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From a PBS press session in July, 2003. Lily Tomlin and producer Bob Kaminsky discuss Tomlin's work and the Mark Twain Prize.
Q: If you could speak to the timelessness of your characters. I'm wondering what you feel it is about your comedy [that makes it appropriate for an American Humor award].
Tomlin: You know, I don't know. I certainly have done topical jokes occasionally, and particularly on television, but topical humor, specifically topical humor, has never appealed to me very much, largely because it has no shelf life, and then, secondly, because it's just not human enough, not large enough. And very often an individual is at the target of it.
I was always much more interested in people in general, and culture types, probably because of my own background, growing up in Detroit, and growing up in an old apartment house, and my parents being Southern, and living in a black neighborhood, and going to a big inner-city high school, and just many, many different kinds of people - different economic classes, education, political, apolitical, radical, conservative.
And I always
saw them as one, you know. So even someone like Nixon, who was the target of so much ridicule at the time of Watergate, or anyone in the public eye, they're really just representative, as I am, of some demographic or some part of the culture.
Q: When was it that you first showed this antic flair you have? And did it get you in trouble?
Tomlin: It got me in trouble, but whatever that antic flair was, it got me out of trouble, too.
I was considered the great alibi artist of any school I attended. And I would stay out of school 12, 13 days, literally, in a row if my hair didn't turn out right. Morning hair is so difficult to manage. But by the afternoon, very often, your hair, the humidity, or whatever happens, or you know, just sort of the air, and your hair gets - and I would get "well enough" in time to go cheer at a football game.
So I'll tell you this one great alibi I had: I'd been out of school so many days, and Mr. Daniels, the counselor, caught me at home. I'd been home for so many days that I forgot I even went to school.
And I picked up the phone unwittingly, you know, and said "Hello?" And he said, [character voice] "You know, we are concerned about you. You haven't been in school for two weeks."
And I was taking a bath at the time, and I said, "Oh, Mr. Daniels, the worst thing happened. I scalded my legs." And I went to school - I put airplane glue on my legs, and put a pair of stockings over them, and then a pair of knee socks over that, and I hobbled into his office and I peeled back the knee sock to show him that my legs were "damaged."
I was always one of those kids who was so adventurous that I would do almost anything. I would just pick up with anybody at school. We hitchhiked to Chicago once. It's too long a story to go into, but it has to do with being socially hyper-mobile, and moving from one school hang-out to another, and picking up with these music students who were going to a band clinic; I'm the only one that didn't get expelled, because they were all music students, and I was not. I was a nursing student. [she laughs]
I was one of those people who would show up late for class and start telling some long, ridiculous story, and the teacher would finally say "Okay, just sit down." And I never got into severe trouble.
I don't even know what you asked me.
Q: Your collaboration with Jane [Wagner], how does that work? Is it a series of improvs? Is it a series of written laughs back and forth?
Tomlin: No, Jane is truly a writer, and I am not. I probably wouldn't be getting this prize if it weren't for Jane. Jane took what I did to a much higher level, in my opinion. I met her when I was doing my Edith Ann album and I was on Laugh-In and I'd seen the teleplay that she'd written on television called J.T. It was first aired in '69, and she won a Peabody for it.
She wanted to be a song lyricist - and she had turned this very long story-song into a teleplay, and it was the first thing she'd written in any kind of script form and it was very successful for her. Besides the Peabody, it was run every year for about 25 years on CBS at Christmas time.
And I had to deliver my Edith Ann album, so I wrote to her and asked her to help me develop the album, because I wanted "Edith" to be more than she was on Laugh-In. And eventually, I got a bunch of material from her, and then she came out to California, and we produced the album in just a matter of days. It took "Edith" to another level. I even performed her better, because the material was somehow deeper and more human. So, when people ask me how we work, I usually say "I drop to my knees and plead, 'Please write. Please write,'" and it's not easy to get a writer to write, you know.
Jane always says she has to face the empty page, and I say I have to face the full one.
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