Few women have had a more sustained impact on American comedy than Lily Tomlin. From the late '60s and into the early '70s, she created timeless, gender-redefining characters for the NBC sketch comedy show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. Ernestine the Telephone Operator snorted at her customers' stupidity. Five-year-old Edith Ann analyzed the big issues of the day. The sour, overly serious Consumer Advocate Lady represented the rigidity of corporate life. The Tasteful Lady and Mrs. Judith Beasley stood in for uptight middle-class America. Tommy Velour was played in male drag; Pervis Hawkins pounced on racial stereotypes.
But Tomlin's acerbic sense of humor, coterie of voices and over-eager facial expressions shielded a sympathetic, often activist side. She destigmatized quadriplegics, played the mother of deaf children in Robert Altman's cult film Nashville, blasted workplace inequalities with Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton in Nine to Five, skewered consumerism in the sci-fi comedy The Incredible Shrinking Woman and sent up philosophy in I Heart Huckabees. She has animatized herself for the sake of laughs.
Along the way, Tomlin has won Emmys, Grammys and Tonys — nearly hitting for the cycle (or as industry watchers call it, an EGOT) — by receiving a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Nashville. The 74-year-old's biggest moment, though, was on New Year's Eve 2013, when she and Jane Wagner, her personal and professional partner of 42 years, wed in California. Folio Weekly chatted with Tomlin about the joys of marriage, her autobiographical self and dragging Isettas around Detroit.
Folio Weekly: What can Jacksonville expect from your upcoming performance, Lily?
Lily Tomlin: Well, it's much more informal than a theater piece: more interaction with the audience, a Q&A at the end. The show is filled mostly with my characters, and of course I'll try to talk about Jacksonville — Jane's cousin [and longtime Florida Times-Union political cartoonist] Eddie Gamble lives there — along with whatever's going on in the world that's funny, interesting or amazing. I like it when the audience doesn't know where I'm going to go next. That's the relationship I've been creating with them for a long time.
F.W.: How much of your autobiographical self is invested in your characters?
L.T.: I do some autobiographical stuff, but only because I think it's universally relatable or part of common humanity. I update the characters to be topical, too. For instance, [Ernestine] the phone operator is currently working for a health insurance firm denying health care to everyone. She's had a lot of different jobs since the divestiture of AT&T; she's not going to stick around someplace where she doesn't have power.
F.W.: How do you think the dynamics of power, especially in relation to gender issues, have changed since you first started doing comedy in the 1960s?
L.T.: I never felt that stereotypical points of view were valid or legitimate, but it wasn't like I had to propagandize. I spoke from my own sensibility. I used to talk about quadriplegics and do Crystal the Terrible Tumbleweed in the mid-'70s because I was aware of disability rights. But it was just my sense of the world — the funny and wonderful aspects of other people's humanity — at the time. I should bring Crystal back.
F.W.: You recently married your longtime partner, Jane Wagner. Will the issue of same-sex marriage arise in upcoming performances?
L.T.: Most likely I will reference same-sex marriage, but I don't know whether I'll talk about my own particular situation. I actually haven't done a show since I got married to Jane. Jacksonville will only be the second one.
F.W.: How satisfying was it to legally marry someone you've been with for 42 years?
L.T.: Wonderful. We certainly didn't expect it in our lifetimes. But so much has changed in the last 10 years. I think we married partly to make that statement because we have such a profile. We have gay friends and relatives who suffer much more, living in states and towns where that right is not available. So it meant a lot to do it for other people, too. And when we first got together in 1971, we just clicked. I was mad for her immediately. She's so full and rich in her mind and in her art. We've pretty much been together ever since.
F.W.: Were you surrounded by comedy as a child? Or was it something you discovered after you grew up and left home?
L.T.: My parents moved from the South to Detroit, and there's something about white bread, mainstream Southerners that produces a lot of characters — just like Jewish, Italian or African-American subcultures. My mother was very witty, and she could be sarcastic, but she never ridiculed anybody. That influenced me. I spent summers on a farm in Kentucky with my grandmother and aunt, and then the rest of the year I lived in Detroit in an old apartment house with every kind of person in the world: educated older people, poor whites, poor blacks, blue-collar workers. That made me more sympathetic toward all of them.
F.W.: Any untapped stories from that melting-pot culture you're still dying to tell?
L.T.: Actually, I was just in Palm Springs with my brother for a few days, and we were talking about how our family finally bought a car, a used Opel, when I was 16 and he was 13. We used to drink Geritol because we wanted to stay up all night — we thought if it made old people healthier and stronger, it would make us like Amazon and Hercules. So one night, we were driving home from a party around
1 a.m. and we realize there's a car following us with its lights out. We could not shake this car, and my brother was getting hysterical, so we pull up to the house, both shaking, run to the door, and I can't get my key in. We look over in fright and terror — and we'd hooked
a parked Isetta and dragged it all the way from the east side of Detroit to the west side. I've always wanted to make a short film about
that. Of course, in this day and age, most people don't even know what an Isetta is — if they see it, the joke might work.