Though she admits to not being as obsessively detailed about her work as she once was, Lily Tomlin is still the consummate performer and a virtual encyclopedia of her own life and times. At a recent tribute to Tomlin at the HBO-sponsored U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen earlier this month, the energetic 62-year-old artist revisited her amazingly diverse career.
To witness her relive moments in her work is like sitting in on a séance. Her beloved characters are very much alive and well, as recently channeled through Tomlin at the tribute. Tomlin has devoted much of her life to creating and nurturing such indelible personalities as nosey phone operator Ernestine, little girl Edith Ann, homemaker Mrs. Beasley, "world's oldest living beauty expert" Madame Lupe, cocktail singer/organist Bobbi-Jeanine, bag lady Trudy, and so many others.
Her chameleon-like abilities were first celebrated on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In in the early 1970s and later in her popular television specials. Her successful stage collaboration with longtime partner and writer Jane Wagner on the Tony Award-winning The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is the pinnacle of Tomlin's achievements. Seventeen years after its Broadway debut, Search continues to impact audiences with its smart, offbeat, thought-provoking humor.
Though she has long been in the thick of popular culture, Tomlin has never shied from going against the grain. In an era when few women pursued careers as comedic performers, Tomlin found early success as a standup. She was initially typecast as a wacky character actor on television but still managed to attract the attention of filmmaker Robert Altman, who boldly cast her in a dramatic role in the classic Nashville, for which she received an Oscar nomination and which proved her versatility as a performer. Though Tomlin prefers working with material she has a hand in originating, she has shined as an actor-for-hire in such films as The Late Show, 9 to 5, All of Me, Short Cuts, and Flirting With Disaster, and on television as a regular on Murphy Brown and as an Emmy-nominated guest star on Homicide.
Tomlin was also a pioneer with her memorable television specials—six in all. While the networks never saw fit to develop a series around Tomlin, she still had a strong hand in rewriting the rules of comedy, often tackling unconventional subject matter in a surprising way. Take her famous TV sketch "Juke and Opal," written by Wagner and performed with guest Richard Pryor, in her Emmy-winning 1973 CBS special. Tomlin portrayed a young black woman running a soul-food restaurant and Pryor her lover battling drug addiction. Though the network was uneasy about the sketch, particularly because Tomlin and Pryor shared an on-screen kiss, it was widely regarded as a watershed moment on television—not just because it addressed issues pertaining to race but also because it revealed two brilliant comedians exploring a slice of life and not necessarily going for the laugh.
Just as that sketch transcended the boundaries of TV comedy and veered into the territory of street poetry, Tomlin long ago outgrew the label of comedian. She is, simply put, an artist. More precisely she is an artist devoted to expressing the poetry of human behavior.
Back Stage West: As you're currently in the midst of a San Francisco production of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, let me start off by asking you why you think this play continues to resonate so strongly with audiences?
Lily Tomlin: I think it's a kind of a loving embrace of us. It's an affirmation of the highest part of us as a species, rather than the lowest part. It's about consciousness, really. Every character in the play is at a different point of consciousness. And it's funny. It's hopefully very moving. It's insightful. It's perceptive. It's satiric. The real beauty of it, to me, is that the audience is theoretically, metaphorically, looking at itself. My favorite thing that was ever written about it was, "At the end," this critic said, "we were on our feet applauding our higher selves." When it's working at its best, the collective experience in the audience affirms that connection—the connectedness between all of us as a species, you know?
BSW: With the recent revivals of Search, a new generation of audiences is now getting the chance to see it. Do you think that some of the politics of this play, particularly about the feminist movement, might be lost on the younger crowd?
Tomlin: They may not have the same immediate response, but the real trip of that piece is youth and idealism and a lack of cynicism and thinking you're going to make a real difference in the world and all the compromises every generation makes on the trip toward maturity. The [play explores the] idea of time—the toll time takes on us, in both a good way and a bad way, the things that erode, and the compromises we make as we live. We learn not to be so hard on ourselves and not so demanding. So even though it's set in a particular time, the story is timeless and certainly relative to the slice of time I'm here on the planet.
BSW: You brought up a powerful word: compromise. Do you feel that you've had to make any compromises as an artist?
Tomlin: Well, I wouldn't know what the compromise would be, frankly. Do a hootchie-kootchie dance? Get breast implants? I don't know what the compromise would be for me. There've been relatively few censor battles. I've had them with television, but that's television, and it goes back 30 years. There were pieces that I lost, but it wasn't because of language. It was more about theme or social content.
There was a time I remember, when I first went on television, that there wasn't much of a place for comedy. Before that I was playing around in underground kinds of places. I had just gone on television in early 1970. I was on Laugh-In. Then in '71 I performed at this Big Sur festival and The Free Press, which was a very hip underground paper 30 years ago, wrote this story about me—that every "S" was a dollar sign. I was devastated. They said I had sold out because I had gone to television. Of course I was doing exactly what I'd been doing in the clubs, only now I had more opportunity, really.
BSW: What would you say to performers who might feel no choice but to make certain compromises when it comes to their craft?
Tomlin: I don't think they should beat themselves up for taking stuff, unless it really takes something out of them or they're ashamed of it in some way—although there is less and less shame attached to almost anything in culture.
I did a [an episode of] Homicide where I killed my husband and his girlfriend, but you never saw it on-screen. I thought Homicide was a very good show and I thought the part was very quirky and eccentric, and so I took that part. In comparison I was also asked to do something on a more violence-oriented show, where I was asked to do a part with a very fine director that I really hated to give up the chance to work with, but I was supposed to stab someone on-screen repeatedly. I could not bring myself to take the part. I just could not bear to have to see myself stabbing somebody and acting out a murder graphically. Somebody else might do that and be absolutely wonderful in it or bring some great truth to the character, but it was too ugly for me to have to create that image.
BSW: I'd like to go back to the birth of Lily Tomlin as a performer. Where did it all begin?
Tomlin: I put shows on in my backyard since I was a kid. Then when I went to high school, you didn't do performance like that. This was in the '50s. You were considered rather suspect on many counts if you were in the drama club. So I was a cheerleader. That's how I got my performance jones. High school was so oppressive socially. In college, suddenly it was a whole different world.
I always did monologues. It was just my nature. I was exposed to that kind of performance when I was a kid: I had a social studies teacher who used to read dialect poems before we'd go home and talk in all kinds of voices. And I was a child of radio, too. I was very taken with that kind of performance where you could make everything out of nothing. You could go anywhere, be anyone, and you weren't encumbered by costumes or props or scenery. So I always did that.
And then I discovered Ruth Draper on a record when I was about 18. She was a great monologue artist. She died in '56. She was a woman from Boston who was celebrated through the '20s, '30s, and '40s, and she was still performing in her late 70s, playing on Broadway. She just died in her sleep one night after the show. I was very influenced by Ruth Draper.
BSW: Who or what led you to her work?
Tomlin: I was working in a coffeehouse in Detroit and doing sketches and monologues and stuff like that. We'd do everything. We'd do Beckett in the early part of the evening. I did Happy Days many times because there's only one character and because it's hard to get people to show up every night for no pay. Then after theatre, you'd have comedy and sketches and folk singing and poetry readings, and then after hours you'd have jazz. We'd do whatever we could do to keep a show going. I did everything from sweep the place to work on monologues.
A man came in one night and said, "Do you know who Ruth Draper is?" and I said, "No." He said, "Go to the library. There are some recordings of her. You make me think of her." I didn't know what a compliment that was at the time.
BSW: Did you have an acting teacher who influenced your work?
Tomlin: I became very close to Peggy Feury. I met Peggy on All of Me in '84. She played the doctor in that film. I'd always heard about her. Before that I took classes three or four times with different people, but I lasted, I'd say, about three classes. I could not figure out what to do. I could not understand when they'd do the work. I only understood the work after I'd been doing it for a long time and I had more technique that I could rely on. For many years I had no technique. I pretended I was that person in whatever way I thought you did that. I could be emotional if I had to be and so on.
By the time I met Peggy, I was a more experienced actor. She was really something extraordinary. She understood me and I worked with her on developing my performance in Search. We spent a lot of time drinking coffee and just rapping. Rap on, sister. We just had a lot to talk about. In the talking, you learn, too. She was just an inspiration and a discipline. I was very fond of her, and it was really tragic when she died. She died while I was on Broadway in '85. So I really only knew her a short time, but I feel like I knew her 20 years.
BSW: Were there other important champions of your work?
Tomlin: [Executive producer] George Schlatter. He got me on Laugh-In. I didn't want to be on television. I wanted to be a stage actress. I'd gone to L.A. to be on a show called The Music Scene, and I'd had a bid to go on Laugh-In, but I didn't want to go on because Music Scene was much hipper. It was like a midnight special but primetime. You know, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix—we thought we were just out there, just so cool. It just had hip written all over it.
When that show failed and got cancelled in mid-season, the offer was still there to go to Laugh-In. I was always working on one monologue or another, and a monologue is what got me the attention of George Schlatter, who saw me on Merv Griffin in New York when I was still unknown. It was one of my very oldest monologues, and I still do it sometimes. It's so very funny. It's a woman, Lucille, who's addicted to eating rubber objects, and she's doing an AA confession. At that time Lucille was a kind of hip take against people who were anti-drug but pro-alcohol and pro-cigarettes or whatever was socially acceptable. So the whole idea was that she was addicted to eating rubber objects and her life is ruined. At the end she's just another socially acceptable alcoholic, but she delineates her fall through her compulsion to eat rubber.
Also, Robert Altman was very important to me. At a time when I was doing characters like Ernestine, no one would put me in the movies. I had no idea how hard it was to cross over in those days.
BSW: Your humor often incorporates political and social commentary. Do you see those elements lacking in much of the material presented by today's young comedians?
Tomlin: Well, they talk about their lives, but they should be able to reveal something if they talk about their lives. I don't mean to make this sound self-aggrandizing, but my first big review—which I was really nervous about—I got from John Wasserman in San Francisco in '71. He's dead now, but John was the hip comedy reviewer and we used to call it "getting your Wasserman." I did my first big concert in San Francisco alone at the Masonic with like 3,000 people, and in the review he wrote, "Comedy will never be the same. Lily Tomlin does not say something to be funny. She's funny to say something."
But you can't dictate why I was so fortunate to work the way I did. I couldn't possibly tell you. I came from a working-class family. I lived in Detroit in a black neighborhood. I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of people, and I'm sure that formed my sensibility in some way, in terms of a certain kind of affection for almost everybody—for seeing their humanity. I'd see them in such vulnerable, frail, sometimes stupid circumstances, and then I'd see them do something so magnificent.
BSW: There very few women comedians when you were starting out, weren't there?
Tomlin: That's another reason I was lucky. The field was fairly open. In my time I can almost count them. There were film and later television comedians like Joan Davis, Gracie Allen, and Martha Raye, but you didn't see standup women. The first standup woman I saw was Jean Carroll, who's still living. I'd see her on Ed Sullivan when I was about 10 and she did husband jokes. She had kind of a snappy delivery and she'd wear a gown—she was feminine—and she'd say, "I'll never forget the first time I saw my husband standing on a hill, his hair blowing in the breeze, and he's too proud to run after it." At 10, I'd put on my mother's slip and I'd tell that joke. Imogene Coca was another influence, and then, of course, Lucy.
In later years there were more standup women, but there were a just handful before Carol Burnett came along. At that time, there were very few people even doing comedy. People used to say to me, "How can you do comedy? You have to lose your femininity," or, "You've got to be fat or ugly or you've got to make fun of yourself as a female." I didn't think any of that was true.
BSW: How were you able to tune out your detractors and listen to your inner voice?
Tomlin: Well, I had a misconception from the time I was a child. I was always surprised that everyone didn't think I was the most beautiful girl in grade school. I must have been terribly self-focused. If someone said to me, "Oh, you have such pretty eyes," I'd think, I have the prettiest eyes in the world. It didn't occur to me that maybe that was just a passing remark and just maybe in fact they were over-compensating. [Laughs.]
BSW: There's a story about you that I just love. Before you were a success you worked at a Howard Johnson restaurant on Broadway, where you became a popular attraction among the regulars. Tell me about your "Waitress of the Week" act.
Tomlin: I would call [on the intercom] and announce myself, "The Waitress of the Week," and I'd walk out on the floor. That was funny because all the girls I worked with were wannabe actresses, and they'd come in and, we'd have these old starched white cotton uniforms from the '30s. They were down to the ankles, shapeless, and made for more buxom bodies that had more hips, and these girls were all kind of skinny. So they'd come in the morning and they'd roll the hems up and stitch them really fast so they were like mini-skirts and then they'd wear slimmer tennis shoes to make their legs look good. They'd have big hair flying all around.
Then I'd come in and wear the uniform regulation and I had great big shoes with big rubber soles. [Laughs] I'd wear the little cardboard thing with the hairnet. I would really go all out to be a Howard Johnson waitress.
BSW: So you turned your waitressing job into a performance piece, in a sense.
Tomlin: Well, having fun, really, but you're right—performing—because I was really entertaining the other people in the restaurant.
BSW: One thing that is on most actors' minds is auditions. I understand that auditions are not your favorite thing.
Tomlin: I never got anything from an audition. I don't think I ever would've got anything from an audition, because I didn't have really great technique. It's sort of disheartening to say that to people. Auditions are very tough.
BSW: What would you tell someone starting out to encourage them through the inevitable rejection?
Tomlin: First of all, I would say getting famous is not the deal. Working is really the deal, and ultimately making a living doing it is what's really great. I think that the more they do, the better. That's why you go to class—because you get to work and you get to do scenes. Anything you get asked to do I would say do it, unless it's something really degrading that you don't want to do. It doesn't have to be the greatest job in the world, and you don't have to have the biggest part. It's like [my character] Bobbi-Jeanine says, "I've played every city and town in this country, and I haven't always been on the top of the bill."
I would've been happy [to stay] in Detroit. I really didn't do it to get famous. I discovered how much I loved doing it, and I thought, Well, I'll get my own coffeehouse, and that's what I'll do. I didn't think about being famous. I thought being famous was something of a detriment.
If you have the love to act, then you don't have to be in the absolute spotlight. You don't have to just work in L.A. or New York. If you want to get famous, well then, I guess you do. If you really love your art, you'll find other ways to do it. But the main thing I would say is, do as much as you can do. I mean, even I continuously learn just by doing, you know? I get better and better by doing. BSW