A Real Character
Lily Tomlin brings her one-woman show to the Alys Stephens Center.
Black & White: I read that you were once a pre-med student.
Lily Tomlin: Oh, kind of. You know . . . I was, technically, but that doesn’t mean much. It just means you take a lot of science courses, or start to. I never graduated college and I never did very well in college. I sort of had textbook narcolepsy. You open one and the aroma from the page or something just knocks you out. You crash forward.
Do you remember when you felt confident that you could consistently make someone laugh?
I did it all through my childhood because I always put on shows and things. I lived in an old apartment house in Detroit . . . You know how Southerners are. [Her parents and relatives are from Kentucky.] Everybody in the family—at least from that generation—was so quirky and had their own little personality. People were so colorful, [including] all my aunts and my uncles, and my dad and my mom, too. My mom was witty and adorable. My dad was just kind of a character, he was a street character. I went to the bars with him and the bookie joints. He was a factory worker but he always wore a suit jacket to work and a hat and he wore Florsheim shoes. And he always had a big roll of money on him because he gambled. My mom was, of course, the total opposite. She was a good Southern woman who had a good house.
Every summer I went to Kentucky and lived on the farm with my aunt and uncle and all those old cousins, with whom I’m still close. I have a real bond with family. As differently as I was raised, being in the inner city of Detroit and growing up in a black neighborhood . . . I just had a whole richness of experience with all kinds of different people. And, of course, then I would be on the farm when I was a little kid. I’d see animals copulating and I’d go back to kindergarten and paint it! I knew it was something I wasn’t supposed to talk about or illustrate. But I liked holding court, you know? Getting a little rise out of people.
Did your kindergarten teachers ever scold you?
No, I could see they would be a little bit shocked and a little bit amused. And so then I would just pursue it. I don’t ever remember really being suppressed. Maybe a kind of omission of praise. I was just more amused by it. I knew it caused a charge, a little charge in the room. And I must have liked the theatricality of it.
I read that you studied under Charles Nelson Reilly.
I knew Charles, he was a friend. I only studied with him a couple of weeks because I got on “Laugh-In” and went to California. But the couple of classes I had with him—let me tell you, he was so inventive I feel like I missed out by not having a full course of study with him. He was just absolutely incredibly inventive.
Did you know Paul Lynde?
Oh yes [laughing], I knew Paul. I lived around the corner from him for a long time. I’d walk my dog up around his house and I went to his house many times for dinner. And I also went to a couple of Thanksgivings at his sister’s house. He was a scream [Tomlin does a quick Paul Lynde impersonation] . . . It was well-known that Paul was not a very, uh, happy drinker [laughs]. So if he got too abusive, rooms usually cleared. It was because he could be wicked. He had a real quick, acidic tongue.
Didn’t you upset some television executives when you gave Richard Pryor a big kiss in 1973 on your CBS special?
They had sent down word from the executive offices: “Don’t kiss Richard goodnight.” And we couldn’t believe it. It was certainly not for any show or anything. In fact, I kissed everybody, I kissed all my guests . . . Of course, Richard had his hair corn-rowed on that show. And he came on the set the morning we were gonna shoot and people hadn’t seen corn-rows very much. It was sort of a new thing. And he had it wrapped with white leather and he was making remarks like, “Well, imagine these came from certain Caucasian people.” He said they were wrapped in “human skin,” which wasn’t going over too well, either. But Richard was so brilliant. Actually, that was the show that we did the soul food piece that got a lot of play, a lot of attention. He played a junkie and I owned a soul food restaurant.
Did any of your characters originate from your early days spent performing in coffee houses?
Yes. One character, definitely: The World’s Oldest Living Beauty Expert. Of course, I was conscious of how women had to be younger and better-looking and the pressure on women to be like that. And I was fascinated because Helena Rubinstein and all the old queens of beauty—Estée Lauder and Elizabeth Arden—were so old. They were in their 80s. You never really saw photographs of them except early photographs.
And Helena Rubinstein had that ad on TV with these hands and great fingernails and great big rings she had, and she’d say [Tomlin claps her hands twice loudly and adopts a thick German accent] “I am Helenor Rubinshteim!” But you’d only see her hands and they would show her products. So I was just fascinated by that whole thing, and that was sort of my reaction to the obsession with youth and beauty, because she’s an old beauty consultant and her face is all deteriorated, as you can’t avoid with time and gravity. And then she rejuvenates it, and then she sneezes and it all falls down again. That was one of my first monologues.
Tell me about your experiences on Flip Wilson’s show.
That was one of the first guest shots that I got to do after I was on “Laugh-In” and was well-known. He was so big at that time. In those old days you had those half-dozen variety shows and everybody would do guest shots. You don’t have that anymore.
Flip and I did this whole routine where Ernestine is teaching Geraldine how to be a phone operator. [Flip and I] did a thing about date-matching and we’re in the lobby together and we’re getting along so well. And this is a very innocent, sweet kind of sketch from those early days. My God, this goes back 40 years, almost. And you can see that we’re just sort of meant for each other but then we go in and, of course, we’re not gonna be paired, partly because of the racial thing at that time. But that’s never spoken of but it’s implied.
Are you ever offended by comics like Sam Kinison or Andrew Dice Clay?
No, I’m not offended but it depends. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it. Now, Sam used to tickle me a little bit. That one thing he had when he talked about people starving to death [in Africa]. He’d say, “There’s no food there, go where the food is!” That sort of incredible black irony. But I couldn’t even quote very much of what Sam did onstage. Who knows why people get up the persona they get to do what they do? I’m much more attracted to the more humanistic. I greatly adored Pryor. Because his material was so human, so vulnerable. He was so vulnerable himself. I’m more drawn to character portrayal. I’m not a big fan of scatological stuff.
Has Ernestine [Tomlin's telephone operator character] been approached by the Bush Administration to perhaps assist with wire-tapping in the past few years?
When the whole NSA thing surfaced, a lot of editorial cartoonists went back and used Ernestine. They had her in the White House phone room with those little slit eyes, listening. She constantly resurfaces. In recent times, she has a reality-based webcast chat show called “Ernestine Calls You On It, and You Better Have an Answer.” Wherever she can have power. Not too long ago she took a job at one of the HMOs so she could decline all the requests for life-saving healthcare. [laughs]
Didn’t you and other cast members snub John Wayne when he appeared on “Laugh-In”?
[Laughing] Well, I didn’t get my picture taken with him ’cause I was so anti-war at the time, and so anti-Nixon and the White House scene. And then once a very sad thing happened. You know, when you’re young like that, instead of engaging John Wayne in some way . . . to me it was more juvenile, but in those days—or any day—it seems like that’s how you took a stand. But I’m not saying it’s productive. It’s not a very good tactic.
Anyway, so Martha Mitchell [the wife of Nixon attorney general John Mitchell who frequently leaked to reporters information about her husband's Watergate activity] came on the show. You know how she was always calling journalists at night. She was known for that, her phone activity. So I was supposed to do a phone call with her. And I did but I only did it on the split screen, you know? It was just stupid [not to appear on the set with Mitchell]. I mean, I really see it as stupid.
And then later, when all that terrible stuff happened to her with John Mitchell—many people think she was really, really suppressed, both physically and verbally. Many people think she was taken prisoner in a sense, or sedated. And then in her autobiography she talks about that, on one of the very earliest pages. And I only read it after she died. And she said how deeply hurt she was that I snubbed her at “Laugh-In.” And she would be exactly the kind of woman that I would be able to communicate with. She’s just like a family member—flamboyant, Southern, plenty to say, and kind of has that engaging innocence. It was something I totally regretted.
What was your reaction when you discovered that the clips from I Heart Huckabees, where you and director David Russell are cursing one another, were on YouTube?
Well, first of all, they were old. They were like four years old, and I had never really seen them. But they had made the rounds of the agencies here at the time. We’re [Russell and Tomlin] still friends. In fact, we were friends probably 10 or 15 minutes after one of those things happened. But it was the same week that poor Britney Spears was in that incredible, uh, you know, uh, crotch shot—I’m trying to choose a word for “crotch shot”—on the internet. Those words [on the YouTube clip] were inside of me and I said them. People are going to have to realize that maybe I’m not the perfect, well-behaved, well-spoken person they might imagine I would be. And some guy in China made a rap song to it . . .
Would the type of confrontation you had with Russell ever have happened between you and Robert Altman?
Noooo, God, no . . . David’s pretty volatile, anyway, and it was just the nature of what was going on that day. And you saw me. I said, “I’ve had it up to here!” [laughs] And I was pretty upset that day from all kinds of circumstances. You can’t hear David. He’s yelling at me outside the car, saying all kinds of things. But you can only hear me, unfortunately.
Altman, he was one of a kind. Even when we were making A Prairie Home Companion, he was getting chemo. But you would never even think about it, other than that he was kind of frail. But he was completely Altman, he was completely in charge without being in any way authoritative or overbearing. He was just so cool. Actors just adored Altman because he was just incredibly human, available, unpretentious. And if you made Altman laugh, that was really awesome.
Let me tell you this story because it didn’t get in the movie, because his cameras are floating all the time. A lot of times you do something and it’s not really being photographed. So when Meryl Streep and I would talk [in the film] about our mother when we would sing, and we’re talking about the old days and how Momma was scrubbing the floor and how our singing made her smile and all that, and what hard times we had. This is a story about my own father and his family. And I love this story so much that I was always thinking, “Now where can I get it into [a movie]? This is the perfect movie.”
So I said [to Streep's character], “Well, all our times weren’t hard. Remember when we as kids were acting up and Momma would boil an ear of corn and put it down on the floor and we’d all root around and eat it like we were pigs? Those were happy times!” And Altman laughed . . . It wasn’t on film and I never repeated it. If I’d known it wasn’t on film, believe me, I would have repeated it. &
Lily Tomlin appears Saturday, November 3, 8 p.m., at the Alys Stephens Center. Tickets are $28-$62. Details: 975-2787 or www.alysstephens.org.