"People would recognize me as the new girl on Laugh-In but they didn't necessarily know I was the phone operator. Then they'd say, 'Oh, that girl that does the telephone operator, she's so funny.' I'd say, 'I did the telephone operator!' It was a really sweet high."
– Lily Tomlin
(If this transcript seems disjointed, it's because my digital recorder was acting up. Every minute or so, it would skip several seconds. Sometimes I could piece together what was being said; other times you'll see "[glitch]".)
Guy MacPherson: If I cough in your ear, I apologize. I've got the whatever sickness.
Lily Tomlin: Croupe.
GM: The croupe!
LT: The croupe. We used to say the croupe.
GM: That's what I've got, yes. I've been a big fan of yours since I was a kid. Does that bother you? People must say that to you all the time.
LT: No, I think I'm the kid.
GM: Still, hey? It's interesting, because you're this comedic icon and I'm wondering if you were maybe an insecure performer starting out?
LT: Are there people who are really like completely secure? Or are they people who are really secure in that you don't really know that much and you come to accept all that? Yeah, I think I'm so nervous. I still get nervous or I want it to be great in terms of just performance or your work. And you think, oh God, I'm never going to come up with anything again. I mean, I have probably a certain comfort level because I've been around so long and I feel like there are people who have been through a lot of years with me and we share a some kind of common thread of humour. I've got a fan who [glitch] all the time and he lives here in California so I've run into him many times at shows and he can write me a coherent, timely email using old lines from old bits, real rarified, esoteric lines. They weren't jokes; they might have been little character nuts. There's just that connection through that sharing of a sensibility.
GM: Does that creep you out a little, though?
LT: No! Not if it's funny. He's real smart and funny. It's like he's my kid brother or something. Like family jokes or family references.
GM: You started doing standup, was that right out of college?
LT: I never finished college. I lived in an old apartment house and I don't know why I got it in my mind to put on shows. My family was blue collar; I never went to the theatre or anything like that. I did take ballet and tap and stuff like that from the Department of Parks and Recreation. I liked the idea of putting on a show. And then I think my dad kind of encouraged it. My dad was kind of a street guy, you know? Gambled and went to the bars. I'd go to the bookie joints with him and stuff. I mean, he was a factory worker so he worked all the time. But I would go with him to those places and I think he was real tickled with me. He'd encourage me. He'd put me up on the bar top and get me to sing some little thing like Shoe Fly Pie or something. Performing or doing something pleased my father or my mother. I liked that.
GM: Were they around to see your success?
LT: Oh yeah. My mother lived a long time. She just died two-and-a-half years ago. But my dad, he did get to see me on Laugh-In.
GM: His name was Guy, wasn't it?
LT: Yeah, Guy, right.
GM: Just like me.
LT: I love that name, Guy. When I was trying to get my brother to perform with me, because my brother's really funny – naturally funny, you know? I took my mother's name, Lillie, and I wanted him to take my father's name because I thought it was such a great name: Guy and Lillie Tomlin.
GM: This was when you were starting out that you tried to get him to perform with you?
LT: Yeah, in New York, when I was first going to audition for stuff. And I had him doing stuff with me at that time. But then he didn't like it. He ended up being a painter. He paints artistically and he paints practically. And he was also a pretty good carpenter and he built stuff. He built furniture. He's more or less retired except he builds stuff just for his own pleasure.
GM: So you were this "Look at me!" kind of kid, were you?
LT: I wasn't show-offy or anything like that. I liked the idea of trying to get other kids in the building to be in it, you know? And once we got a TV and I saw people on television doing stuff, I liked the idea and I liked to hang drapes for the curtains and try to sell tickets. I was like a producer. (laughs)
GM: Is standup an accurate description of what you did when you went into clubs?
LT: Yeah, but it was my own version of standup. I mean, I did a lot of characters. It was really just doing a performance in one. Even as a kid I would put together a show with a whole lot of stuff. I would do magic tricks, I'd cut a rope in two and restore it, I was crazy about magic.
GM: How do you do that?! I've always wondered.
LT: Oh, it's just moving your hands around in a certain way. You know how to do it? It's an old silly trick. When you cut the rope, you're cutting a very short piece and then you tie that and it looks like you've tied it in two but you haven't. It's sleight of hand. And then you can pull the knot right off. I paid like $3.50. So then I would tap dance and I would also wear my mother's slip like an evening dress and I would imitate Beatrice Lillie. Everybody in the world. I would do jokes. There was a woman named Jean Carroll on Ed Sullivan who used to do husband jokes. She was really quite wonderful. She's still alive. She's lost her sight for the most part. But we honoured her at the Friar's Club a couple of years ago and she got up and did about ten minutes and she was hilarious. So I used to do her jokes, husband jokes and shopping. I did like a middle-aged Long Island matron (laughs). My favourite joke of hers at that time – and this is when I'm 9 or 10 years old – she'd say – and she had a real breezy style – "I'll never forget the first time I saw my husband standing on a hill with his hair blowing in the breeze and he too proud to run after it." (laughs) So I would tell jokes like that. Then I'd throw pearls around my neck.
GM: When you hit the stage, professionally, in New York or Detroit, it was your own characterizations you were doing, obviously.
LT: Yeah, by that time I'd started inventing.
GM: Was Jonathan Winters an influence? What got you up on that stage?
LT: There was a monologue artist who died in the '50s named Ruth Draper. You can find some of her monologues on spoken word. She was much more of a concert monologue artist, you know? She'd do her monologues any place she could. She would celebrate it. She was such a fine artist. When I first discovered her I was about 18. I discovered her in the library in Detroit. She'd already died, of course. Then years later, the first time I went on Broadway was Appearing Nightly, the first show my partner Jane and I did, her old producer and his wife came to the show. And we became great friends with him ever after. They both died now, too. But Charles [Bowden] was her producer for years and he produced those albums. So then I became really steeped in Ruth Draper lore, you know? Her costumes – I was supposed to get her chair from The Italian Lesson, but Paula [Laurence, Bowden's wife] died unexpectedly and I never did know what happened to that chair out of their apartment – like pieces of furniture, maybe a certain chair, or a scarf of something.
GM: I'm going to check her out.
LT: And I have a few monologues that were never published that Charles recorded and she didn't think were good enough to go on a recording.
GM: What do you think?
LT: Oh, I think they're great. Whenever she thought she was being recorded, she was not very good. I mean she would get self-conscious. So Charles said to her, "Ruth, why don't you come in every night an hour or so early and we'll just warm up." And those are what the albums are from.
GM: There must be instances like that with you, where you think, "Oh, this isn't good enough."
LT: Oh, I don't know. I've gotten so I'd probably just use anything. (laughs) No, I mean, probably so, but I hope that's somewhat true that I'd be that selective but I may not be quite as demanding as Ruth. I never laid eyes on her in the flesh. Anyways, but her mother, apparently, would entertain – she was from a fairly well-to-do Bostonian family and her mother apparently after dinner would imitate neighbours or relatives or whatever. [When people would say,] "Ruth, you were wonderful tonight," or something, and she says, "Yes, but I'll never be as good as mother." (laughs) So those are the kinds of stories I got to learn from Paula and Charles.
GM: (laughs) What were you doing on The Garry Moore Show?
LT: Oh, God. I was supposed to go to California. They were going to test me for Wonder Woman. They were going to do a comedy of Wonder Woman. Diana Prince worked at the Pentagon and the Vietnam war was [glitch]. This new agent who had seen me at the Improv doing my stuff, he set me up. He must have gotten afraid that Wonder Woman was going to get shelved, as it did. And he sent me up at the last minute to the Garry Moore writers. He and Durward Kirby were going to start a new variety show. This was in the fall of '66. And so I went up and honestly I don't even know what possessed me – this was not a preconceived idea that they were making – but I went up with the writers and they were saying to me like, "Do you do any impressions?" And I said no. And "Do you do this? Do you do that?" No, I don't do any of that. I didn't know what to say. Out of nowhere I said, "If I could do one thing on television, I'd do my barefoot tap dance." (laughs) Madeline Kahn had seen me at the Improv and she sent me a note saying – I didn't know her at the time – "There's a girl leaving the show at the Upstairs and we need someone." And she told me who to call to get an audition.
GM: How long had you been performing at that time?
LT: I don't know. Consciously performing, probably since about '64.
GM: So that's pretty quick.
LT: I was actually in pre-med in college. Not that I would ever, ever have even graduated college, which I didn't. I swear to God I used to say I had textbook narcolepsy. All I did was open a textbook and I'd drop forward. My forehead would crash against the page.
GM: I think I had that, too.
LT: The high school I graduated from now has a very accelerated performing arts curriculum, but when I went there they had art, music, engineering, science. They had very advanced curricula. But being artistic in the '50s, that was kind of the consensus. You were either a football player... I mean, it was really like old stereotypes. So I was a cheerleader. That was my way to perform in high school.
GM: And you enjoyed that?
LT: Oh, yeah, sure! I was in Detroit. I grew up in a black neighbourhood. I went to a big inner-city high school where kids came from all over rather than go to my neighbourhood school because, like, my neighbourhood school was really tough. You could get killed. I don't know about killed in those days, but you could get badly hurt. Anyway, a lot of kids went to Cass Tech and everybody came from all over to go to it. Even in a school like that, there was no performing arts. There was just the drama club and the hip kids snarled at it. So I became a cheerleader. But then when I got in college, college is different. I was in a zoology class but I wound up getting a part in a play and I was such a hit doing this little, tiny part – because I had to improv it every night – that I went over and started to do this variety show that they did every year. I thought everything that they were doing was so sophomoric because they were doing, like, a takeoff on Gunsmoke and that kind of thing. And I thought, "Gee, I do stuff like this all the time." You know, characterize stuff. But it's usually relevant. It has some kind of currency. In Gross Pointe... My mother's maiden name was Ford, let me start there. So just coincidentally, she was very enamoured of the Ford family. They had society pages in those days. [And Charlotte Ford, the oldest Ford daughter] was roughly my age. And her debut was reputed to cost, like, $250,000. This is like millions in those days.
GM: Is this like being a debutante?
LT: Yeah, debutant. Coming out. And we didn't even have a car. I always liked to say we were the only family in Detroit that didn't have a car. [But she heard if you drive around the] Ford estate, you could see the canopies and all that stuff. [So I got her] an old clunker of a car. I said if this car breaks down, it's going to be the most excrutiating experience of our lives. We're going to be just stranded out there in Gross Pointe! (laughs) Well, anyway, [I went to school with a girl who] later married Henry Ford [II] and became his third wife and widow and I'm still friends with her. And I got her on the cheer team. And blah, blah, blah, anyway one day we were at her house years later when I was playing at the Fisher Theater in Detroit and we had all our gang over at her house in Gross Pointe and she called my mother and she said, "You can come in the front door now, Mrs. Tomlin."
GM: Do you maintain a lot of those early relationships you had?
LT: Some of them, yeah. Two or three girlfriends that were my best friends in junior high and high school. And Kathy, that was the one who married Henry Ford. But anyway, [that variety show] was short. They needed some more material and I said well maybe I have some because I used to make fun of the Gross Pointe culture. The lid was blown off of Gross Pointe's deception. There were very few people of ethnicity who owned property in Gross Pointe. It was very waspy. And that had been just exposed. A guy who not only was a Jew but... [glitch] the mechanical heart or something, and he was denied property ownership in Gross Pointe and that's when the lid was blown off. So it was very, very current and I did a little take-off on a Gross Pointe matron and her daughter's debut party, which was totally current, and her charitable works. Anyway, it was a big hit and that's what kind of propelled me to New York.
GM: So has your comedy always had more of a social relevance?
LT: Yeah, I've always seen it as socially relevant. [glitch] Sometimes it might speak very explicitly to an issue. In microbiology you have a solution that you clean oil immersion slides or something like that. Or whatever the scientific natural thing would be. Whatever you make solvents with. What do you make--
GM: I don't know.
LT:I don't know either and I was supposed to be pursuing science. Forget it! So anyway, Eilleen and carbon tet – do you know what carbon tet is? It's gasoline based, or whatever it is, in rubber products, you know? There was an old storefront by my house where I'd have to wait for the bus to go to school and they made rubber tubing – this sounds really whacked and sick – but they made old rubber tubing. I loved the way it smelled. And I loved carbon tet. I mean, if I didn't have good sense, I could have been one of those paper bag sniffers who destroys their brain (laughs). Because I could have been addicted to it because I wanted to ingest it. [glitch] I finally learned that pregnant women have it to a certain degree when they want to ingest certain clay or earth. They'll find earth in a certain place and they want to ingest it. It's probably tied to nutritional deficiency.
GM: I think I've heard of this.
LT: I knew it would be poisonous. And I never drank carbon tet, either, but smelling it is like you want to ingest it. If you write about this, this is going to be really wacky but I trust you to write about it with humour! So I would come in. We'd get a little tiny bottle of xylene. I'd come in during a lecture and I'd just sprinkle it all over my books and my table top and sweater or whatever so I could sit there and inhale it during class. Anyway, so when I finally learned about pica, and that it had relevance, I talked about it on the Carson show one night [glitch]. I mean, it was unbelievable the kind of weird stuff that people wrote me about: "I like to eat Christmas ornaments." It's very common to eat paper. Some people like to eat newsprint or Kleenex.
GM: That's common?
LT: It's not uncommon. It's like opening a new book [glitch] and car leather interiors. In fact, this will sound like a joke and I used to use it as a joke but it was the truth – because I used to always try to say what was the truth to whatever extent even as bizarre as it would seem – there was a man who ate a '49 Hudson. He ate everything except the synthetic [glitch]. He broke it down into tiny pieces and fragments and everything. He wanted to eat this '49 Hudson. It's so bizarre. Okay, so anyway pica. Then I'd make up a monologue and find some way into it. [glitch] Rubber freak, about someone wanting to ingest rubber. Because that was sort of common; people eat the erasers off their pencils, people like to chew on rubber bands. So that was a way into it. Then I could make a comment on the drug culture, like it's okay to smoke grass; it's like drinking. So the rubber freak is now actually an alcoholic. She wasn't accepted because she was eating so many rubber objects and they were causing havoc in her neighbourhood and things, but now she's an alcoholic and that's okay. That's acceptable.
GM: Was Laugh-In as fun as it looked?
LT: Yeah, it was. It was totally fun. Although we worked pretty hard. The producer, George Schlatter... Everybody wanted to be on Laugh-In so you'd get everybody from Rita Hayworth to Marcello Mastroianni, Jack Benny. I mean, there's no end to the people who would come through the studio. So when somebody would come on, let's say Carson comes on [glitch] they try to write as many jokes in a half-hour as they possibly could, and the kids on the show, we'd just be on a treadmill running down, changing our sweater, putting on something different to make it look different, and just passing through one after another. We'd try to make 150 jokes if we could. [glitch] We dance and sang and carried on and did all that stuff. And taping a show is just like making a movie; I mean, it can be very tedious. You shoot, you stop, you go back, you pick it up. But it was always fun. I mean, it was great fun. It was a hugely popular show. You think life is perfect.
GM: And that was probably the biggest thing of your career to that point.
LT: I wouldn't even consider the other things [laughs]. It was totally the biggest thing. It was phenomenal.
GM: Now you're nationally and internationally known.
LT:[Geraldine] hit so big. Like literally overnight. She was like a sensation.
GM: Did that affect your psyche at all?
LT: No, you don't even really get it, in a way. First of all, people would recognize me as the new girl on Laugh-In but they didn't necessarily know I was the phone operator. Then they'd say, "Oh, that girl that does the telephone operator, she's so funny." I'd say, "I did the telephone operator!" It was a really sweet high. I think I'm a little skeptical. I never think something [glitch].
GM: You mean not just that show but your career, too? Like that could be it?
LT: Well, yeah, it could be. You never know.
GM: But you were on it for how long? Five years?
LT: I was really only on for two-and-a-half seasons. I came in at the end of the third season. I went on actually the last show of December of '69 so it was the last half of the season. Then the last season I only did roughly half a season, too, because George left. Dan & Dick were a team and George & Ed Friendly, his business partner, were a team. Anyway, they did not get along, the four of them. And there were a lot of power struggles. So the last year George left and he was like my pal, and they brought Paul Keyes back, who was a speech writer and very close to Nixon, and I didn't want to be on the show. When you're young in those early days, you're just like [glitch] you don't want to be on the same show with Paul. The show was finishing anyway and I only did like eight shows or something like that.
GM: Is Ruth Buzzi still around?
LT: Oh yeah, she's great. She's wonderful. She's married to a guy who's very successful and they live mostly in Dallas. We did a little thing on the Emmy's this year in the States. We get together every now and then or we do benefits together. Joanne [Worley]'s very active in a charity.
GM: She's still around, too?
LT: Oh, they're all around! Joanne's a big singer so she goes and does musicals all the time in different theatres. Arte [Johnson]'s kind of retired. Arte never did work that much after that. He never wanted to. He's married to a very beautiful woman, always has been, since his days on Laugh-In. Gisela, her name is. I just had dinner with them a few nights ago. And they travel. I'm probably the only maniac that still loves to work.
GM: You had this great career in the movies, as well. Steve Martin is one of the few former standups who doesn't perform live anymore. I know a lot of comics say there's something about performing live that you can't match in movies or TV. What's the draw for you?
LT: It's the same thing. I think it keeps you very on your toes. It's just a very living experience. I like to perform on the stage. You have to call on yourself as an actor and a performer. You have to be there. You have to be present. And I get a lot of feedback and energy from the audience. [glitch] I just get a kick out of.
GM: The old characters? The ones we know or new ones?
LT: Well, I try to do stuff all the time. But sure, if something, like Ernestine... For a while she had a chat show so she could call everybody, but now she can see them and she connect them and see what they were all doing. I'm active here in L.A. trying to get universal health so Ernestine's been working at a big insurance corp denying health care to everyone. She's a good character to put certain things in her mouth.
GM: I know some musicians hate playing their hits. But you never tire of doing Geraldine.
LT: [glitch] To do the character, I also have to kind of live it, you know, a little bit. But that's what's always appealed to me, is that range of characters, that range of humanity. You know, to do kids and old people and idiosyncratic people. Something that you can do well, do it, if you can convey something through it.
GM: Your career in the movies has been magnificent. Was the highlight making Moment By Moment?
LT: (laughs) Oh, God! Of course we suffered. It was horrible. We suffered so bad.
GM: During the making of it, you mean?
LT: No. John [Travolta] and I set out on a big publicity tour and pretty soon we found ourselves defending ourselves. We were totally unprepared. When you make a movie, you don't really... First of all, the movie's not edited. You just work day after day after day after day doing scene, scene, scene, scene, scene. You're just hoping for the best all the time, you know.
GM: Was that a TV movie?
LT: No, it was a feature. John had a three-picture deal with [producer Robert] Stigwood. He'd done Saturday Night Fever and Grease and he had a third picture and he came to see me in my first Broadway show and he loved it so much that he told Stigwood. Jane [Wagner, Tomlin's partner] wrote Moment. She almost never worked again in her life, she was so devastated. She says, "I haven't been to the beach since then." (laughs) No, it was really crushing.
GM: Earlier you said you never know what's going to happen. That could have been one of those moments that ruined it for both Jane and you.
LT: I suppose. For us personally?
GM: Just career-wise.
LT: Sure, it could if you don't come back with something else. Nine to Five came out a year later or that year or something. It came out right away after that.
GM: So that salvaged things.
LT: Yeah, right. That's what happens in this life.
GM: Was that the low?
LT: Probably. Probably because anything when it's so public. And John was such a big star by that time. Saturday Night Fever was a phenomenon. And so was Grease. I mean, he was huge, huge. Because I'd been around longer and I'd maybe seen more things but he had been sort of the golden boy. He was on Kotter and he was so gorgeous. He was just such a darling. Handsome. You look at those old Kotter videos and he's just drop-dead adorable. I'm sure it was as hard on him as on anybody. I was already off on something else. Probably he and Jane suffered the most because I had my hand in so many different things. In fact, Janet Maslin of the Times, when I did Shrinking Woman or Nine to Five, one or the other because they sort of all came out near each other, she said, "I want to talk about Moment By Moment." I said, "I'm not going to talk about it. Why would I talk about it?" (laughs) Or something like that. Because at that time, it was just so ridiculous. For years, no one would do anything but bring up Moment By Moment.
GM: (laughs) Well, I'm sorry I brought it up again.
LT: Well, it's so many years now, I forgive you.
GM: Time has a way of healing all those things.
GM: Do you watch or follow any younger comics?
LT: I don't go out to the clubs like I used to so I don't know who I'm missing that doesn't have a special. But so many comics have specials on Comedy Central and HBO and stuff. There's a lot of people who are really good. And of course I like Jon [Stewart] and [Stephen] Colbert, too. They're very good. For them to do a show every night, it's amazing.
GM: Are there trends in today's comedy where you find yourself saying, "In my day..."?
LT: No, if it's intelligently thought out or relevant. Or if it's so zany that it's just hilarious. Some really just completely zany, farcical stuff, I love that, too. I always had a very eclectic taste. I mean, my own personal thing, I like some kind of humanity. People can be really smart because they're really on top of it. I like to see their vulnerability. People are slicker. They're funny, they're really good, they're great executors of comedy and they have their own point of view and everything like that. I can love Pryor and I can love Lewis Black and other people, too. So many comics, I'm very surprised at what great takes they have on something. I can really enjoy them. [glitch] I'm drawn to character first. And Lewis is like a character. I'm drawn to that. And then he's just damn funny.
GM: Is it harder staying funny as you get older?
LT: Uh, I don't know. I'm wondering. Maybe. Maybe a young audience... I can remember one time when I was extremely popular and I played a college [glitch] You can do all kinds of things you don't even think to do because you'd be embarrassed to do it as a total adult. There's some stuff that a young audience will cheer [glitch]. They have a different perspective on life. So I don't know, it's probably easier and harder. Easier because you've been around a long time and people have an affection for you. I don't know. I don't have an answer for you.
GM: Obama is the first black or mixed-race president. There was almost a female president. Do you think there'll ever be a gay president?
LT: Very much there could be. I met a guy down in Palm Springs this past weekend who's the mayor of Palm Springs and he's instituting so many green projects in Palm Springs and he's trying to make Palm Springs a model city for sustainable energy and everything. [glitch] ...run for Congress in the future. And he's a very pleasing guy. And he's gay. And I said, "My gosh, you could be our first gay president." Because I felt he was so forward-thinking. But I think it would be quite a few years. Maybe not in my lifetime.
GM: I know you've spoken in Vancouver before a few times.
LT: How close are you to Vancouver? Real close?
GM: Oh, because you'll be in Richmond? That is essentially Vancouver.
LT: Oh, I see.
GM: Is this show a comedy show? Are you doing characters?
LT: Oh yeah. I do ten, twelve characters. And I'll try to talk about Vancouver and I'll try to talk about Richmond. God, it's going to be hard because Obama won't have taken office yet. But I'll talk a little bit about what's going on. And then do a bunch of characters.
GM: Have you performed comedy in Vancouver before?
LT: Yeah, sure. In fact, I've gone to Vancouver since I got famous. When I was on Laugh-In, I can't remember the theatres I would play. Offhand I can't remember, but yeah, I used to go up there and do a show very often. Probably every couple of years.