Lily Tomlin: A Lifetime of Laughter
It’s not like I hadn’t been excited about an interview before, but this one was different. Chatting with Lily Tomlin was not unlike the days when I’d sit enraptured in front of my parents’ early American, "the quality goes in before the name goes on," black-and-white Zenith console television, watching this lady bring to life her wondrous characters. Creatures like the shrewd telephone operator, Ernestine (one ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy) or the inimitable Edith Ann, the saucy little girl with the big rocking chair.
Many might not remember the show "Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In," but most know Edith Ann. She’s the raspberry tongued, big-hearted girl with the even bigger attitude. Tomlin’s characters were all pieces in a popular and timely show that reflected its moment-a time of many changes, socially, politically and in long-held attitudes.
As Tomlin said, "That show was really impactful, there were so many people from that era who literally did grow up with it and the people on it. The programming was so broadly based, something for the adults, something for kids, we had fans from 6 years old to 96. I was very lucky to sort of step into it when I did." Lucky for us, for sure!
Where did it all begin for you, or better said where did you get your start?
I got on that television show "Music Scene"; it was a very "hip" show at the time. We had a tie-in with Billboard, so it was like a contemporary "Hit Parade"-it pre-dated "Midnight Special." We had concerts with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, just everybody... we though we were just as cool as you can get! Sadly we got cancelled mid-season.
Was that in New York?
No, it was actually out here in California. I came here from New York to be on the show. I actually arrived on the day of those terrible Manson murders-I walked into that right off the bat.
Wow, that was quite an arrival greeting!
Yes, it was a bit too much for me at the time. Anyway, I came out to do Music Scene and I got to do one of my monologues on the show and then some one sent it to the producer of "Laugh-In." The show was already in its third season and I went and met with George Schlatter (the producer) and he hired me! He was one of the first; I think he was one of the first people that actually "got me." Because you know, a lot of time I would go on an audition and break into one of my monologues or character, and they would literally pull back kind of physically...
This was in the late ’60s and as I said, George hired me in ’69 and I went on mid-season for the first time. I introduced Ernestine and of course she ended up being a big hit. So that’s how it all happened...
That was such a different time period, there was so much happening in society, so much change. Did you have a sense back then of how significant it all was?
I don’t know, I don’t think that when you’re in your time that kind of embryonically, that you sense the change. You just think you’re the ones that know everything... just like the ones coming along now do.
(Laughs) We just thought we knew something. It’s like the young ones coming along now, I mean actors starting out and comedians now you know, their material generally reflects their time.
Was it during "Laugh-In" where you developed most of your other characters or did that happen before?
I brought Ernestine to the show but I was trying to pitch others to the producers and because Ernestine was such a big hit, I went on the road with Dan and Dick (Rowan and Martin, hosts of "Laugh-In") that summer. I was on a half of a season and Ernestine was such an insane hit, she was such a monster. I mean people were crazy for her; they were fanatical about her! (Laughs)
So I went on the road with Dan and Dick, I opened for them and I developed Edith Ann while I was on the road. I would ask the audience about her, I would do improvisations and have the audience ask her questions, then sort of built her from there. Then I came back, pitched her for the Laugh-In producers and they didn’t like her... they said she was too bratty!
(I’m the one laughing now!) No way!
Yea, they though she was too bratty... I said, "she’s not bratty, she’s precocious." (Laughs)
I developed other characters too, so I had Suzy Sorority, you know "Suzy Sorority of the Silent Majority," born out of what was a catch phrase at the time. She’s the character who finds the aborted fetus in the incinerator.
I didn’t really have her developed yet, but they wanted me to do that character, so I told them that if they could do Edith (Ann) I would do Suzy. And of course we used her a little bit and I had a very good monologue with her when she was formed.
Oh man, I do remember that.
Yes, it was a really good monologue. I did Edith Ann around the same time and she took off, just like Ernestine did. You know in the beginning I did her out of a cardboard box because they wouldn’t build me the rocking chair-they said it was "too expensive" at the time.
I needed the size relationship so I would use a refrigerator box; you know the kind that kids might make their fort out of. I am in it and sort of push a flap up and say something (laughs) it was miraculous... and within a very short period of time I had my rocking chair!
I can remember as a kid wanting to be her, she said things that we all wanted to say.
Yes, of course, because she did a raspberry at the end... All kids love that! I often wonder what kids thought... did they think I was a grown-up doing it? Or did they think I was a grown-up who shrank?
You know, one of my favorites of your characters has always been Tommy Velour-he’s such a swanky Vegas combo.
Oh yeah, that came during my specials, I was always developing new acts then. I was able to develop a lot of characters because I had all the resources to do it. I had a writing staff and costumes and that kind of support. I badly wanted a series of my own back then, because it was like a playground.
So, this is our "Love" issue and Jane, your partner, has been a big part of your career both personally and professionally. Do you mind me asking about how you met?
No. I met Jane because we had a mutual friend; she was living in New York, I was living in California. I was already on Laugh-In so I was pretty well known at this point and I had heard about Jane, how brilliant she was, how beautiful she was... So, one day while I was staying at the Sherry-Netherland in New York, we had a mutual friend who brought Jane over to my suite and I was extremely taken with her.
I was leaving the next morning to go on the road, I can’t remember where, wait, it was Chicago someplace... but my record had come out then... I think it was my Ernestine album and they were having a dinner so I asked my friend to try to get Jane to come to it. (Laughs)
The way that I got her to come work with me, she was working on this thing called J.T. at the time, which was an Afterschool Special shown on CBS about a kid in Harlem who befriends a stray cat. It was so critically acclaimed that she won a Peabody Award; it was so essenced and every line was so overwhelmingly poetic-it was almost an aphorism-yet it was completely natural.
So I was working on my Edith Ann album and after I had been introduced to her, I wrote to her and asked her because J.T. was about a kid, and because it was tender and funny and moving and edgy, so I asked her to come and help me do the Edith Ann album because I wanted Edith to be more than she was on Laugh In.
I didn’t hear from her for weeks and weeks and it was coming time to go in and record-then suddenly I get pages and pages of paper from her! (Laughs) It’s still exactly the same today too-I am actually one of the few people who can read them. It’s notated up the sides, there are like 20 different versions down the other and notes all over the place!
At any rate, I ask her to come out to California and help me produce the album- thankfully she did and we’ve stayed together ever since!
Tell us a little bit about what working on Malibu Country is like for you.
Well this is our 14th show this week already, its really been fun and I’ve really started to enjoy it. You know it takes a couple weeks to get your footing, we all kind of clicked as actors from the beginning, but it takes a while as the writers adapt and the characters find their voices.
I was a big fan of Reba’s, before I knew her and had seen her in "Annie Get Your Gun" on Broadway-she was absolutely out of this world. She was so alive in the role as soon as she hit the stage, two minutes into it I started weeping and I literally never stopped, for almost the whole two hours. She affirmed everyone’s humanity by being so present; it was mesmerizing.
I have had that experience only three or four times in my lifetime, all in the most disparate ways. I saw Kim Stanley do Three Sisters on Broadway, she and Geraldine Page were in it together and when they left the stage, you absolutely knew they were just going to another part of the house-it was sublime.
I saw Barbara Harris do "Oh Dad, Poor Dad" back in ’62 and she was so brilliant commedically and I was so impressed, that all I wanted to do was go home-I wasn’t even going to try! Even Carol Channing when she does Hello Dolly, she is so in that part that her humanity is illuminated.
That’s interesting to hear from you, because that’s exactly what I would say to you about how you are with your characters. They are so real and in the moment, funny yet poignant, you suspend time and what you are saying is real for that moment-everything falls away.
Well, I don’t know what to say... I’m glad to hear that, thank you.
It’s a compliment and I mean it. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this, you have made my day!
Thank you, it was my pleasure.
For dates and tour details, visit lilytomlin.com.