I got to interview Lily Tomlin for this week's WE. Pick up a copy if you get the chance!
An interview with the legendary Lily Tomlin is a remarkable way to spend Christmas Eve. Her throaty laughter punctuates every anecdote, and conversation quickly becomes the equivalent of a meandering stroll behind the scenes of late-20th-century Hollywood. From her first regular paying gig, opposite Madeline Khan and Dixie Carter, to her recent stint on Desperate Housewives, Tomlin has continued to revolutionize and redefine what it means to be a woman in comedy.
Which female comedians inspired you when you were younger?
Tomlin: I had very eclectic tastes, from the most sophisticated to the most out-there person. As a kid growing up, when we first got a TV, I would see a lot of women who had sitcoms, like Joan Davis from I Married Joan — she was very range-y, she wasn’t pretty, but a very character-looking woman. And, of course, Lucy [Lucille Ball]; I loved her and Ethel and the stuff they would get into, the physicality. One time, at [New York comedy club] Upstairs at the Downstairs, one of the young girls was the ingénue, but she was hilarious offstage. She’d be telling me stories and doing stuff, and I’d be telling her she should do that onstage because she was always so boring, because the ingénues are always boring, and she’d fluff up and her hair would get real big and she’d say, “Oh, I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was unattractive.”
Speaking of the attractive element of women in comedy, have you seen the cover story on Tina Fey for this month’s Vanity Fair?
I saw the cover, but I haven’t read it yet. Was there a lot of character stuff inside?
Well, the author, Maureen Dowd...
Ah, well, forget it. As much as I love her sometimes, she’s really a piece of work.
It’s all about how Tina Fey has become hot, and how her attractiveness has finally caught up to her brains. I can’t imagine being Tina Fey and reading it. It’s really just a sum of her body parts.
I’ve gotta read it before I jump to any conclusions, but that’s a shame. Maureen’s not a very generous person. I don’t know her, I shouldn’t make these pronouncements, but, from her pieces, she doesn’t seem very generous, and I would think she’s not very kind to other women.
Yeah, I don’t think you need to be lovely to every woman because you have matching parts, but still...
I think it clouds her objectivity, and I don’t read Maureen with any intense regularity. Primarily, in the ’50s and ’60s, people would say, “How can you do stand-up? You’ll lose your femininity.” That was an old song. Frankly, it didn’t even occur to me. I wasn’t crazy about anybody who debased the species. In the old days, [male comedians] would always say, “Take my mother-in-law... please!” and I always wanted to play the mother-in-law.
What made you decide to get back out on the road now and do stand-up?
I never stopped doing stand-up, one-nighters or two-nighters. From the time I got on Laugh-In, I had an act, and it was the only thing that kept me off Match Game [a popular ’70s game show whose guest panel was ostensibly a dumping ground for has-been celebrities]. Unless I was doing a movie or doing my one-woman show, I always had my act and did 40 to 50 dates a year.
What sorts of things are on your mind right now?
Everything to me is sort of political, so it depends on what’s going on in the times. Ernestine [one of Tomlin’s famous characters from Laugh-In] is a good character and she can speak to anybody. She’s irascible. Lately, she’s been working at a big healthcare insurance company, and so she can deny healthcare to everyone, and that makes her happy. And it speaks to that issue.
Almost everyone in Canada was really excited about Obama getting elected. Are you still feeling that sensation of hope and change?
We’re praying for it. I mean, even the whole Rick Warren thing — I can sort of buy Obama’s justification about different points of view and so on. When I was on Laugh-In, we were so political about the Vietnam War — those of us against the war — and John Wayne was on the show and I wouldn’t even be photographed with him. In retrospect, as a mature person, I regret those times. I wish I’d been more outgoing with them and found out what they think and why they think it, see if I could influence them. But when you’re younger, you have this sort of righteous thing, and it’s not good.