Lily Tomlin

On her favorite comedians, inventing characters, and seeing X-rated movies with Richard Pryor

Lily Tomlin first started to attract attention in the late 1960s with her irreverent characters on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and went on to pioneer the genre of “comedic monologue” in stage shows like the Tony Award-winning The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe, written by her longtime partner, Jane Wagner. At 71, Tomlin is currently touring the country with her newest one-woman show, An Evening Of Classic Lily Tomlin. While on the road, Tomlin talked to The A.V. Club about her favorite comedians (many of whom happen to be women), watching I Love Lucy on weed, and how funny voices help the medicine go down.

The A.V. Club: You’re best known for playing a wide range of characters. Who are some of your favorite comedic characters?

Lily Tomlin: There are so many, let me think. Well, there was an English actress, Margaret Rutherford, who used to play [Agatha Christie’s] Miss Marple. I would just be over the moon to watch her, because her persona was so comedic. She had that big fluffy body and spindly limbs, and then that great jaw of hers, and I always wished our bodies had interchangeable parts—that I could just unscrew my limbs and look different. And then there were more glamorous women like Rosalind Russell and Carol Lombard, Jean Arthur—they were another kind of light, wonderful comedienne, but less character-y, of course. Another favorite of mine, and more contemporary, would be Doris Roberts playing Marie in [Everybody Loves] Raymond. I mean, she happens to be a good friend, so maybe I’m prejudiced because of that, but Marie was just a sublime character—every nuance was there. Another character I adored was Anjelica Huston in Prizzi’s Honor. She didn’t make a false syllable, it was so funny, well-wrought. I mean, there are dozens of characters, dozens and dozens.

AVC: It’s interesting that you haven’t mentioned any male comedians.

LT: Oh, well, there’s some I probably like. Let’s see…

AVC: No pressure! It’s refreshing.

LT: Well, I lean that way because as a child, I was influenced by women I saw doing comedy on television. And we won’t go as far back as radio, but my favorite radio show was Beulah—the character was Beulah Brown, the maid. And I liked that because she was working-class and she worked for more upper-class-scale employers, and they were forever harassing her in terms of their entitlement. She’d be going upstairs, they’d call her downstairs, and she’s trudging—and this is all sound effects and voice—and she was always muttering some kind of anarchy under her breath. [Laughs.] And then she’d make it rhyme, and the employers would think they’d misheard.

AVC: You take on socioeconomic and political issues in your work. What’s your opinion on comedians like Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, and Lenny Bruce, whose politics ultimately took a toll on them?

LT: I was always drawn to more the social-expression-of-culture types. I don’t know why. Richard did characters too. He started out doing stuff that would be considered more mainstream, but then he sort of flipped out at one point because he felt like he was being co-opted, that he wasn’t being political enough—or being true. But that tender side was really one of the most compelling parts of him. When he would do a character piece, you never felt vitriol, you really felt a kind of affection—well, maybe a reluctant affection, but nonetheless. He was more philosophical than vitriolic, but maybe with an edge to it. But as a black man, the way he identified as a black man, he had to speak out more emphatically than other people.

When I asked Richard to be on my first television special, he didn’t know me very well, or maybe he knew of me, somewhat. But this was at a point when he had been on the outs of the business, you know, he’d walked off the stage in Vegas or whatever he’d done, and it caused him to kind of get blackballed. This was like ’73, and he wasn’t in favor, even though I think he’d already shot Lady Sings The Blues, which was kind of a return for him. But the network didn’t really want me to hire him for the special; they thought he was trouble. For me, what I knew of Richard—I’d seen him on television and at the Improv in New York, and I adored him, I adored his humor, I adored his characterizations of different parts of the culture. When I went to see him to get him to come on my show, he made me go down to the neighborhood with him—to see if black folks liked me. [Laughs.] And luckily, because I was on Laugh-In, and I would puncture pretension, and I did characters—well, they did like me. He also made me to go to a porno movie with him. Well, he didn’t make me, but he asked me to go with him, and I said, “Yeah, but I’m gonna pay my own way.”

Well, and he used to do that wonderful little scene with the grade-school kids playing Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella or something: the prince and the princess. That was the first time I ever saw Richard, on the Ed Sullivan Show. And I saw this person, and his vulnerability was so palatable; I just fell in love with him. And then all the fallout from his rebellion, and being kind of co-opted from the middle class, and the industry of show business… I guess in the voice of certain characters, you can say much more, if you’re funny while you’re doing it.

AVC: Like your character Ernestine, who started as a telephone operator on Laugh-In.

LT: Ernestine has been able to move around amongst different jobs. Lately, she’s worked at a health-care insurance corp, denying insurance coverage to everyone. Mrs. Beasley comes from a middle-America perspective, where she can talk about things that are sort of revelatory to her. Like, I was talking to someone recently, who was from PFLAG, and we were talking about Vito Russo, who was a gay activist and a good friend. When Vito was around, there was a show called Our Time, which didn’t last, but he and I had filmed a bit of Mrs. Beasley taking the “quiche of peace” from the gay community to the straight community. You know, trying to bridge the chasm between these two cultures. That kind of stuff.

I think, probably, politicians are fair game. But individuals, individual culture types—I mean, even when Richard would do a Southern cop or something, even though he would make it sort of buffoonish or uninformed, there was still some underlying humanity. It wasn’t like the person was dismissed, disregarded, negated. There’s a kind of affection there, an affection for the human condition.

AVC: And theoretically, you don’t get in trouble for playing characters.

LT: Well, [Lenny] Bruce goes back many more years, and he challenged the times, the language of the times, and certain prejudices and concepts that people had. He was absolutely relentless—almost even fanatical, to the point of reading his transcripts and stuff onstage. Like, when I’ve had a meltdown, people will say to me, “Well, you failed to keep your sense of humor.” [Laughs.] And I say, “I certainly did!”

AVC: There’s a lot of pressure for comedians to keep their sense of humor, which might mean “to behave.”

LT: Well, the times were much more censored, tougher. I mean, that’s why Laugh-In was so famous for saying things like “fickle finger of fate,” or the “Farkle family”—to allude to the kind of language we couldn’t get on the screen without being censored. Ernestine used to dial with her middle finger. I mean, that’s kind of adolescent stuff, but it’s fun when you’re misbehaving. But you couldn’t say “ass” or “bitch” or “virgin”—the word “virgin” was first said on the screen in like ’54 or something, in Otto Preminger’s The Moon Is Blue. I was an usherette, 14 at the time, and I remember it was a big, hot deal that they said the word “virgin,” can you imagine that?

AVC: At The A.V. Club, we can say whatever we want.

LT: Oh, you can?! You don’t have to put dashes or anything? What I appreciate is acknowledging to the audience that I think they have brains. I expect us all to be as high as we can be—even though we’re pretty base.

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AVC: You’ve been credited for inventing the “Valley Girl” archetype, with your character Sally Sorority. Are there any other characters that you feel like you discovered first?

LT: I don’t really think about taking credit for anything. Creating characters is just another way to express a type and put that type to use. Maybe I’ve seen a recognizable or a familiar-seeming person, and I want to find the best expression of it, to share it. I don’t think about inventing it or not inventing it or whatever. There was a time, after I had been on television for a long time and then I wasn’t, where someone would come along and do a culture type that I wanted to do, beat me to it, and then I wouldn’t want to do it, because it looks like I’m taking the idea from them. So having a real public outlet is how you imprint something for yourself. It’s just a matter of timing. It’s like you’ve marked your territory—though that’s an unfortunate comparison.

AVC: Is that because you don’t want to step on someone else’s toes, or is there a little bit of pride there?

LT: Oh, no pride! You don’t want someone to think you lifted it from them. But, you know, not many people do characters—stand-alone, monologue-form, comedic characters. 

AVC: Do you have any theories about why more people don’t try it? People like characters.

LT: Well, the point of it is, it expresses something about the culture. Like, I grew up in Detroit, in a black neighborhood, my parents are Southern. And for instance, you would read in the society pages that Harold Ford’s daughter had a debut party that reportedly cost $50,000, and that the party was covertly segregated. So that was a really big deal. Or there was a doctor who had invented something incredibly advanced, but he couldn’t buy a house in the Fords’ neighborhood. They tried to keep as many people of a certain nature from becoming property owners in Grosse Pointe. So I had this practice from being a child imitating neighbors, or doing something I’d seen my mother or dad do that I thought was funny or revelatory in some way, and I would imitate a Grosse Pointe matron—very tasteful and very social, but kind of like a snake, in my mind, with the head bobbing and weaving. So when I got into a college show, they were doing monologues—you know, very mediocre collegiate stuff, no content whatsoever—and I said, “Well gosh, I have a piece we can do.” And I just improvised being a Grosse Pointe matron on an interview show, and she would invite the listeners to some civic meeting, and then say, “That invitation is only extended to property owners.” That had a huge response at that time, in Detroit. She became the “Tasteful Lady” I later did on Laugh-In, a very broad character. That’s my raw intuition, to examine people.

AVC: Are you still inventing new characters?

LT: Well, it’s like I need to be working at a Denny’s or a McDonald’s or something; in order to get to know new people, you need to be immersed in it. I don’t have the kind of—dammit, it’s like the first 20 years are imprinted in your soul. All that culture, the people around you. I mean, you can do one-liners and make up ideas, but I don’t feel like I’ve invented something new in terms of a startling new culture type.

Like I remember when I saw Proof on Broadway, and Mary Louise Parker was playing this math genius who was like a new kind of nerd—a nerd character like I’d never seen before. Now I see it all over the place, but that was the first time I’d seen it: a sort of passive-aggressive thing, where the person is so fucking smart that anything you say to them is stupid.

AVC: As opposed to the Jerry Lewis type of pathetic, dorky nerd with the squeaky voice. 

LT: Exactly. I would love to have captured that.

AVC: You used to do a lot of male characters in drag. Do you do those now?

LT: I usually do Lud, who is presumably my father. I don’t do like Tommy Velour or [African American soul singer] Pervis Hawkins, because you need music… A lot of those characters were invented for the context, having to do with the show they were written for. Like, I used to do Rick, a guy who went to the singles bar to try to pick up women. I could do him, but I haven’t done him in ages.

AVC: Why not?

LT: Well, he used to go to discos. I’d have to reinvent it for this time. I guess they have dance music…

AVC: And there are definitely still men picking up women in unseemly ways.

LT: [Laughs.] Well, he was invented for my first Broadway show, Appearing Nightly, and a centerpiece of the show was the ’50s and the ’60s, and I Love Lucy was a running theme. The characters would watch the show as kids with their mom and dad because it was one of the few shows they could all get together and laugh at. And later, when they get stoned in college, they’d watch Lucy, because it’s fun to watch Lucy when you’re stoned. Then at the end, [the characters] played the Lucy theme at the father’s funeral, and right after that was the monologue of Rick in a singles bar. So while I was working on this show—really, it’s astonishing—someone came out with the Lucy theme, done in disco. It was like the cosmos made it for me. We could use it to sweep out from the family to the singles bar, and it would give you a rush. It was divine.

Ernestine happened kind of the same way. I didn’t even want to be on TV, originally—I went to New York to be a theater actress. But I always did monologues, so I would go to the Improv and do them. And I started working on the telephone operator [character] because everyone hated the phone company in the ’60s. I was just going to make her a tough New York operator. But the more I fooled around with it and had her start to threaten people, there was just something so sexually repressed about—so my body and face would tighten up, and that nasality, [snorts] the snorting, everything that came out of it was organic, serendipitous. These lovely things happen a lot in life.

I guess that’s one of the reasons that you do it—work all the time—because it’s sort of a high to find something that really works. It’s gratifying, and you want to share it with someone, thinking that because they’re humans, they’re going to react in the same way. It connects you.