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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 14, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 02
SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Thoroughly modern Lily
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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Thoroughly modern Lily

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

Lily Tomlin
January 29-30
5th Avenue Theatre


The characters created by the incomparable Lily Tomlin have become some of the best-loved in American television, and are recognized worldwide as iconic. Her work includes numerous motion pictures, several one-woman shows, and so many television appearances that Tomlin being awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1977 now seems premature. Her professional and personal relationship with writer Jane Wagner has continued for nearly 40 years, and is one of the least talked about (but often speculated about) in Hollywood. Her latest one-woman show celebrates some of the most memorable characters she created, and the vast enjoyment they have brought us.

Eric Andrews-Katz: Who influences you as a performer?

Lily Tomlin: The past is easier than the present. As a kid, I remember the women on TV and radio. My favorite was Beulah Brown, an African-American maid on the radio that was forever uttering comments of mutiny under her breath. She was always defying authority characters. On TV, there was Lucy, Imogene Coca, and Jean Davis. These were the women who had TV shows at the time. Jean Carroll was another. I used to watch her on The Ed Sullivan Show with my mother. Jean made jokes about her kids and husband that were intriguing and subversive for the times.

Andrews-Katz: How did you meet Jane Wagner?

Tomlin: We met through a mutual friend, the actress Betty Beaird. Betty was always talking about Jane, Jane, Jane, and wanting to introduce us. My Ernestine album (This is a Recording) was just coming out and I was in New York to launch it. I was performing at the Bitter End and my show just ended. I met Jane the next day at lunch and I fell madly and crazily in love with her. Just like that. Since she wasn't overly familiar with my work, I forced the Bitter End to do another show so I could impress her. I wanted her to think well of me.

Andrews-Katz: People talk about the alleged 'backlash' of coming out in Hollywood. Have you ever experienced anything of the sort?

Tomlin: No, but that's because from the time I started [c. 1970], I was hugely popular. It wasn't a time of coming out (at least not at that time) by any means. By the time I was partnered with Jane [1971] - and we were no way closeted in our own private lives - I wasn't that public in my professional life. Jane went with me everywhere. When I was on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines [1977], people knew about us, but they didn't write about it if they liked you. They wanted to 'protect' you. I remember one article said that I shared a house with writer Jane Wagner, while another said I lived alone. On the Carson show [1973], Johnny asked me: 'Do you want to get married? Don't you want children?' When I answered, 'No, I don't,' the audience got dead quiet. Some knew why and others thought it was a harsh indictment because I was a woman and didn't want to have kids. I continued by asking Johnny, 'And by the way, who has custody of yours?' My general thinking of the time was that I wasn't brave enough to handle [coming out publicly]. Plus, my mother was always living in constant terror that she'd be embarrassed at her church or something. My family is all fundamentalists. My mother was wonderful but she still had that conventional streak. Mom was a person of the culture and it's hard for people to bridge that.

Andrews-Katz: So you think people treat Gay men differently than Gay women?

Tomlin: Boys suffer much more than girls do. Girls are given more latitude to be athletic - tomboys, if you will. My brother is Gay and when he was a young boy he suffered terribly. My brother would wear my bathing suit top when he went out. He was more obviously Gay and more effeminate at the time (not so much now) and he paid dearly for it. Even today, what still goes on to young Gay/Lesbian people is hideous. The horror of AIDS at least brought the Gay men and Lesbians together as a community. So much has happened since then, and I've been so proud of the [GLBT] community. I don't know where they find the strength, but they did!

Andrews-Katz: Where are the following characters currently: Edith Ann?

Tomlin: Edith Ann is still a kid and still 6 years old, but she has to do things now like prepare her mother's iPod and put the playlist on for her. I wanted Edith Ann to be perplexed by the wonders of the world. As a kid, she looks at things from an innocent place and hopefully takes other people with her.

Andrews-Katz: Telephone operator Ernestine?

Tomlin: She's done a lot of stuff. Lately she's been working at the Health Care Insurance Company. She's had a reality-based web chat show where she had webcams with President Bush and Dick Cheney. This way she could keep an eye on them and give them pep talks. 'President Bush, don't worry about if Senator Kerry served in the war. You actually started one!' She's trying to put together another web chat for the current times.

Andrews-Katz: Trudy, the bag lady?

Tomlin: She's still philosophical. She'll talk about anything and keeps informed with her many scraps and Post-Its. 'We have a right side of the brain and a left side of the brain. Now we can keep secrets from ourselves.' She's also current. 'Instead of Russia, I hope Sarah 'drill, baby, drill!' Palin can see the oil spill from her porch in Alaska.'

Andrews-Katz: Lounge singer Tommy Velour?

Tomlin: Tommy did a stint a while ago against gun control. He says: 'They want you to register your guns. I say, [grabbing his crotch] register this!' He went through a change of heart, though.

Andrews-Katz: Drag queens often impersonate your characters, but not you. Why aren't there 'Lily Tomlin' impersonators?

Tomlin: I think it's because there's nothing extraordinary to do about me. Some people have a persona that's very funny - Dody Goodman and Hermione Gingold are characters onto themselves. When I'd meet them, they'd always say to me: 'You're so normal.' Joan Rivers talks about her life in the first-person, and that's what made her funny. I think I was always trying to find a first-person persona like I always did with my characters

Andrews-Katz: What's the worst part of being Lily Tomlin?

Tomlin: Oy. Not being 30.

Andrews-Katz: What's the best part of being Lily Tomlin?

Tomlin: I was going to say being 70, but the best part is really just having this much time on the planet, with so many people treating you affectionately or getting a kick out of something you do. Standing on a stage and communicating a unifying idea to a large group of people, that's good.

Lily Tomlin has been the recipient of the Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Awards, as well as the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Her 27 films include: 9-5, I Heart Huckabees, Tea with Mussolini, and Nashville, the latter for which she received both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. Her television credits include The Garry Moore Show, Murphy Brown, Will & Grace, HBO's And The Band Played On, and most recently Desperate Housewives. The 1969 television hit Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In made Lily Tomlin a household name. She won her second Tony Award for the one-woman show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by Jane Wagner.

Contact Eric Andrews-Katz at eric@sgn.org.

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