Lily Business: A Recent Q & A

The Indy Star
Lily eyed medical career (and that’s the truth)
April 14, 2005

Lily and Bette: Night For Rights 1077

Detroit-born Lily Tomlin might have been wearing a white lab coat instead of keeping people in stitches as a comedian if she had pursued her original career goals in medicine.

But performing called, and tonight she’ll be appearing in The Indianapolis Star’s Unique Lives & Experiences lecture series at 7:30 p.m. at Clowes Memorial Hall. Tickets ($37 to $61.75) are available at the box office. She’s the third of the series’ four speakers; Maya Angelou will appear May 9.

Tomlin has starred in television, movies, videos and theater, and done voice work in animation. She’s received six Emmys; a Tony for “Appearing Nightly,” her one-woman show; a Tony for best actress, Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics’ Circle Award for her solo performance in Jane Wagner’s “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”; a Grammy for “This is a Recording” and other honors, including the 2003 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

After leaving Wayne State University to perform at local coffeehouses, she went to New York, where she built a fan base appearing in the city’s landmark clubs. In 1966 she made her first TV appearance. She moved to California and joined the cast of “Laugh-In,” debuting on the show in December 1969. On that show, such characters as Ernestine, the snorting telephone operator, and Edith Ann, the spirited 6-year-old in the oversized chair, became national icons.

Tomlin has written six comedy TV specials with Wagner, toured the nation and starred in films such as “Nashville,” and “I Heart Huckabees.” She is a regular on “The West Wing” as President Bartlet’s (Martin Sheen’s) assistant, Deborah Fiderer.

In a recent telephone call with Bonnie Britton, she answered questions on subjects ranging from her characters to her favorite comedians to her debt to “Laugh-In.”

Who influenced you as a child?

My family. Aunt Pearl particularly, one of my mother’s older sisters. We lived in an old apartment house in Detroit and grew up there. She taught school and was divorced, and at that time very few women got divorced. There was just something about my Aunt Pearl that was dignified. My mother is very witty. She was so fast on the rejoinder. Very funny and ironic, but with a sweetness to it.

Did any relatives influence your characters?

I do my mother and dad, but I named them Lud and Marie. That’s my dad’s brother and his wife (both gone now). In “The Search,” Lud and Marie live in Indiana, in Greenwood. Agnes, their punk granddaughter, her dad is a bio engineer. They would very easily live in Greenwood, and might have come up from the south, from Kentucky, just as my family did.

Is there still a stigma about being funny and being a woman?

I don’t think so with younger artists. When I started out, there were very few women doing comedy. If they did, they had series, or were comedians in movies, but there were very few women standups, not that I’m a classic standup. All those barriers have been broken down.

How did “Laugh-In” change your life?

Ernestine literally was famous overnight. I’d be on the street and people would say, “Oh, you’re the new girl on ‘Laugh-In.’ ” Or they’d stop their cars and very often they’d say to me, “Who is that girl that does the telephone operator?” I was out on the road with Dan (Rowan) and Dick (Martin) that first season (during hiatus) because Ernestine was so popular. I hadn’t been out in the public on that level entertaining. We played a date in a big arena. They started to introduce me, Ernestine sat down at a switchboard, and the audience just went in a roar. I’ve used her to get to the top.

Did you come up with all those characters?

Yes. When I wanted to do a street person, Trudy, the Bag Lady, I would try to create the voice and the physicality of the character (and would go to Jane Wagner for the monologue).

(The “Laugh-In” writers) didn’t like Edith very much; they thought she was bratty.

What happened to Edith Ann’s chair?

It’s sitting in my house, right here. I think they (the Smithsonian) asked me for it once, and probably they’ll never ask me again, but I didn’t give it up. I love to see it.

Does comedy get harder or easier the longer you do it?

It’s harder to maintain your sensibility. So much is so harsh and very brutal now. That’s just not my sensibility. It’s easier in the sense that you trust the audience. It’s more of a communal thing. I’m comfortable with the audience. People are predisposed to me. Anybody who’s been around has a leg up. To keep your voice up and to keep finding new voices, content, takes on the world, trying to find something that really touches people, makes them laugh and is not debasing in some way.

If you could throw a dinner party and invite five comedians, living or dead, who would you invite?

Lucy (Lucille Ball). Years and years ago, when I was first starting out, they did a big (magazine) piece on her and they were asking about all the new comedians. When they got to me, she said “I just don’t get her.” I was devastated. I burst into tears. I was just stunned. Many years later, I had dinner with her (and her husband) and Bette Midler. She couldn’t have been more wonderful. She sat across from us and told us about getting a root canal before she went to New York one time to be on the Tonys, and how she didn’t want to take any painkillers. She got ensconsed on the plane and her dentist had said to her, “Just take a swig of brandy and swish it around in your mouth and spit it out.” She did that, honest to God, for 20 minutes and we were screaming. You can imagine her swishing that brandy. She’d look around and didn’t have anyplace to spit it and would swallow it. By the time she got to New York, she was looped.

I’d definitely have Ruth Draper, who died in 1956. I only heard her on recordings. I’d have her first, then Lucy. Then I’d have Steve (Martin) because Steve is such a great conversationalist. Very smart and not trying to be funny. I’d invite Bette. I’d have “Moms” Mabley.

Have you ever been booed off a stage?

I had a little bit of a problem recently in Flint (Mich.). They’re sort of sensitized politically. Somebody sent a question up and asked, ‘Who would you rather vote for, George W. Bush or the Marquis de Sade?’ I started to laugh. I’d already started reading it out loud. I don’t know what I said, I made some kind of comment; it didn’t sit well with everybody.

Why don’t you make more movies?

I used to option books and have scripts written because it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t make that happen. I did not get into a movie until (Robert) Altman put me in one (“Nashville”).

What would you do if you hosted the Oscars?

The only thing I’ve ever hosted like that is the Cable Ace Awards. I have too much personal fun with it. I had my mother call in and say to me, “I wish you would wear more jewelry.” I don’t imagine I’ll be asked at this point. I think I’d do a good job. I know my fans would get a kick out of it.

What makes David Letterman so funny?

I think as a Midwesterner, he has a certain take on the world; I kind of identify with it, coming from Detroit. He’s a grown man, but it seems like he’s a college guy, doesn’t it? I think he’s more playful with guests, he’s less driven. I think he does more offbeat, human-behavior-based stuff.

The five funniest living comedians?

I want to hear your list. Put Ellen DeGeneres at the dinner party. I never did think it, but I’m starting to get attached to Adam Sandler. Jim Carrey? He has a real engaging humanity. Robin Williams is a unique talent. I forget so many people. There are so many people.

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