by Eric Andrews-Katz -
SGN A&E Writer
LILY TOMLIN LIVE!
THE 5TH AVENUE THEATRE
Without a doubt Lily Tomlin is one of the greatest American Treasures! Her diversity in humor has entertained, enchanted and made us think, all at the same time, through her various, memorable characters. She's won almost every kind of award possible for such a performer: Tony, Grammy, Emmy and Daytime Emmy, The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award. With her writing partner Jane Wagner, whom she married on New Year's Eve, December 31, 2013, after 42 years of being a couple, it seems this dynamic duo of comedy is unstoppable. In preparation for her Seattle performances, the Seattle Gay News caught up with one of the Emerald City's favorites:
Eric Andrews-Katz: What is the average day in the life of Lily Tomlin?
Lily Tomlin: Oh! There is no average day, for Christ's sake! Two days ago on Friday I was shooting this independent movie and we were doing a night shooting until 3 a.m. Then I had a date booked at a college in LA - Northridge. I did that show last night. Then I got up to come to Vegas to do a Mother's Day matinee. Tonight, my cousins - who are visiting from Kentucky - are meeting me for a drink before I fly home to LA. Tomorrow will be & Oh! Out the window I just saw someone skydiving with on a motorcycle. That pretty much sums up my average day & someone jumping out of a plane with on a motorcycle.
Andrews-Katz: Which was your first 'character' that you created?
Tomlin: Consciously, I think it was 'Grosse Pointe Matron' in a college show I did. I had other fantasies of being a doctor, but I got into this college show by chance. The stuff they were doing was so sophomoric and collegiate, like take offs on 'Gunsmoke' and other TV shows. The kid running the show said, 'I wish we had another sketch.' Seeing what they called material, I thought: 'I do stuff like that all the time, in conversations with my friends, and just being funny by making comments about something.' And I always kind of have done a Grosse Pointe Matron because it [Grosse Pointe, Michigan] was such a discriminatory section of Detroit. The Ford family was creating a 'Debut' party for their daughter Charlotte, a big affair costing about a half a million dollars in those days. My mother's maiden name was Ford by coincidence and she had read about all the proceedings in the Society Pages (when they still had Society Pages), and wanted to go see them. I rented this old beat-up junker of a car and we drove there, hoping and praying the car wouldn't break down in Grosse Pointe; it would have been humiliating! So we went and I did this character based on those experiences. It was a big hit because it was something political and topical relating to something that the audience knew about. The other skits in the show were parodies. That character became the 'Tasteful Lady' on 'Laugh-In.'
Andrews-Katz: You've talked about your mother in several interviews. Since it's Mother's Day, can you describe the relationship you shared?
Tomlin: Let me say that my mother was a young, Southern woman who came up to Detroit. It was tough, but it was a great city to grow up in: political, gritty and vibrant. My mom was more innocent and, in some ways, I was more sophisticated than my mother. I was very protective of her, because she was so innocent, decent, good and guileless. I was probably more parental in that sense. She was a very good mother. When she was dying of osteoporosis, she turned to me and said, 'The only thing I regret is that I would love to have been a Home Economics teacher.' She loved being a homemaker and was forever with a new recipe. She was a very engaging woman.
When I was a little girl I made a recording of my mother talking to my aunt and uncle. They were always telling such great stories. When I played it back, I realized how witty my mother was in those conversations. She was always dropping some footnote that was perceptive with a funny edge. She had loads of friends and people [of all ages] adored her.
Andrews-Katz: Do you have a favorite of your characters?
Tomlin: Oh Eric, I don't have a favorite. I would never have one. It's like being a mother and being asked, which of your kids you're fondest of; you can't answer that.
Andrews-Katz: When Jane Wagner writes your material, do you plan it out together or do you do what she writes?
Tomlin: We talk about ideas and things to do. Jane is so verbally wonderful and brilliant and I'm always begging for her to write something. I'll say we need something and she'll do it. When she wrote Search [for Intelligent Signs in the Universe] I was on the road and she would suddenly send me material in the mail. I just flipped out it was so great! Reading Trudy [the bag-person] and all of her stuff and observations were wonderful. When she sent it to me originally, Agnes was about 60-pages long! I had to work on it and get it down to a reasonable time that could be performed. I was in Atlanta then, and put on a special midnight show to put on Agnes for the hardcore fans. There was this one kid, a big fan who was there then, and every time he's seen Agnes since, he says 'You've ruined Agnes!' because I had to cut it back so much. She originally went on for an hour or more, and I had to cut it down to six or seven minutes.
Andrews-Katz: Most people don't know that you studied mime? Why the interest there?
Tomlin: At that time - and it goes back to the early 1960s - I was from an inner city, diverse neighborhood in Detroit. Growing up there you have the kind of awareness that kids in middle class neighborhoods don't have, because everyone else around them is the same as they! I think it made me more politically and economically aware of the 'haves' and 'have-nots.' Anyway, I went to New York when I was about 19 years old, because I made a hit with the 'Tasteful Lady' persona. I wanted to do it for a living, so after school I went to NYC. You didn't want to be an actor [in those days] because it wasn't considered a 'high art.' Mime was about as close as you could get when performing. It was considered a good thing then - I know people make fun of it now - because mime was selfless. It was the time of Marcel Marceau and that heyday. Because my performance is so physical, I thought it would help develop the instrument, so to speak. I was naturally gifted at physical comedy, but I wanted to be really good in the art. I didn't last long - about three to four weeks - because it was arduous.
Andrews-Katz: Congratulations on your wedding to Jane. Was there any other factor - aside from the legality - that made you decide to marry now after 40+ years of being a couple?
Tomlin: The fact that we could was the importance. We couldn't get married before, and we wanted to be married! Even though I mock the institution of marriage, I still wanted to be married.
Andrews-Katz: Do you think Gay-lebrities have an obligation to Come Out to the public?
Tomlin: Not really. We don't know what someone else's circumstances are like. I never feel that anybody should be pushed to anything. You just don't know what's going on with them at that time. Some people are more ready. Some people have more courage. There was a time when it took a tremendous amount of courage to Come Out and have support. There was so much backlashing, and if things went different politically, it could all be taken away in a minute. I've been dumbfounded and thrilled by the last generation, the last 20-30 years, and kids who come up and absolutely demand that they can be themselves and be acknowledged. Jane and I often say [in a joking way] that in a way, we miss the times when you had to sneak around. It seemed more fun when it was more illicit.
Andrews-Katz: How do you prepare for a performance?
Tomlin: Other than just staying capable, I have no real rituals. I have to remember what to pack and not leave something out. There are people who can go from a plane directly to a stage and perform, I cannot. I have a fantasy that I have a suitcase with compartments, so I don't forget this or that. I get to my show and realize 'Oh my God! I forgot to bring the right [character] bracelet,' or something you wear on stage. (I forgot to take off one of my personal bracelets once, and when performing Trudy the street person, she was wearing this very nice, gold-linked bracelet. It was something she wouldn't have!)
Andrews-Katz: Your current show involves new interactions with some of your greatest characters. How do you decide what material goes into an eclectic performance like this?
Tomlin: Whatever you think is timeless and works. Or as long as it's a good variety and the audience will be engaged. It is all intuitive. It's what I think the audience will enjoy, or get a kick out of, or be transported and entertained by. I want them to have a rich experience.
Andrews-Katz: There have been times you've dressed up in a costume and interacted with people lined up outside the theater. Do they recognize you off the bat?
Tomlin: Back in February 1977, it was snowy and miserable outside the box office. A lot of my hardcore fans were so much younger then and they were camped out in front of the box office waiting for tickets. I rode down in an ambulance with my friend and his boyfriend, and was dressed as Mrs. Beasley. We passed out coffee and donuts because I knew their mothers would be worried about them camping out. Lily wouldn't have done anything, as she was unaware and insensitive. Mrs. Beasley did instead. I do it for the hardcore fans and they know right off the bat it's the character. They call to me by name and talk to me about Mrs. Beasley's husband and know her children's names (Vickie and Billy). They know everything about the character, so they really connect. When we took that show to LA it was pouring rain. I had an awning set up and performed as Bobby, the cocktail organist. I played the organ all day for them. I just love stuff like that. It's like playing and it's fun!
Andrews-Katz: If you were to be remembered for only one contribution, what would you hope it would be?
Tomlin: I honestly don't know. I feel life is so essential. There was a time in the early '60s I was at the Emmy Awards. They weren't a big deal and on all the channels back then and it was a much simpler affair. I walked the red carpet with Lawrence Welk, so I dressed as the Champagne Lady. I mean you're with Lawrence Welk; how could you not? I was in this gold outfit and Lawrence looked at me and said, 'Lily, you look so feminine!' Only the Mary Tyler Moore crowd got the connection and chuckled. When Ernestine was nominated in 1984, I did a takeoff on Flashdance. I dressed Ernestine up in a beautiful outfit made of bugle beads. You want to have fun with street theater.
But I'll tell you a story. Do you remember the dress Cher wore at the Oscars the year after she won? It was with the headdress and the feathers? I was going to wear that the next year at the Oscars, I mean everyone would have remembered it, nobody could have forgotten that dress in 1986! I never did it and regret it. I always said that if I had done it, it would always have been the thing remembered. They would have written it as my epitaph: 'Remember the night she wore that dress'?
Lily Tomlin first appeared on the club scene in New York at such venues as Café Au Go Go and the Upstairs at the Downstairs. She made her television debut in 1966 on 'The Gary Moore Show' and then 'The Merv Griffin Show.' She joined the cast of 'Laugh-In' in December 1969, cementing herself as part of American history! She's starred in six television specials, HBO's acclaimed film, And the Band Played On, 'Murphy Brown,' 'Homicide,' 'X-Files,' 'Will & Grace,' 'The West Wing.' Her movies include: Nashville, The Late Show, Moment by Moment (written by Jane Wagner), The Incredible Shrinking Woman, All of Me, Big Business, and the incomparable comedy, 9 to 5, among many other works.
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