There is only one Lily Tomlin. Incomparable. Funny. Immensely talented. No matter how you describe her, she is indomitable with everything she does. On stage or screen, Ms. Tomlin has been a pure American treasure for over five decades, entertaining and making audiences think no matter where she performs. And now – on December 16, 2017 – she is coming to the Pantages Theater in Tacoma, Washington, to perform her show, “An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin.” Get tickets and more info here. Please enjoy our interview below.
Eric Andrews-Katz: Originally you went to college to study medicine. At what point did you want to become a performer?
Lily Tomlin: I was already a performer. I was doing shows on the back porch of our house since I was a kid, a real young kid. I’d taken ballet and tap classes from the Department of Parks and Recreations (that was across the street from us) and so I’d put on shows. I would even try to cast kids in the apartment complex. They wouldn’t show up for rehearsals or anything, and my brother would walk off the stage in the middle of a performance. He would say it was embarrassing, so I started doing it myself. If anybody reminded me of someone I knew, I’d start doing him or her. Back then, Arthur Godfrey had a show and “The Howdy Doody Show” was big. There were two boys with red hair and I’d make them be Howdy Doody, so I could dance the hula or tap dance and repeat the jokes I heard on TV or things I learned in life. I’d do magic tricks. When I was about 10, I ordered a bunch of junk from a comic book (whoopee cushion, soap that would stain your hands…) awfully silly stuff. When I got home one day my mother was standing there and she said I could have it when I paid her back for it all. I started to run errands for neighbors, or taking out garbage and walking dogs. I’d do anything for a dime.
Andrews-Katz: When the idea of new character comes to mind, how does the creation process work?
Tomlin: It’s hard to say because it’s changed over the years due to one thing or another. In the beginning I had ideas for characters and just did them. The first character I did on my own, aside from the back-porch stuff was in college. I had a walk on part in “The Mad Woman of Chaillot.” I had to improv going down a staircase as we were banished to the cellar. I’d do something different each night so the theatre majors would run to see what I was doing. I was eventually requested to go to a show at one of the fraternities, they would raise money for scholarships and stuff. They started giving me parts, take offs on “Gunsmoke” etc. I didn’t know what to do with it. I’d be Ms. Kitty or the woman from Maxwell House saying, “This coffee is good to the last drop” and then pour out coffee beans. There was one skit left and that was a take off on the Academy Awards. There was one gal who wore an electric blue leotard. She’d be leaning on the piano and I would rehearse my lines. One day she turned to me and said, “If you can’t be direct, why be?” That was the final straw and I started to ad-lib my parts and mispronounce everything. Watching this group perform I realized I had material to do. In Grosse Point, Michigan back in 1962 the lid was blown off a covertly segregated community, and I asked for someone to interview me as a character from the prestigious community, and the character took off. My character would wear a ridiculously long skirt, and then sit with her knees spread with the dress draping down the between them. It was sensational and became the hit of the show because it was topical. It was because of that that I decided to go to New York.
Andrews-Katz: How did you first come to be a part of “Laugh-In”?
Tomlin: At one point when I went back to New York in 1965, I opened for friends who performed at The Bitter End. I had an act then. Someone saw me and offered to be my manager. I would go to the Improv and one night Madeline Kahn saw me and sent me a note. The Upstairs at the Downstairs was putting together a show and I went to audition. I got the job and started working all the time. Another friend of ours told me that she was a manager and said that they were going to California to do a show called “The Music Scene” – it was one of the first to be aimed at the ‘youth market’. It was sort of a Hit Parade thing that was aimed at the Billboard crowd. “Laugh-In” was already on TV but I thought it was a bit square. I did “The Music Scene” for half a season before it got cancelled. George Slaughter [a writer for “Laugh-In”] responded to my material. I did Ernestine for him. I was working on Edith Ann at the time, but I showed him the three characters I had done. Judy Carne [the ‘sock-it-to-me’ girl] was leaving the show after her third year. I met with George and he flipped over everything. He wanted me to take over at the switchboard. Ernestine was a sensation overnight – literally. People were wrecked and thrilled and started to stop me on the street. Then I was on my way.
Andrews-Katz: Is it easier for you to play comedy or drama?
Tomlin: I find it depends on the material. Drama is as easy as doing comedy; it’s just another point of the continuum. It really depends on the style of comedy. Drama is not as varied as comedy might be. You know from the audience (if there is one) if you succeeded at what you’re doing.
Andrews-Katz: Congratulations on your third consecutive Emmy nomination for “Grace and Frankie.” What can you tell us about the upcoming (in January) Season Four?
Tomlin: I can’t tell you very much. I’m not supposed to. We continue with our vibrator business and some other problems come into our sphere. But we have some really funny stuff. We’re going to start the 5th Season, so it gets a bit confusing. SAG [Screen Actors Guild) just voted on the third season, and the Emmy’s on the fourth. It gets mind boggling to keep them all separate with the 4th Season in the can, so to speak.
Andrews-Katz: In what ways do you think your character Frankie has become a role model for women?
Tomlin: I think Jane [Fonda] and I are showing that life can start over and you can reinvent yourself. There is a lot of hope in what we do. There aren’t many TV shows with people of a certain age, or with women having fun and being friends. We have one another’s back and are ‘full people’ not just characters. We have a very broad audience. Men love our show, too. Older women as well. We have a broad section of audience and I think it’s because young people like to see their mothers and grandmothers depicted in a certain way. I guess we are interesting enough. We just have fun.
Andrews-Katz: In 2013 you and Jane Wagner worked with HBO to make the documentary “An Apology to Elephants” With the disgusting reversal of the Trophy laws, how can people get involved to help save these majestic animals?
Tomlin:We are just about to launch something on the Internet. I work with elephants with Melya Kaplan [founder of Voice For The Animals Foundation in 1999] and she is going to publish a new video on the Internet. We hope people will post videos of themselves giving their opinions, and about why elephants and other tusk bearing creatures are being poached. The general public can raise their voices, or make themselves known in numbers and become active in that. We hope that the video will be seen on the Internet at #TrunksNotTrump There is a suit against the Los Angeles Zoo to free Billy the elephant and send him to a sanctuary. They are using him as a sperm donor, jerking him off and selling his semen to other places. It’s putrid.
Andrews-Katz: With more than 50 years in Show Business, what changes have you noticed for the better and for the worse?
Tomlin: Oh my gosh! It certainly is more corporate now and with the advent of cable shows there are many more opportunities for work. The money is somewhat reduced because of the way the rules are written in the Guilds. The cable companies have found a way around stuff and a lot of people that earned a very decent living can’t get the parts because the roles are becoming more political to achieve, with all the lobbying. We think we’ll have the votes for something [at a SAG meeting], and we’ll see people get up and whisper to others so that when the vote comes down, they vote against what we’re trying to achieve. It’s very political. It’s so much maneuvering and finagling. There’s not a lot of honor in these activities anymore. Look at our political state with the Senate war with Roy Moore and sexual misconduct. It’s an interesting time, and important, but a bit wacky too.
Andrews-Katz: After 42 years of being a couple, you and Jane were married in January 2014. How has your life changed since then?
Tomlin: Nothing much has changed. It’s a sweet thing and feels very terrific, but we have been together so long it didn’t change our lives radically in any way. In March 2018 we’ll have been together 47 years.
Andrews-Katz: What advice would you give to the up-and-coming crop of actors in Hollywood and Broadway?
Tomlin: I guess if you really love it…just do it! You almost have to love it to be successful. People get jobs and get careers and say things like, “I never intended to be an actor.” Someone saw them shopping in a store. They could love it as much as anybody, but if you think of yourself as an artist from the beginning. Some people just want to earn a living. When I started I was just on fire, I wanted to create something all the time. When I got on “Laugh-In,” it was a gift. I did concerts and stuff outside because I wanted to do more developed material, more layered material. I would find an outlet for that, too. That might not have been the ticket for me at the time on TV, so I did concerts and played clubs. I did complex (sort of) material, but always did little vignettes or little plays. The monologues would have a beginning, middle and an ending. It would be something I thought would be very funny or moving, no matter how the character covered the basics. I did things from my own experiences. I did a 1950’s teenager at a High School dance. She was kind of tough and didn’t want to be a softie for her boyfriend. She was armored against him rejecting her. Stuff evolves from the start and you just work with it. It becomes whole and you want to share it with an audience. I’ll turn to them and say, “I worried all day that you might not show up, and without you there would be little point of me being here.” What does an actor have if they don’t have an audience? They are just talking to themselves – which I’ve done too, speaking monologues to myself. I use to drag people up from the laundromat in my building and make them become my audience.
Andrews-Katz: What can the audiences expect from your upcoming Tacoma show?
Tomlin: The show is character based, and we talk to the audience. It’s very informal and relaxed. There will be surprises too, I might turn and do something unexpected. I use video within the show, sometimes to ridicule myself or to show the history of another character.
Lily Tomlin brings her one-woman show, “An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin” to the Pantages Theater. Some of her most beloved characters will be represented including Ernestine and Edith Ann among others. One of the original performers on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” Ms. Tomlin has appeared in the films “Nashville,” “Tea With Mussolini,” “The Incredible Shrinking Woman,” and of course, “9 to 5.” Her television credits include “The Magic School Bus” and the Netflix original series, “Grace and Frankie” (which she has earned three consecutive Emmy nominations). Her Broadway talents were rewarded in 1985 when she won the Tony Award for “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” (written by Jane Wagner). She has also won the Kennedy Center Honors in 2017 and the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.