Interview with Lily Tomlin by Earle Dutton
Lily Tomlin’s career has spanned decades conquering every type of media encountered. She has performed in 9 to 5, The Beverly Hillbillies, Will & Grace, and I Heart Huckabees, just to name a few. In the early eighties, she was one of the first female comedians to perform in male drag on stage and screen.
Please enjoy Lily Tomlin Reveals Plan to Take-Over Seattle, Part 2.
Your characters are really well rounded and filled out. Do you have a certain method or formula for
No, I really don’t. You know, if I did I would make a couple more Ernestine’s. I think that Jane and I have been together so long that we have a similar sensibility. I don’t know where it really comes from but she is the most empathetic person I have ever known. It is really an affection for the species. You want to honor the character. You don’t want to want to cheapen the character. Well, unless it is someone like Bush or Cheney. Or someone else that has too much power and can cause so much havoc in our lives. I think I would still like to find something good and decent even in those characters. I don’t know.
How did Ernestine come about? Is she based on a real person?
No. It was about 1968 and I was in New York. I used to pitch jokes and material with a couple of kids. Everyone hated the phone company at that time. It was a monopoly and in ill favor. So, it was just natural to want to pick on them. I was just doing sketches and going to the Improv do them and so characters and stuff. I was also working at the Upstairs at the Downstairs back in 1966. That is a cabaret that was in New York that is no longer in existence. The summer that I started there, Madeline Kahn, Dixie Carter and I were the three girls in the show. Madeline got me the job. She saw me at the Improv. Fannie Flag was leaving the show to go on Candid Camera, I guess. So they needed a new girl so I got on that summer. So I went back in 1968 as well. As for Ernestine, I never thought she would be on TV. I just did it to satirize the phone company. She was just someone I would do at the Improv or this act that I always worked. I thought she would just be sort of a tough Bronx operator. Then as I worked on her and threatened people there just became this snort and repressed sort of sexuality. My face tightened up and that made me snort. Her body got kind of wound up like a cork screw and her hand went in her blouse. It was so organic. That is the only reason that I can explain she would be so popular for so long. I think people sensed that repressed sexuality. Then of course, she was someone that people came in contact all of the time on the phone. It was almost like she was meant to be in some strange peculiar way.
I knew what she looked like but I never had the resources to dress her or make a wig. I went into Laugh-In the third year. That is another interesting part of my career. I have consistently gone into hit shows after they were hits. So I immediately have a big audience. So when I went into Laugh-In, I talked to the hairdresser on the phone and told her what I wanted the wig to look like and it was a very 1940’s look. I wanted something like Loretta Young in a couple different pictures. When I went to work that first week and walked into the dressing room and there is Ernestine’s head sitting on the table (laughing). It was perfect! Then I went to talk to the costumer who was assigned to me for the show and she takes me into and I tell you that the 40’s blouse was just hanging there with big puffy sleeves and this salmon skirt. I already had 40’s shoes because I had a lot of old costumes and stuff from the thrift shop. So, I had a great pair of shoes with ankle straps. Then there was the jewelry. It was just lying there waiting to be used. So she was just meant to be, I was just really blessed. I didn’t go on the air for like six weeks after I started taping so I still didn’t ever see her for myself except in the mirror which isn’t the same. The grips and backstage people started meeting me in the hall and snorting at me and put their finger in their shirt. I kind of didn’t know what they were doing. I wasn’t totally conscious of how Ernestine behaved. She was literally a phenomenon overnight. Most people didn’t even know it was me. They thought we were separate people. They thought I was just this new girl on the show and there was someone else that was the telephone operator.
What was it like to be the first female comedian to do male drag on
stage and TV?
I didn’t really think of it as any big deal. I initially held off doing male characters because I thought that I should be able to do as many men as I do women. I shouldn’t just pick on one specific type or something. That kind of slowed me down a little bit. Then in my first Broadway show I played a guy, Rick. It was during the disco days in the 70’s and he was kind of a singles bar cruiser. He was very mach. I had high standards; I didn’t want it to be an easy mark. He was very successful in that show. So I just kept doing a few more. It would fit a concept like when I did Tommy Velour. I always played my dad but I never dressed him until I did The Search. I actually played both of my parents back in a show on Broadway. Jane, my partner, actually wrote the skit for me and my brother to do on one of my specials but my brother wasn’t experienced enough to step into such a pressured situation like a network television special. So we ended up not doing it together even though he would have been hilarious. It takes a lot of guts to stand up in front of all of the other actors, the director, the producer and everybody else and be an actor. You have to have some experience. To this day he still says he wished he had the guts to stick it out.
Did you really jump through the car window in I Heart Huckabees?
Oh my god. I wanted to. I tried but they really wouldn’t let me. My friend Anne Chatterton, who has doubled for me in a lot of stunts, did that scene. She fell into the garbage disposal in The Incredible Shrinking Woman. She dove into the tank in Lily: Sold Out. I didn’t do it and I am a little ashamed to tell you that I didn’t. She is way taller than I am. She is 5’10” or so and it was a smallish car. I can’t see how she did it. The window was not very big and she went right through it. I kind of tried to do it but you know they really held me back. They were afraid I would hurt myself and I probably would have. Then Anne wouldn’t have a job. (Laughing)
Don’t miss Lily Tomlin Live this weekend June 6 & 7 at 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. Click here for tickets. Watch for our final segment this Friday.