Legendary comedienne Lily Tomlin has made a career on her ability to hear voices. Whether in the form of the pestilential operator Ernestine, the aristocratic Madame Lupe, or precocious 6-year-old Edith Ann, Tomlin has engrossed audiences with her unique approach to character humor for nearly four decades. Despite nearing 71, the acerbic performer shows no signs of stopping.
Tomlin will perform at the Center on Halsted’s Human First Gala on Saturday, May 22, to benefit the community center’s LGBT programming. Tomlin caught up with ShowBiz Chicago to discuss her unparalleled career, through both reflection and foresight.
Showbiz Chicago : You’re coming to Chicago in a few weeks to perform for the Center on Halsted’s Human First Gala. How did you get involved with the project?
Lily Tomlin (LT): I’m very involved with the Gay and Lesbian Center here in L.A. They invited me to do it, but I actually do not have any personal acquaintance with the Center on Halsted. To my knowledge I have actually never been there.
Showbiz Chicago: You have used your comedy as a tool for change quite often, working with various causes. What is your opinion on comedy’s relationship to cultural and social change, and the general move toward equality?
LT: It’s a huge force for social change and has always been used for that. Very often comedy is divisive, but often can beget change. If the comedy is used to show things that are wrong with the culture, it can make individuals more aware of issues and realities of these situations. If the laughter is unifying, it might even change your mind about something or if you’re laughing with a bunch of people. If they’re like-minded, they’ll agree with what you say, so in that case comedy can be a way to re-energize people or get them re-committed to a cause or need that exists. Comedy has many purposes and can have many results. The basic thing is if people are enjoying themselves with the content or the methods then what you’re saying about humans ultimately goes down more easily.
Showbiz Chicago: With your entire body of work on and off screen, including your and Jane’s Cultural Arts Center, you seem never to have been shy to lend your voice to LGBT or feminist causes. Was this always the case, even in the early days of your career?
LT: I was not out to the general public back in the 1970s. I got famous literally on the last Monday of 1969 [laughs]. I was always active in the community and active certainly for all women’s issues. We were very active in the early AIDS campaigns as well, but did not come out to the general public. Basically no one was out to the general public. I was much more involved, since the 50s, with feminist issues because that’s what I really identified with, the disparity between men and women and the opportunities offered for girls. Even when I was a teenager I was always conscious of that double standard.
Showbiz Chicago: We place a great deal of importance now on celebrities lending their names and hands to various causes. Do you think stigma still exists for artists who assist feminist or LGBT-centered efforts?
LT: Probably in some corners. There’s a stigma to everything [laughs]. There is always going to be some galvanized segment of humanity that just won’t give up certain values that they have lived by, specifically with scriptures. They’re bound up by their religion and it causes a lot of trouble, divides a lot of people. There are certainly more efforts to diversify now, but there was a time when people could only live within the religion they had been raised in. They could never express or live outside of the church, either consciously or physically. There was this huge iron fist, and in a certain way you feared the wrath of their disapproval- your neighborhood church, your family. People are thankfully more educated and more enlightened now. The young gay community continues to push the barriers now, and successfully. But everyone is not going to love everybody. Unless we give them over to some sort of euphoric drug-induced state [laughs]. Just the fact that individuals now allow certain groups to simply live and exist is a huge step, in a way.
Showbiz Chicago: You’ve talked recently about how Time Magazine, in 1975, wanted to give you a cover story just for coming out. Why do you think, in 2010, sexual identity is still such a huge factor in the entertainment industry?
LT: Publicists naturally say that. I mean not naturally, but you can understand it to an extent. Especially with someone like Cynthia Nixon playing the roles she has and being identified that way. I was reading another article in Newsweek recently that questioned whether or not gay actors could ever play straight roles. That was a huge stigma that was covered in much earlier decades. People were more focused on males in that age playing romantic leads, no one thought much about women. Even when I was a child there were always magazines like the Enquirer of the day trying to expose someone. The gay culture was underground and because of that it was the object of a lot of mystery, excitement, and taboo. They would love to catch a woman in a male-tailored suit, those kind of early ignorant perceptions because it was a world unknown to them. So that level of intrigue has always existed. My answer is meandering now. I tend to meander, and when I’m done with that, I’ll just start free-associating.
Showbiz Chicago: Going off of the Newsweek article, why do you think that when straight actors portray gay character it is viewed as “brave”, yet when the opposite occurs, it is seen as “unconvincing”?
LT: [laughs] I don’t know why that writer would say that. I don’t think you can say that across the board. I mean, a lot of people are unconvincing- whether straight, gay, or whatever they’re playing. They’re just bad actors. I mean when “Boys in the Band” came out, I happened to be doing an album then, in 1975. Time had offered me the cover if I would come out, which I of course declined. These actors in Boys in the Band would make sure, in every interview, that the public knew they were straight. They would say, “Oh yes, I had the chance to do research on these people,” and things like that [laughs]. So I put on the album, “Modern Scream”, I put in a flip of these interviews. I played the interviewer and said [does voice], “Lily I wanted to talk to you about your portrayal of a straight woman in your most recent movie. What was it like seeing yourself on the screen making love to a man?” [laughs]. It makes me laugh to this day. And then I reply, “Well I’ve seen these women all my life, I know how they walk, I know how they talk.” That was my nature, to turn to comedy and not to do the cover. I’m sure at the time I wasn’t so cavalier and I thought about that Time opportunity long and hard. Was I scared, was I really principled, I’m sure it was both. I felt they were trying to buy me in that way.
Lily Tomlin as Ernestine.
Photo credit: Tomlin and Wagner Theatricalz
Showbiz Chicago: It’s an interesting comment on the nature of the business, and certainly the marketing side of it, that the press has always been quick to “out” performers for publicity. Looking back on this past year, we’ve had several celebrities grace covers with the title, “Yep, I’m Gay”.
LT: Right, it sells magazines. The bottom line is money. It sells magazines but it also sells the artist, which can be a hard decision for the performer. But families are a huge factor, especially those actors who come from religious backgrounds who just don’t want to go through it because they don’t want to put their families through it. Older actors do it as a sort of after-the-fact opportunity. Many actors come to me, I don’t know why I’m the one they come to, and say, “You know people want me to come out,” and I tell them that it’s great if that works for them, if they can really be okay in their own skin talking to a bunch of strangers about their sexuality and private life. But you have to be ready for that too because you need to be at ease and come from a whole place in order to be comfortable. But the fear and trepidation that comes with those big magazines, maybe it isn’t worth it. Maybe some day it will be fine, but for some people it will never be fine. It depends on who they are and what they are going through. Anything that would appear to make you different, to the people who think they are not different, can be dangerous.
Domestic abuse was once accepted. It was grotesque. I lived in an older apartment house and I would hear this couples, this husband beating his wife. The wife began to be ashamed as if she were the object of ridicule, as if they’re the ones who should be ashamed and not the ignorant bastards who branded their head. You probably know being female, there were no shelters for women before the women’s movement. I remember being with my mom and dad and hearing women screaming. Imagine what that does to a child, for the grown-ups to be ridiculing or ignoring the violence, or in any way treating something as vile and ugly as violence as normal. It’s crazy. People can just be abhorrent.
Showbiz Chicago: It’s been over 30 years since you were the first woman to appear solo in a Broadway show with “Appearing Nitely”. We’ve seen a surge in female comediennes lately, but the truth is there is only one main female performer on “Saturday Night Live” and the most female writers any Network show can boast now is four (“The Wanda Sykes Show”). Why do you think this gender disparity still exists so prominently in the business?
LT: God, you may have uncovered the last frontier. So many people, boys in particular, do not believe girls or women can be funny. I’ve noticed that women have to draw closer to what we used to call “boy sensibility” to be thought of as funny, with cruder elements to their humor. I like to think that my comedy, with my partner Jane, is non-gender based and has a more species oriented humor. There’s this idea in the comedy industry that humor emanates from the male, or the male sensibility, whatever that is. I don’t really know how to analyze it. Unfortunately I don’t know if there is sense to be made out of this. It’s a male-driven culture and women are still objectified and seen as most valuable when they can show their bodies. Yes, things are better. Women are more assertive in their expression of their own sensibility. I was working in a revue many years ago in the mid-1960s. There are six people at most in a classic revue, the juvenile, the leading person, and the character person. There are male and female counterparts to this. The girl who was the ingénue is very pretty but very boring onstage, as ingénues are. The actress who was playing the ingénue was just so funny, and in the dressing room she would make me laugh so hard I would double over. I once said to her, “You’ve just got to that onstage.” She literally started to fill up and her body became more feminine, as if on its own, and she said, “Oh I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was unattractive.”
Showbiz Chicago: Joan Rivers has often commented on how funny women are seen as threatening. Many female comediennes today are sexualized in some way in the media. Why do you think it’s not enough for a female performer to be smart and talented?
LT: That was a prevalent feeling for performers. As a comedienne, especially doing stand-up, something was wrong with you. You were overweight, homely, couldn’t get a man, flat chested. Something always had to be wrong with you in that way, something not completely whole. That is not entirely true anymore, but that sentiment is still there and it affects casting choices, both behind and in front of the camera. Because of this idea, a woman might be given less jobs, say as a comedy writer. So when she is up against a male for another one, he might have more jobs on his resume, which tips the scale. At the end of the day it has to do with dominance. If a woman is doing stand-up or voicing her opinion, it is seen as powerful, as the woman taking dominance. I don’t think people like that. People agree that women are funny, but not as funny as men.
Showbiz Chicago: Let’s talk about your current projects. You’ve had recurring roles on “The West Wing”, “Desperate Housewives”, and now “Damages”. What keeps you attracted to television as a medium for your comedy?
LT: I like to do it all. Television is great because it has a big audience. I did six television specials for variety shows, but at the time the format was dying. That was a precursor to “Saturday Night Live”. We kept telling the network that they couldn’t do a taped show, it needed to be live. Live television is just so exciting, because truly anything can happen. Someone’s fly could be down, who knows. Television is often like having your own studio, because you can go and make up stuff with like-minded people who want to make that kind of comedy. I also wish I had a new Broadway show to take back to New York. I just like to do it all if I can.
Showbiz Chicago: Your work is constantly influenced by your surroundings, including political climate, for instance Ernestine is now working for a health insurance company. How have your characters continued to evolve since their conception?
LT: Ernestine was always a natural because she was already involved with that social climate. At the time, AT&T was so hated by everyone at a micro level for their monopoly. At the time in New York I wasn’t famous, I just wanted to do my act, show my voice. It was natural for Ernestine to portray the phone company and deny people service to show that kind of monpoloy. She eventually got into wire tapping and things that became more accepted for some reason. It was ripe for satire.