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Lily Tomlin:
The Queen of Comedy Brings her Award-Winning Stage Show to the Screen

Interview by Lance Loud

Given the immense popularity of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe as a stage show, a book, and now a film, are there any Searchies out there?

You mean like Trekkies? With panty hose on their heads? God, I don't know. One night in New York during the curtain call, I came out and the whole front row had umbrella hats on. I screamed.

What was the most uncomfortable performance of the show you ever did?

Closing night in New York. Right at the beginning, when Trudy's onstage waiting for the lights to come up, everybody started cheering. They did it for so long that I threw myself into a big bow, but I threw myself too far and tore a muscle. I did the whole performance with ice wrapped around my leg.

When you were growing up in Detroit, what did you do for a pastime?

I lived in a tough neighborhood downtown. I went to the movies and I fantasized a lot. I thought I was Natalie Wood, and I thought my mother was Norma Shearer — she looked quite a bit like Norma. Also, I would put on shows on our back porch or in the garage; I was like the world's first performance artist.

When did you first make people laugh?

When I was very young, I went with my father to a bar and stood on the counter and sang "Shoo-Fly Pie." They loved it and paid me off with a 7Up.

I remember seeing you on the 1975 Academy Awards. It was amazing that no one ever mentioned what you wore...

Well, I planned to go like a '50s movie star, like a brunette Marilyn Monroe, but I wound up looking more like Queen Elizabeth.

I thought you looked more like the Good Witch of the East, myself.

I had on a big tiara and this tight-fitting dress with big sequins and a big white fox and great, big harlequin sunglasses. The next morning, Mr. Blackwell said on the radio, "Lily Tomlin, we don't wear tiaras."

Can you talk about your role in Woody Allen's new film, Shadows and Fog?

Well, Woody had this extraordinary set built on a soundstage. It's a European city around 1920, complete with cobblestones, gaslights, bridges and ponds. It's foggy, and there's a Jack the Ripper kind of character in the plot. I must say I've only deduced all this by talking to other actors and comparing notes — none of us knew anything that was going on. Each of us just got our individual pages of dialogue — Woody doesn't give out complete scripts. In the film, Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates and I play prostitutes. The only bad thing is that I smoke cigarettes in the movie and I was violently sick.

You inhabit your roles so naturally, it seems like you make it up as you go.

No one practices more than I do. In the beginning I was forced to make up stuff, but it was mediocre. As soon as I met Jane [Wagner], everything took a leap — because she's far superior to me... in verbal acuity. [laughs] I'll spend the rest of my life explaining that Jane is the writer and I don't write. We both have the same sensibility; she's just a lot smarter. She combines everything — it's funny, satiric, passionate, emotional, and it's poetic.

How have you kept a working relationship and a personal relationship going for so long? Don't you ever want to kill her at the end of a long, hard day?

Oh, yeah, but she's wanted to kill me sometimes, too. [laughs] It's very hard. But it's all visceral and it's all heart... it's like working anything out. That's part of the trip in a way, to hammer it out and go nuts. Plus, you know, you've also got your female cycles. [laughs]

You live in the home that was once W.C. Fields's. Have you met his ghost?

No, but I've met his mistress Carlotta. She was quite funny. She told me all these stories, like when W.C. Fields thought there was going to be Prohibition and he kept Coors hidden in the basement and on all the sun porches. Whenever he played pool and missed a shot he'd bang the cue on the mantel.

Are there still marks on the mantel?

There is no mantel. He broke it off completely.

Looking back on the career of Andrew Dice Clay...

Is his career over?

In a way it is. Do you think there was a lesson there for comedians?

I'm not here to defend Andrew Dice Clay, but there's so much rampant sexism, homophobia, racism and alienation, and his was just ultimately cruder. Frankly, his humor was no more frightening than the government.

When was the last time you saw Moment to Moment?

It's Moment by Moment, and I haven't. But I can give you a video of it if you ever want it.

Thanks. It isn't out commercially?

I don't think so... who would want to buy it?

Do you have any favorite moments in Moment by Moment?

I have many favorite moments — which I'd like never to see again. John [Travolta] was coming off such phenomenal success in Grease and Saturday Night Fever, he was ready for a critical potshot. And I had just come off of Appearing Nitely and was on the cover of TIME, and it was the perfect moment for a fall.

How low did you go?

I suffered. There's nothing like picking up a magazine five years later and being reminded of it — it must have been like being in the Loud documentary. It gets a bit tiresome...

People are still bringing it up?

You are bringing it up.

What are your feelings about outing?

Well, I understand outing. I understand the desire of radical activists to out someone — particularly in light of how right-wing our culture has gotten. I can also see the other side — it's gotten a bit fascistic. And I don't know how much coming out really means to anybody. I n the industry, most people are out in terms of private society, so the people who would be most significant for the movement are entertainers who come out publicly. But no matter what anybody says, the list I see over and over again of [show business] people who could be outed is not terribly long.

Will Ernestine ever come out?

[laughs] Do you think Ernestine is gay?

I don't know, but she'd look very convincing in black leather.

[in an Ernestine snort] I'm bisexual!

Maybe she could quit the phone company and start her career as a dominatrix.

That's good. You know, I should have Ernestine come out. That would be great.

What's the best piece of advice you've been given, and who gave it to you?

Robert Altman said, "Giggle and give in."


This article was originally published in the October 1991 issue of Details.
 

Lance Loud! A Death in An American Family is a presentation of WETA and ITVS, and was made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting Service.

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