‘An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin’ at Clark State
By Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin
Photo: Lily Tomlin performs on March 8 at Clark State’s Kuss Auditorium
Lily Tomlin has been in touch with our funny bones since the 1960s. She has given us award-winning performances on stage, screen and audio recordings, leaving us with indelible characters such as Ernestine, Edith Ann and Violet Newstead. Now she is touring the country with “An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin,” which is coming to Clark State’s Kuss Auditorium Saturday, March 8.
In a conversation with DCP, the recently wed Tomlin spoke candidly about her wife and collaborator Jane Wagner, and what it means to be a humanist.
Are you missing the Midwest right now, buried under all this snow?
Well, you know, Detroit has always been really cold in the winters. I used to just freak out as a kid in Detroit. As a teenager, the winters were so darn cold. If you were out and it was freezing, you just wanted to lay down in the snow and go to sleep. – Lily Tomlin
They got snow in New Orleans! I imagine those people are in a bit of a panic.
I’m glad enough for the moment to be out of that in this weather. I miss Detroit in so many ways. It was a great city. Great old fabulous, gritty, political city and dynamic. And it’s just going way downhill. – LT
It seems like they have the tools they need to come back up again, though.
I think they’ve hit the bottom so hard. A lot of artists are moving there because they can get very affordable housing. When the artists start moving in, the creativity starts again. This downfall has been in the making for 40, 50 years. But it’s like a template. In a way, it’s been so decimated it’s like a template for a city of the future. They’ll start doing stuff, hopefully. […] I try to do what I can for Detroit a little bit, without having to go there all the time because I just don’t have the time. I have a friend who’s – Allee Willis is her name – she’s from Detroit, and we’ve known each other for years, and she’s a musician and she’s been doing a lot there. She wrote a song called “The D,” and she’s making a documentary. She’s been there several times and filmed people all over the city. Anyway, I have hopes for it. I just hope it’s sooner rather than later. – LT
I noticed, while watching some episodes of “The West Wing” that you were in, several of the main actors, three were from Dayton and several were from the Midwest.
Yeah, Allison [Janney] is from Dayton. – LT
Yeah! And Martin Sheen and Rob Lowe.
God, I didn’t realize they were from Dayton, too. Well, that’s a bit of news. No, really! I didn’t know Martin Sheen was from Dayton. – LT
He’s from downtown Dayton. What is it about the Midwest? Maybe it’s that we all know how to play euchre.
[Laughs] Except for me! I don’t know how to play euchre! No, I know what you mean. It’s a little more down home or something. Just more down to Earth, maybe. – LT
You recently got married. Congratulations!
I did. Thank you. – LT
You and Jane have been collaborating for more than 40 years. Is it easy to tell what’s her voice and what’s your voice?
I was on “Laugh In” when I met her, and the first thing we worked on together was the Edith Ann album. I had seen something she’d done on television [J.T. (1969)] about a kid in Harlem I thought was so good. She won a Peabody for it. She really wanted to be a songwriter, and she’d written songs, but she’d never really written a play or a script. And she’d written this long, kind of a story song, about a kid in Harlem called “The Traffic Jam of Life.” It was kind of like a song that just is not conventional. In those days, you were at 1650 Broadway, the old Brill Building, where people went down and pitched songs. So her agents wanted to turn this into a screenplay, and she did in no time. It was originally run on CBS. It was her first time out and she won a Peabody. It was a big deal. That was back in ’69. I met her in ’71. And I wanted Edith Ann on “Laugh In” to be more. I had a mutual friend of Jane’s, so I got her to come out to California and work on this Edith Ann album. It was like Edith took a huge leap up because Jane is such a good writer, and then we just kept going. The thing I think that’s been the best thing done is “The Search [for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe],” a play we did on Broadway. So that’s totally changed; she’s the author, I’m the performer and we produced and directed it. And we’ve done television specials and I think our voices are very similar, just that I can manifest that voice physically and she can manifest it verbally. – LT
Jane’s writing is so warm and insightful and …
Tender, satiric, edgy, sweet, funny – all of it rolled up. It’s amazing to me. – LT
And you embody all of that, as well.
I try to embody it. I feel like I so understand her sensibility I can almost intuit what it’s going to be, even from the first little bit. Like when she was first writing “The Search,” if I went on the road I would work on little bits and pieces of it as she was writing, but I could feel where it was going and it was just magical when we came around the bend and the play was finished. In fact, I was playing in Santa Fe, N. M., and it was wintertime and we’d just begun to put “The Search” on its feet. We started in January, we opened on Broadway in September. This was at an early stage and we were up there in Santa Fe where there’s a lot of people that come up there in the winter and ski or do whatever they do. So, they’d come to the show three or four times if there wasn’t that much to do in town. So some groups, they kind of saw the play evolve because we were really refining it and trying to find our way through it in the best possible way. The night that I knew the play was finished, the audience literally leapt to their feet. It’s like they knew it, too. It’s like they were congratulating us. This is where it was going. It’s like they understood, too. They’d see it like over a three-week period, so that was really exciting. But “The Search” is the thing I think we’re best known for. I mean, I’m best known for the stuff I’ve done on television, but overall, in an artistic vein, I think “The Search” is what most people turn to, and that’s strictly Jane’s authorship. – LT
So is the connection strong enough that home life is as symbiotic?
No! No, not so symbiotic. Like any two humans, there’re waves, all kinds of ups and downs. Just in terms of like feeding the cat, maybe. [laughs] “What should I do? Should I feed her? I thought you fed her?” “No! I thought you fed her!” Oh god, no. But it’s great. You can’t even put a name on it. – LT
And many more cat-feeding arguments to come.
[The cat] She’s looking at me right now like, “Don’t drag me into this.” – LT
Pets really become part of the family.
I know! And some people don’t like cats. I love dogs and cats. We’ve had loads of different pets over the years. I had a goat. The house we lived in was kind of a private patch of land and you could have any animal you wanted. We had a goat. He was a great little pet. I had a dog myself at that time, she was a little terrier, and my brother, his dog lived at our house, she was a big water spaniel and one of our people who worked with us, she had a Doberman. I’d walk them in the morning and in the evening, and the goat would walk right with us! He was just great. He was the best behaved! – LT
What a pack you guys must have made.
And the goat was the only one I could rely on. The others, the two big dogs, would just take off running, and I knew they were OK because their park was kind of gated, you know. We lived in an old house that was rented by W.C. Fields. And across the street lived a house that DeMille – you know Cecil B. DeMille – owned. And then next door was Charlie Chaplin. – LT
Los Feliz is really kind of a hip area now.
It was hip when we lived there. We lived there 28 years. We bought that house in ’78, we were called the Pioneers of Los Feliz because no one else would move there in those days, no young people. – LT
Something about this area of the country fosters a lot of creativity. Maybe it’s the weather.
Detroit, too. Don’t worry. We’ve got as much as you, maybe more because we’re more bound by the lakes. It’s terrible, cold, snowy, wet, freezing. And of course we didn’t dress right in my time. I didn’t have a pair of real boots. It was just too unattractive. [laughs] They didn’t have attractive boots in those days. We didn’t have the good shampoo either, so you had kind of gnarly hair. You had either Prell or Breck shampoos. Those Breck ads were pretty grim. When I was a teenager, you know 19, 20 years old, getting to be a grownup, your purse and your shoes are supposed to match! [laughs] It’s so duddy! We were so duddy. – LT
I’m glad you have the means now to look how you want to look.
Yeah, well society has caught up with me. – LT
Over the course of your career, you’ve worked with some people multiple times, like Robert Altman. Are there any running jokes with these people? Deep-seated friendships? Playful rivalries?
Well, there are people you work with, and I was close with Altman. I really loved him and I did several movies with him, including the last one, which was “Prairie Home Companion.” And Jane [Fonda] and Dolly [Parton] I’ve been friends with from “9 to 5” for a long time. – LT
I looooove that movie! Sorry to gush.
No! I’m glad. I’m thrilled. I’m happy. I just did a movie last year with Tina Fey, I played her mother, in a movie called “Admission” about college admissions, and Paul Rudd was in it. I’m really another generation, and when we were on the movie, all they wanted to talk about was “9 to 5” and “The Shrinking Woman” and stuff like that, and I had to realize that they were kids when I was making those movies. – LT
What’s fantastic is that they’re not really dated.
Still somewhat relevant to the culture, yeah. – LT
Your body of work is very female-centric, which is unusual in Hollywood, even today. Was it a big deal to people in the ’70s and ’80s?
Well, I think to part of the culture it was. I can’t say I, unconsciously even, was applying those principles. It was really rather, “Was the film human enough? Was it enough about humanity?” It’s not like they would be in some big adventure movie or anything like that. And it wasn’t my sensibility. It’s your own sensibility, and certainly I had a feminist sensibility, and probably it was just intuitive. I was offered movie parts I couldn’t possibly take because they were misogynist or homophobic or racist. And even movies I did take part in, I’d be lobbying to get certain language out of a movie. – LT
Really? Like what?
Oh, douchebag. Wuss. No dick. No dick so-and-so. Just, you know, insults to people, that were hip or current. […] I mean, that’s really, basically, anti-female, subconsciously, whether people mean it that way or not. Because most people, women don’t even douche anymore because they’ve found that it’s unhealthy, but this is a great thing to put in your article [laughs], but the fact that they were even encouraged to douche meant that there was something wrong, that they had to rid themselves of this female odor or whatever that was supposed to be. What about feminine hygiene spray? This was before your time, they literally used to have a – in fact I had a line I used to use, “I just discovered that feminine hygiene spray will kill cockroaches.” I mean there was just so much, and it still prevails. Even young women say, “Well, I don’t know if I’m feminist or not.” Well, feminism is really humanism, we used to say, because it’s really equality amongst the sexes and among people in general. One of my favorite things, moments from the early ’70s and the women’s movement, is one of our battle cries was, “This is about moving the whole species forward, not just half of it.” – LT
I like that.
Yeah! And that’s really the intention of it, in my mind, and we’re moving closer to that. I had a greeting from a relative who‘s a couple way in their 70s, maybe pushing 80, congratulating me and Jane on our marriage. Now, Jane and I have been together a long time. We both have Southern backgrounds. My mother and dad are from Kentucky, very bible focused. And so to get a letter, a card like this from a couple who – well, I guess they’re not much older than I am, but they are older, and I never was that old anyway – so to get a congratulatory card from them, a real sweet, loving card, very unusual. Never would have believed that would be in our lifetime. Not that they didn’t like us or care for us, but you don’t talk about it, you don’t acknowledge it, that we’re gay. They’d rather be quiet about it. [laughs] They’d rather not have to deal with it. And if we were their kids, they’d probably have been quite upset. But anyway, I’m just signaling that as the lay of the land. There’s still so much. The younger generation I hope is more enlightened. I don’t even want to say “tolerant.” To hell with “tolerant.” It’s just accepting humans. You don’t have to love them. You don’t have to be them. You don’t have to do anything. You just have to let people live. – LT
On the War on Terror.
Nobody should have to go to war. If you have a war that really means something, and you’re really fighting for your life, but these are not that. You’re fighting for oil, you’re fighting for something else. It’s totally commercial, and they don’t care who gets whacked in the process. – LT
I think about my grandfather in World War II and it makes me really proud.
But you know, they were really fighting something that was imminent and powerful and that was Hitler and the Nazis. Today all the money that gets sent on to war, and not to say the terrorists don’t have a real antipathy toward us, but why do they? Because we’ve been occupying their countries and stuff. It’s too much. It’s too mishy mashy. I don’t want anyone to have to go to war, not for corporate reasons. If it’s for real reasons and the population wants it and the best minds in the world know someone has to be vanquished, but not for oil or whatever they’re fighting for. – LT
Clark State and the Springfield Arts Council presents “An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin” at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 8 at Clark State’s Kuss Auditorium, 300 S Fountain Ave, Springfied. Tickets range from $39 to $70 for adults and from $29 to $70 for students. For more information, please call 937.328.3874 or visit lilytomlin.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin at JenniferHanauerLumpkin@DaytonCityPaper.com