The Oscar-nominated, Tony and Emmy award-winning Lily Tomlin made her mainstream performance bones as the snotty, snorting, less-than-helpful telephone operator Ernestine, the bilabial-fricative-prone 5-year old Edith Anne, and the socially correct femme d'un certain âge Tasteful Lady on NBC's Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, a faux-mod sketch comedy show that helped kill the 1960s. Since, Tomlin has kicked ass in every form of performance you can think of and has created dozens of characters for her various stage and screen endeavors, which will be the source of the evening's entertainment when she appears at Baltimore's Lyric Opera House April 3. City Paper spoke to Tomlin via phone, and our intrusive resistance to/appreciation of the irony of speaking with her over the telephone instrument was erased by her soothing, sexy voice. Yeah, we're fans.
City Paper: My mom used to work in advertising and she brought home a lot of swag, a lot of comedy albums like Tom Lehrer, Allan Sherman, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, and This is a Recording: Lily Tomlin, so you’re part of my formative years of what’s supposed to be funny.
Lily Tomlin: I’m honored, yeah, good company.
CP: What’s the show at the Lyric going to be?
LT: It’s a compilation of characters, all different ones, from Laugh-In, from television. The only character I do from [her 1985 Broadway show] The Search[for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe] is a little bit of Trudy. Some characters come from [1977's] Appearing Nightly, which was our first show. I do Ernestine and Edith from Laugh-In, but Ernestine now works for a big health-care insurance corporation, so she denies health care to everyone.
CP: Ernestine also of the classic Saturday Night Live fake ad, “We don’t care, we don’t have to, we’re the phone company.”
LT: It’s her motto, not the company’s. She finds a company that it fits and she goes there.
CP: So it’s familiar characters reacting to new situations and new things?
LT: Yeah, whatever’s relevant. Some pieces I still do intact, like “The world’s oldest beauty expert,” because nothing’s different about growing old. Her face is all deteriorated, she rejuvenates it, and then she sneezes and it all falls down. She’s the world’s oldest living beauty expert. I’ll try to talk about Baltimore and D.C.
CP: You have a little bit of experience in Baltimore because of Homicide?
LT:Oh yeah, that was great. Oh God, I wanted to win the Emmy for that. I got nominated, I think I could’ve won, but we shot the last scene first and I just didn’t have it thought out. The last scene, I had killed my husband for fooling around with my girlfriend. I found her hat in the back seat of his car and I have that hat on, and I’m an opera teacher—and I’m not a good singer myself. So in the end, after I kill the girlfriend, you don’t see too much of this, you see a little bit of her lying on the floor. And I put the hat back on her head. But The Somnambulist is playing. I play it on the record player and I’m out on the porch, and I could have—that was my last scene—that would be my chance for her to have a real performance, you know, and inSomnambulist, that aria, she’s sobs, you know [she sobs], I would have played it to the hilt.
CP: But it got shot backward?
LT: It got shot first, I was a little tentative, I didn’t know quite how to play it. The first day on the set you’re not quite as cheeky as you would be the last day on the set. See, I would have been chained to that swing—I don’t know if you saw it—I would have been chained to that porch swing, and the music was on and I would just be singing it, full out, on the porch, and it would be my performance, you know—because those who can’t, teach, and then she’d have her chance. She can do it. It probably wouldn’t be good vocally, but she would know what she’s doing. [laughs]. But I didn’t do it, I held back, darn it. But I’m awfully glad I did it. I used to love that show. I wanted to be on it desperately and that’s how I got on West Wing, too, I sent word over, “Please can I get a guest role?”
CP: You replaced a character [Mrs. Landingham, the President’s secretary] that had a lot of emotion behind it, when that character died.
LT: Oh, she was beloved. She’s a good friend of mine, Kathryn Joosten, and in fact I just did [Desperate]Housewives with her. I played her sister for four episodes—I don’t know if you watch Housewives—but Dave is a bad guy, and she knows he’s a bad guy and everybody’s made her feel crazy. Then she came to me and we sleuthed him out quite a bit, but then, I sort of lose faith that she knows what she’s doing, too, and I cut out. But I’m gonna come back to Wisteria Lane to point the finger at Dave. [laughs] But we’ve been friends since I met her on Murphy Brown—she was one of Murphy’s secretaries.
CP: With your partner Jane Wagner, do you write an outline? Do you talk to her in character?
LT: Jane is a solitary writer, really, so she sits and writes. But you never know when she’s writing, and you’re begging her to write, please, to write, please write. And you know, she says she’s writing and you know that she’s watching Oprah—like all writers. [laughs]
CP: Do you guys worry about jokes?
LT: No, I do a lot of observational one-liners, that was my way in to jokes. Character lines are what’s funny.
CP: So you just figure, OK, if we have a laugh here. . .
LT: Oh no—we make it out of characters, situations, the observations. They’re funny, but they’re also perceptive. I just always want stuff to be about something—not that I don’t love a great joke. I have a huge range of style myself, and appreciation for style. I did as a kid even, so, no the show is really pretty hilarious—I mean, I think it’s pretty non-stop laughing. Well, I won’t promise that [laughs] but generally it is, the situations are pretty funny and the treatment of them, the metaphor is funny, or the concept behind it is always pretty offbeat. Kind of you know, coming at if from a strange angle
CP: You don’t have to have the background of the characters.
LT: No, they always kind of announce who they are, built in to the content. You don’t have to know anything about The Search for me to do Trudy. You know she’s a street person and she tells you that she used to be a designer and a creative consultant. And she’s on the street and people are calling her crazy and she’s yelling back at them. You create a life for them and a place for them in that moment and you don’t have to have history, no.
CP: Has anybody given you credit—Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Hoch, John Leguizamo—for doing multi-character, single-person shows?
LT: John and Whoopi have spoken about me. Danny is younger, much younger, and he’s much more of that real, radical hip-hop. I’ve seen Danny a couple of times and we have mutual friends—like Reno is a great friend of mine, do you know Reno?
LT: She knows Danny, she toured with him. I think if they’re that much younger than I am, there’s some connection. If they’re 20 years younger, they may not even realize they grew up on a show that I did characters on, but there are people, of course, that I was influenced by, so we’re all influenced by all those things. And Danny’s quite brilliant. Tracey [Ullman], too, has said that as a youngster, she would sit and watch a show and say, “I wanna do that.” Or she probably said, “I can do that.”
CP: That’s one of those weird irrational things you worry about when you see a performer and you have no connection with them other than seeing them and you’re like, “Jeez, you know, I wonder if they give her any credit for almost inventing that.”
LT: They’ll reference me from time to time, but I don’t take it to heart [laughs].
CP: What happened with 12 Miles of Bad Road? Is it gonna wind up someplace?
LT: Oh, no. Never. HBO owns it with the [writing/production tean of husband and wife duo Linda and Harry] Bloodworth-Thomasons, but when the new regime came in after Chris Albrecht got fired they just did not hit it off. The sets alone—because it was a very rich family—they spent about $25 million on the show, and they just tore it down. It was unbelievable. [laughs] They sold all the clothes—we had really rich clothes, I mean, within reason.
CP: There’s been some other things on that channel that I just don’t understand how they wound up there. And they don’t even run this thing. It’s amazing.
LT: I’m sure they have the episodes—six episodes, yeah. I don’t know why they wouldn’t even—they didn’t want to be wrong. They didn’t want for it to somehow catch on and they would be wrong, terribly wrong. They were so adamant about stuff, what should or should not be there, and wanting to change it with the Bloodworths. It was really growing into—it’s a show that really grew on you, because it was just like a big sprawling Texas soap with extremely rich people and all the actors were really good.
CP: Yeah, Mary Kay Place? That’s too bad.
LT: Yeah Mary Kay’s wonderful.
CP: OK, I gotta ask you about eggs. I go to the market, it’s “organic,” it’s “cage free,” I’m gonna spend the extra buck to make sure the chicken had a nice life. What am I looking for?
LT: Oh, had a nice life, I agree, but no, free range isn’t good enough. It doesn’t mean they aren’t, but free range could just mean they’re not in cages, but they’re running around on a cement floor. Find out who’s got the approval of the activists.
CP: There’s part of me that wants to support this and then there’s part of me that says, “Why am I spending an extra $3.50 for a dozen eggs?" I’m ready to go half way. You know, I go to Whole Foods, I trust them, they’re pretty good.
LT: I’ve written lots of letters, I’ve been active on the part of chickens, and Jane has a cousin in the family who has 40 chickens as pets. [laughs] And once you know an animal you can't—it’d be like eating a kitty or a dog. Chickens have personality, too.
CP: Yeah, birds have personalities.
LT: Absolutely. She’s got her little rooster that sits on her lap while she’s on the phone and he’s crowing as little bit. [Lily Tomlin performs rooster noises.] It’s really tough—there’s so many people to feed, it’s gruesome, isn’t it, the nature of the world and the food supply.
CP: I got a cousin who’s got an egg hatchery, and it’s like a concentration camp. It’s horrible.
LT: Yeah, I’ve got a cousin in Kentucky, a big agri-farmer, and he raises a half a million chickens. And I try to talk to him about it [but] what’s he gonna do? They think you’re cockeyed.
CP: Yeah, they’re like, “what are you talking about, I’m feeding people, I’m doing a great thing.”
LT: But your chickens don’t have any beaks and they take their feet off sometimes and they’re 20 to a cage and they can’t breathe. I spent my summers in Kentucky, every summer, from inner-city Detroit, so I was constantly back and forth between two rather extreme environments. You know, in the old days when it was time for summer, my aunt would go out and chase a chicken and the poor chicken would be running and she’d grab up that chicken and wring its neck off, and I’d just be begging, pleading, hanging at her dress, pulling at her, “Stop, please stop,” and, uh, anyway.
CP: My mom always tells the story about having to go to the butcher and point to a live bird, and then, you know, and she’d have to take home the warm bag and it would just kill her.
LT: Ohh . . .
CP: My grandfather brought home a live turkey and kept it in the basement and my mom basically made a pet out of it and ruined Thanksgiving.
LT: [laughs] I know that’s what would happen in most cases if you had that time with the animal. I was playing a place up in Colorado a year or so ago where they had huge feed lots, cattle-feed lots, and we know that environmentally all the methane gas is not good for the air, for the ozone and everything, the water table, what are we gonna do? What are we gonna do with humans? I think we’re just gonna have to get rid of ’em.
CP: We may take care of that ourselves. Everybody’s talking about how with Obama we’re supposed to be post-racial.
LT: It is a step.
CP: How about post-feminist?
LT: [laughs] Oh yeah, right. No, that doesn’t work entirely. We’re definitely not post-racial. The awareness just increases a little bit, the edges get a little wider.
CP: Where do you stand on having a legitimate dispute that comes out of doing some work end up on the internet for the amusement of the entire world?
LT: You’re talking about from Huckabees?
CP: There’s that thing of you, I’ve never watched it, you’re yelling at somebody. But the recent one is of Christian Bale who got mad at somebody and he’s yelling, and it’s on the radio, it’s on YouTube . . .
LT: Nothing you can do about it. It’s the internet, you’re not gonna supress what’s considered a form of freedom of expression, free speech, you just have to take it. What about shooting [photographs of] between Britney Spears’ legs, and that being on the internet forever, or anything that’s shown? I don’t know what would have been on the internet when I was young and at the peak of my popularity. God, I’m pretty well behaved. I’m not like a loose cannon that just goes off, and I’m good friends with David [O. Russell, director] and I admire him and think he’s a wonderful director and a really genius guy. But we’re both kind of volatile and we got into a fight about something, and it was just out of control, both of us. I mean, he’s outside the car screaming at me, too, but you can’t hear him. [laughs]
I’m not going to go in to details but the movie’s unusual to begin with, so it fostered a kind of direction for him. This movie underwent so many changes, and he’s so brilliant, in fact Dustin [Hoffman] compared the direction of it—he was saying it’s like Jackson Pollack throwing paint at the camera. And we’d be doing a scene and he’d say, “Lily, do Dustin’s line,” and then “Dustin, do Lily’s line.” We loved it, we don’t mind, but all you have to do is have some line of communication collapse and we just went off. We did it twice. Second time I was stoic, and somewhat regal, as he threw a water bottle at me, but [laughs] that one was really funny because there were two doors in that room and he’d go in one and come out the other. [laughs]
But it happened four years before it went on YouTube, it had already made the rounds of the agencies at the time—you know, it was one of those tapes that was hitting everybody in the industry and YouTube got up and running to such a degree that, of course, it’s good material for that. Oh god, they’d put those phone calls on, using my voice, saying “My mother’s really upset. Her car’s not working." And the guy’s like, “Let me talk to her, I can calm her down, Mrs. McDonough—FUCK YOU MOTHERFUCKER I FUCKIN’ HATE YOU." And then some Chinese guy made five rap songs out of it or something, and then all these parodies of it. Paul Rudd and those people did parodies of it. And it just goes on, but how soon even then you’re forgotten.
CP: They’re doing it with Obama, too, because he read his book, his audio book, and there’s a lotta cursing in it, and people have been slicing and dicing his stuff.
LT: Oh god, I didn’t even know that.
CP: You’re involved in this web site, this “wow wow wow” dot com, am I saying it right? [Editor's note: Actually, www.wowowow.com.]
LT: Yeah, “wow oh wow.” We just call it “wow.”
CP: I was going to ask you that tired, hack-y question, “What do you see out there that you like?” Comedy, drama, etc., but because of wowowow, I’m going to ask you about Ruth Draper.
LT: Oh yeah, that was a big influence on me, Ruth. She died in the ’50s so you couldn’t possibly know her and she was never a popular star in the pop sense. She was always a concert artist, particularly back in those days—the early ’30s, ’40s, into the ’50s—and she died in ’56. And Paul Draper was her brother, who was blacklisted, and she came from a sort of upper-class Bostonian family and she toured the world doing her monologues and she’d go in a little tiny cafe or theater in Scotland or Ireland, anyplace she could get a hearing.
CP: How’d you find out about her?
LT: I was working in a coffeehouse in Detroit, I was about 18, and I was doing my monologues and a guy told me about her. He said, “Do you know who Ruth Draper is?” And he said, “I’m sure there are records at the library.” So I went to the library and it was epiphanous, because the monologues are so hilariously funny in a cultural, societal way. They’re not broadly funny, and yet they are funny. The characterizations are wonderful and also they have great humanity.
Her most famous monologue is the Italian lesson, where this upper-class woman is very rich, the whole morning her maids come in, her secretary, and [her teacher] is in the room with her giving her an Italian lesson and they never get beyond the first line of Dante’s Inferno. And she’s, “Just a moment professor,” and then the kids come in with a new puppy, and everything goes on and on, and it’s hilariously, wonderfully done. The character is so full but she keeps stopping on that one line and, of course, she talks about the line and what it means and the literature of it, and then someone brings in a new portrait of one of the children and then hangs it, and they’re worrying about where to hang it and all that stuff. And her husband calls and he’s very bored, and she’s bored, too, and he’s going golfing somewhere as a business trip. And then her lover calls her and then she’s completely different. And she’s laughing and her voice changes—she becomes warmer, sexier, you know, just more womanly—and she starts talking to him saying, “Don’t make me laugh because I’m on my way to a funeral,” and it’s delightful, culturally delightful.
I became great friends with Charles Bowden, who was her producer, because after I did my first Broadway show he and his wife Paula Laurence—they’re both dead now—but Paula was also a Broadway star, cabaret singer, and they were great friends with lots of, you know, Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, people of that era. And I met all those people through them, and he produced the original Mame, the play. They were close to Tennessee Williams, so he produced Night of the Iguana. And when he was a boy he was the stage manager for the [celebrated Broadway couple Lynn Fontanne and Alfred] Lunts, so they go back a long way and they knew everybody. And as a result I got to know that whole generation, which was pretty great. And he produced those albums that I was so influenced by and, subsequently, I got copies of monologues that were never published because Ruth didn’t think they were good enough. I have two or three of those monologues and I’ve got some very rare footage of her performing, which never really existed much, and I was very influenced by her because her artistry was so high.
CP: I’m a big expert, of course, but it’s always, with your characters, a truth—there’s humanity and sweetness and it’s amazing how you are pulled into your characters right away. They're people.
LT: Yeah, you want it that way, thank you, I love for someone to receive it that way. [Ruth Draper] was a big influence. You can get her albums or spoken word, some of them might seem somewhat dated now—but in the humanity, not. They’re just funny and human. I’ve talked about her so much since I’ve got well known, and she was the watermark for me.