Interview with Lily Tomlin by Earle Dutton
Her career has spanned decades with a grace and raucous laughter we have learned to attribute to the one and only Lily Tomlin. She is a comedy trailblazer, actor, writer, producer and LGBT icon. After meeting her now wife and always contributor/collaborator, Jane Wagner, in 1971 they were finally married in 2013. Don’t miss Lily Tomlin Live this weekend June 6 & 7 at 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle.
What was it like to finally marry Jane Wagner after all of these years?
It wasn’t particularly eventful. It was pretty regular. We never really thought about getting married. We never thought it was possible. Maybe it was defensive, but in many ways we thought it was an effort to imitate heterosexual society (laughter). Then we just decided it would be a lovely thing to do, and it was. What was really special about it was that we received a lot of congratulations from our families, who are all Southern. Jane is from Tennessee and my family is from Kentucky. We got a lot of special notes and stuff from relatives, which was very unusual. It made it especially worthwhile.
Standup comedy is such a personal thing. When and how did you decide to put yourself out there?
I am not a traditional standup and I never was from the beginning. I started making shows for myself when I was a kid. Not because we went to the theater or anything. We went to the movies but we didn’t even have a TV in our house until I was 10. I listened to a lot of radio. I just used to put on shows for my family and the neighborhood. I did take ballet and tap at the Department of Parks and Recreation across the street from the apartment house where I grew up. The ballet teacher put on big productions once a year with the kids. Maybe I got the notion there but I started making shows by imitating the neighbors and doing magic tricks, dancing, tap dancing and ballet. I just put it all into one performance on my back porch and would try to sell tickets to the neighbor kids. I just always did it. It was kind of what I did for play. I tried to get other kids to be in it as well. I was kind of a producer even back then. Other kids wouldn’t want to do it. They wouldn’t rehearse or show up or whatever. Then after a while I tried to fold my brother into it because he was very funny. He would stop in the middle because it was embarrassing or something and walk off. When I was a kid I never thought people did shows and stuff for a living or anything like that. It is not like I saw other celebrities or actors and thought that is what I want to do or be. I don’t think it ever occurred to me. I think I thought it was two different worlds. Then when I went to college I got into a show and it was a big hit. I was just doing something that I had always been doing, commenting on neighbors or at that time there was a very rich suburb in Detroit, well it still is, called Grosse Pointe. The Ford family lived there and a lot of other very rich people. Well, my mother’s maiden name was Ford. I was a blue collar kid and very conscious of wealth, position and politics. I just knew that stuff whether I would articulate it to myself or not. When I was a teenager I hung out with kids that were in theater or inclined that way and I would do sort of conversational pieces not full blown shows or anything. I would do an impression of a Grosse Pointe matron because they discovered that Grosse Pointe was covertly segregated (laughing). There had been a big scandal in 1962. So I got in a variety show that they did every year to raise scholarship money. The kid that was producing it said that we just needed one more piece of material, one more sketch. So, I suggested my Grosse Pointe matron. Of course, it was the only thing in the show that was timely or relevant to anything in the news. I made a big hit out of it. I even went on all the local TV shows doing this character. I thought, I am going to go to New York. Gosh, I wish I could make a living doing this.
Do you have a ritual you do before you go on stage live?
It might be sort of a ritual because it is habitual but I have to try to come up with a couple of lines about the place or city I am in for that show. When I was on Broadway that last time doing eight shows a week, I would drink Green Magma. I think I will start doing that again. I would also always have some gum drops. I used to have those little sugar coated gum drops. I would have a bologna sandwich with Miracle Whip on white bread with iceberg lettuce and a little soufflé cup of gum drops with some Green Magma. I never really thought about it as a ritual but I guess it could be.
Don’t miss Lily Tomlin Live this weekend June 6 & 7 at 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. Click here for tickets. Watch for the remaining segments of the interview later this week!