, a wire sculpture of a hand, and plastic ducks and flamingos. His girlfriend, Katy Dobbs, 32, the editor of Muppet Magazine, can sometimes be found among the chachkas.

So far Newman has shunned offers to switch to an adult talk show format; he doesn't even have a manager. Friends and fans feel he is on the brink of making it very big, but the transplanted Southerner is in no hurry. "Show people are always running to some mythical thing called success," he says soberly. "I just want to do good work and get out what's inside."

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