At 73, Lily Tomlin should be slowing down, you’d guess. Guess again.
by Blase DiStefano
Photo by Jenny Risher
One of our legendary ladies—who just happens to be a lesbian and whose first name, Lily, gives us more alliteration than we could hope for—is in possibly the busiest period of her life: 1) she is working on a new ABC sitcom, Malibu Country; 2) she reprises her outlandish role as Lisa Kudrow’s mother on Showtime’s Web Therapy; 3) she has fun with Joan Rivers on WeTV’s Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?; 4) she is interviewed for a Richard Pryor documentary and for David Steinberg’s Showtime series Inside Comedy; 5) she narrates an HBO documentary, An Apology for Elephants, written by Jane Wagner, her life partner; 6) she plays Tina Fey’s mother in the new film Admission; and 7) she is still doing her one-woman show, which plays Houston on February 9. That doesn’t include projects that would simply make this intro so long that we would have to forgo the interview.
Blase DiStefano: Let’s start with the new sitcom Malibu Country. You look really great with white hair.
Lily Tomlin: I wish I had white hair. My mother had white hair. I had the wig built because I wanted to have that hair. I have almost no gray hair myself, and I’d give anything if my hair would turn white.
And you’re using your mother’s name [Lillie Mae] on the show. Was that your idea?
Yeah. I felt very pleased about that.
The last I read, the ratings for that time slot are the highest they’ve been in five years.
I think ABC is pretty pleased with it. It’s really fun, and we’re getting into a stride now.
What’s it like working with Reba McEntire?
Reba’s a doll—she’s great to work with. She just had all the cast to her house for Christmas dinner last night [Friday, December 14] ’cause our Christmas episode was on. We had dinner and watched that episode. Everybody except me is a singer or plays an instrument. Justin [Prentice] plays violin and piano and guitar, Juliette [Angelo] plays guitar, and Hudson [Thames] plays piano, and he’s got a rock band. They’re all fabulous. I mean, they’re just wonderfully talented. Everyone is friendly and fun—it’s a really fun job.
Was it fun when you did Murphy Brown?
I did the last two years of that show, and that was great fun. I wept more when the show ended than the people who were there ten years. [Both laugh] I got very attached to the family, and I was also a fan before I was on the show.
I never missed an episode. But now back to the present—aren’t you also doing [the Showtime comedy] Web Therapy?
Oh, yes. We’re going to do the next season of that. We usually do that in one day.
One day?! With you in different costumes?!
Yes. You can do that in a short time. Like in the first season where [my character] Putsy Hodge went from very button-down to very Asian and Bohemian and everything, and then she got committed to the asylum. [Both laugh] I love playing Putsy.
It’s such a great show.
I know. I love it too, Blase.
Lisa Kudrow is a genius, and to have you as her mother—that was just genius casting. So what about the wigs on this show?
Those are my wigs and everything. I have a huge wig room from all these years of working. I almost make a wig for every character I do. [Both laugh] I’ve always been a wig queen—it so speaks of who the character is, along with all those little costumes and stuff. You have a general idea [of what the episode is about], but it’s really improv. And I always had this idea that she’d have puppets through which she would express herself. [Both laugh] Anyway, I have too many old costumes and jewelry and everything, held over from forty years in the business.
Web Therapy is mostly improvised.
It is, but I know [beforehand] what the gist of it is going to be. Not that I don’t get assistance from the costume people—like we’re making those little puppets right down to the last minute. Putsy’s third puppet was dressed like she was. Because we’re improvising so much, the cuts just don’t always blend. The hat I had on was a hat my brother got me at an auction of Loretta Young’s estate. [Lisa Kudrow, who plays her daughter, says] “I see your Loretta Young hat, Mother.” [Both laugh] So the puppet had a little hat like that, too.
That’s hilarious. I cannot believe we talked about Loretta Young and Web Therapy in the same sentence. [Both laugh] I’ve been playing everybody’s mother—I play Tina Fey’s mother in a new movie [Admission] about the admissions office, coming out in March.
You’re the mother of some great people.
I had quite brilliant offspring.
[Laughs] Definitely. You’ve got Reba right now. You’ve got Lisa next month, and the month after that you’ve got Tina Fey. But back to Web Therapy. How did the role come about?
I knew Lisa. I wasn’t close friends or anything, but when people are so good, you just like them, so you’re drawn to them. I had met with Don Roos and Dan Bucatinsky [partners in business and life, and also business partners with Kudrow] and Lisa earlier for a movie they wanted to produce called Dinner Party. It still hasn’t been done, but I keep holding out that they’ll get the money. I had spent time with them about that, and then we started talking. They wanted to know if I had any ideas to develop, and that’s where the puppets came up. [Both laugh] I don’t know how it evolved, but I guess Showtime picked it up in the meantime, and I think that’s when they filmed me and Victor Garber [who plays Kudrow’s gay husband]. Meryl [Streep] had already done the show. As you’ve probably seen, they were able to get everybody.
’Cause its so much fun.
It’s so hip and wonderful. I love it. Anyway, that’s how it came about. Just tangentially through another project. There’s nothing an actor likes better than to fool around and just carry on.
They show outtakes at the end of the show, and they’re as good as the show. You wonder how the actors can keep a straight face.
We’re shooting it on opposite ends of a soundstage–Lisa’s sitting over a hundred, two hundred feet away from you, watching a monitor, and it’s got your picture on it, and I’m sitting over here, and I’ve got her picture, so you don’t know what’s coming.
That’s part of the fun.
You’ve also got Inside Comedy coming up, where you were interviewed by David Steinberg.
It seems like ten years ago that I did that.
Had you worked with David before?
In one of my first jobs on network television. I came to California for it from New York, and I chose it over Laugh-In, which was starting its third season. This was like 1969, and we thought we were just too hip to be on television. This show was like a Midnight Special, but it pre-dated Midnight Special by many years. Then it was in prime time. It was like one of the first programs aimed at teenagers or a young market.
David Steinberg was like the head of a comedy group—there were three or four more of us, and I was one of them. We had concerts with Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, and we’d do little intros and little sketches and stuff like that, but it was mostly about the concerts. Parents were just up in arms—these long-haired dopers were in prime time. Presumably dopers.
It got cancelled mid-season, and I still had the offer to go to Laugh-In, so I went over to Laugh-In.
That was really good timing, wasn’t it?
Yeah. I’m crazy about George Schlatter, who was the producer. He was one of the first producers who didn’t pull back like two or three seats when I started to do one of my characters.
I would do an audition where I met some old producer, and I’d launch into Madame Lupe, the character who is a beauty expert, and they’d pull back like they’d seen an alien. George went for me in a second.
They didn’t like to see women do that kind of comedy. Plus, it was just so bizarre to see a girl sitting there who suddenly turns into something else. And it was in such close proximity [both laugh], right across the desk. So anyway, I went to George, and he liked me right away.
Besides Inside Comedy, didn’t you film a segment in Joan Rivers’s reality show [Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?]?
Yeah, I’ve known Joan since when I started. She was a headliner in the downstairs room [at New York’s Upstairs at the Downstairs nightclub], and I was in the revue upstairs with Madeleine Kahn and Dixie Carter. I’ve known Joan since before Melissa was born.
So I did this episode of her show with her, and it’s like I’m having a dinner party at a restaurant—this sounds like it’s belying the reality part, doesn’t it? Well, it is. [Both laugh] I’m having a dinner party, and Jane Lynch and her girlfriend came, and Jai Rodriguez, who works on Malibu Country—he’s so good, and funny on our show. Jane [Wagner, Tomlin’s life partner] didn’t come—you can’t get Jane to do very much. But my brother was in town, and he knows Joan—he’s known her since she was a kid, and so he was thrilled to death to be on Joan’s show. So we’re just having a dinner party, not much going on. Maybe I shouldn’t tell this because it’s supposed to be real. I’m not going to tell it…
How about if I don’t print it?
Okay, I’ll tell you personally. The idea is that… [Both laugh after Tomlin tells DiStefano the storyline. The series premieres February 23 on WeTV.]
That’s hilarious. And so is Joan.
Definitely. I used to come down from my revue [at the Upstairs at the Downstairs] when I wasn’t on, and I’d crack the door in the downstairs room just to listen to her. I’d just crack up. They’d hear me laughing in the stairwell, so I’d have to shut the door and just run up. She’s always been just hilarious.
So you’re going to be in Houston in early February.
February? Oh my God, we’re still shooting in February. What night am I playing? I’m playing Dallas, too.
I think it’s the ninth. I don’t have the…
I’m looking it up right now on the computer. When this was booked, I might not have been on the series yet. I had to cancel a whole bunch of dates. We did the pilot last April, but you don’t know how long it’s gonna go, you don’t know if it’s gonna get picked up, or for how many episodes.
It’s all right. I’ve done it all my life. Even Reba, she does dates very often on the weekends. Of course, she probably has her own plane. [Both laugh]
So what can we expect with this show?
A lot of characters—whatever I’ve updated into their mouths. I use video. Not a lot. It’s more about either satirizing myself or something I interact with about one of the characters. Or maybe a character would tell you about the character and refer to something they’d done or would hope to do. [Both laugh]
How was it working with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd in Admission?
I’m a fan. It was very easy and sweet. I just saw the movie the other night, and it was really good.
Here’s the best part: the fellow who directed this movie, Paul Weitz, he’d done a movie called About the Boy. I loved his touch with character—subtle, overlapping, nothing was cut-and-dried—so I was very eager to work with him. I’m supposed to be a feminist [in the movie], and I am sort of well-known, say in the seventies, and have a real big important feminist book, and Tina, my daughter, is exactly the opposite. She’s an admissions officer at Princeton, so I…um, I’m trying to pull up his mother’s name [on the computer]. You may know—do you know the old Lana Turner movie Imitation of Life?
Who’s the girl that was mixed race?
Yes, that’s who it was. I knew it was Susan, and I couldn’t think of her last name this past week.
What does she have to do with this?
She [is Paul Weitz’s] mother in real life.
Oh my God!
Wait a minute–here’s the choice part: when I started talking about coming to do the movie—I always ask about people’s mothers and dads and where they’re from and what they do and what they did. And anyway, he says his mother was the actress [in Imitation of Life], and I couldn’t believe it, because here’s my story about Imitation of Life: I went with my mother to see [that movie], and she knew it was going to be a real tearjerker. So we went in and sat down, and when she opened her purse, she had three washcloths in her bag. [Both laugh]
I’ve lived my whole life to tell that to somebody to whom it would mean something. And [Paul’s] mother [Susan Kohner] is still living—very, very lovely, attractive woman. She came to the set a couple of times. Anyway, it was just great to be able to tell that to Paul about his mom, and then I got to meet her [and tell her]. I was just thrilled.
For someone like me or someone like you, that would be a moment in life that you never forgot when your mother opens her purse and there were three washcloths. [Both laugh]
That was a big side trip.
Side trips are always fun. Now if you don’t mind getting a little stereotypical for a second, what is the gayest thing you’ve ever done? Before you answer that, let me say, as a gay man, I love show tunes, I’ve never missed an episode of Project Runway, and I love women like you, Bette Midler, Maggie Smith, Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, etc. So is there anything…
No, but as soon as you mention anybody, I want to start telling a story—like when you said Maggie Smith, because I made Tea with Mussolini with Maggie Smith and Judi Dench and Joan Plowright and Cher. Of course I was mad for Maggie Smith. We were in Italy for three months. I was such a goofball. I guess I could talk an hour about this…don’t get me started.
Please get started!
We’d be in a villa for two or three days shooting out in the country, and the three of them would get in a room together and smoke and send down to some little butcher shop to get some head cheese and salami, and there was no tea.
While you’re making a movie called Tea with Mussolini.
[Laughs] Exactly. I was looking for teacups and tea bags and trying to make tea for them. I must have annoyed the hell out of them. You could hear the cups clanging on the tray [as I came] up the stairs to their room and knocking politely. [Both laugh] It was hot the whole summer, and Maggie would be in the sun—you know how fair she is—and I would run out with an umbrella to hold it over her. [Both laugh] And you know they’d be looking at each other, rolling their eyes and wondering Just what is her story? It was so choice. And Maggie, the stuff you’d get out of her.
Have you had a chance see any of Downton Abbey?
Let me tell you one thing. They’re all sitting at this huge dining table. Maggie Smith is one of them. And somebody says something like, “Well, I think I’m going to have to work on the weekend.” Maggie Smith says, “What’s a weekend?” [Both laugh] It was one of the funniest things I have ever heard in my life, and of course coming from Maggie Smith…
The all-time delivery.
How is Jane doing?
She’s doing great. They re-issued—from twenty-five or more years in print—they’ve re-issued The Search [for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe] with new additions—I wrote a little essay and Jane wrote a much longer essay, and different people—current people—reflected on The Search these many years later.
Has it been out long?
It just came out. Not a big fanfare, just something Harper’s wants to keep in their library.
Since you’re gonna be here in Houston a few days before Valentine’s Day, are you going to be able to be with Jane on Valentine’s Day?
Oh yeah, I’ll be here at home.
That’s where you’re filming?
We film five minutes from my house. I could walk to work.
Tell me about the Elephants documentary.
I’ve advocated for elephants in captivity for four or five years, so I pitched the idea to HBO. I narrated it, and Jane wrote the narration. It’s a half-hour documentary. I don’t think it will be on until summer. If they’ve kept the same title, it’s called An Apology to Elephants.
I read an article in National Geographic about what’s happening to elephants, and it’s not good. We do owe them an apology.
But anyway, did you know that the pope tweets?
[Laughs] Wait, [looking at her computer] I think maybe that’s him now. He’s tweeting me—“Did I leave my red shoes at your house?”
[Laughs] You’ve got so much going on…I don’t know how you do it. Is it because you’ve been doing it all your life?
Pretty much. You’re all geared up to do it. In between, you do stuff for friends—like after I rehearse Monday, I have to get ready to shoot another documentary for Joan, one she’s doing on Showtime about funny women or something. And I’m also going to be interviewed for a documentary for Richard Pryor—I’ve done half a dozen of those over the years. I don’t know that they’re going to hear anything new. But you do it out of regard for the artist.
That’s cool. So I think I’ve covered it all. Thank you for your time, Lily.
Hey, Blase, thank you. And I look forward to seeing you in Houston.
What: Lily Tomlin
When: Friday, February 9, at 8 p.m.
Where: Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana
Tickets/info: www.spahouston.org or 713/227-4772.