Lily Tomlin talks about Richard Pryor, turning down $500,000 and working a stage at 69
When I met comic Lily Tomlin on the telephone, it would be days before bratty Batman star Christian Bale brought the celebrity meltdown back to prominence with a profanity-drenched tirade leaked from the set of the latest Terminator movie.
You’d never know, from her talkative manner and willingness to answer any question, that Tomlin once starred in her own widely watched meltdown -- a YouTube-immortalized fit from the 2003 set of the quirky film I Heart Huckabees, in which Tomlin flips off the camera and calls director David O. Russell some very choice names.
That attitude seems a world away now; instead, she offers a weary wisdom that can only come from 40 years in the snakepit of show business.
In an hourlong interview previewing her Valentine's Day show Saturday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Tomlin dishes on her friendship with Richard Pryor, the youthful spirit that led her to turn down a $500,000 endorsement deal in the early '70s, and why she’s still working a stage at 69.
Deggans: Unlike a lot of comics, your act is almost entirely rooted in characters. So who will we see when you come here?
T: “I do a little bit of Trudy, the bag lady. Ernestine (the telephone operator) now has been working in a big health care insurance company –- you know, denying health care to everyone (laughs). I’ll do 10 or 12 characters, talk to the audience and talk about Tampa and talk about we’ve got a new president and all that stuff.”
D: If you’re Chris Rock and you want to talk about Obama’s election, you just kind of come up with an extra bit, but for you it sounds like you might have to create another character, right?
T: (laughs) Sort of. Ernestine’s a particularly facile character for that. Before the war started, she’d always had a kind of reality-based Webcast chat show called “Ernestine Calls You on It and You’d Better Have an Answer.” So in the beginning, she would get Bush and Saddam and Kim Jong Il, or whoever was in the news, and she’d get them on the phone and try to, you know, be satirical about going to war, or why were they at each others’ throats.
D: What do you tell folks when they ask why you’re still doing stage performances?
T: I think 'cause I don’t realize how long I’ve been doing it. And Jane, my partner, always says I think you like to work live because it’s the only two hours of the day that you’re in the present. So I’ve never not done it. I’ve been making an act since I was a kid, doing it on the back porch, trying to get people from the apartment house to come and see it. Sometimes I think I was the first performance artist.
D: Steve Martin definitively closed the book on his stand-up career at a certain point . . . But there are other performers who never do. What’s the difference?
T: Well, Steve has the luxury of doing movies all he wants, and I’ve never had that luxury, really. (Tomlin teams up with Martin in a small role in his current film, The Pink Panther 2.) Not too many women have had that kind of . . . think of the kids on SNL. The boys had lots of chances to make movies; there’s the old rule, you have three films in the air at any time -- one’s just out, one’s in preparation and one is being shot. And so if you have a clunker, you’ve already got another one in the can. Gilda (Radner) never had a real movie career and, sadly enough, Madeline never . . . Madeline wasn’t on SNL but Madeline Kahn never had a real movie career. Whatever Steve is able to do or sell, I never had that capacity.
D: Comics like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, they seemed to have this period where they kind of were more commercial and then they figured out what they really wanted to say. Today’s comics, by the time you see them on Comedy Central you kind of get whatever their act is.
T: Truthfully, there aren’t two worlds today. There was in those times. I mean, things were . . . nothing’s taboo anymore. George kinda doing the hippy-dippy weatherman and stuff . . . he did that because he couldn’t do the other stuff in Vegas. He’d get run out. There weren’t that many places to work.
A few years ago, before Richard died, I presented him with an award . . . he was very, very physically impaired by then. I sat behind him for two hours, watching clips at this festival, and I knew he was, like, sort of sobbing. It was killing him, 'cause the guy on the screen was so wonderful and so . . . incredibly magnetic and charismatic on the screen, and he was (by then) so completely isolated in his body.
D: I have to ask: Did AT&T actually offer you a half-million dollars to do Ernestine?
T: Yeah, and that was in 1970, I guess. But I was . . . my feelings were . . . I was insulted. I literally burst into tears.
D: So what did your agent think -– that this was gonna be a great thing to tell you and . . .
T: (laughs) Oh, yeah. My manager, this English girl, you know, and I was making $750 a week on Laugh-In and she was making, whatever, 10 percent of that (laughs).
D: Yeah, she had visions in her eyes of 10 percent of half a million…
T: She was so out of breath. I mean, she was so hyperventilating to have to tell me, really excited because that was just for the New England states. They thought if it caught on, then they would move it across the country because Ernestine was so big. Oh, she was a monster. You know, I had to literally kind of not do her, stop doing her, just so I could put her in perspective 'cause if I’d go on an old variety show in the old days, like Glen Campbell or Flip Wilson or –- there were so many of them -– and we’d have a sketch, like a health food store sketch, they’d write it for Ernestine to do 'cause she was so funny. You know, she could make anything seem funny.
D: So do you look back now on that and wish you could have done it differently?
T: Coming up in the '60s, you know, we had a different vision of the world, however naïve it might have been . . . you only were supposed to do well by doing good. And getting money . . . if you got money or you became a huge financial success, you better have done something good, unlike today (laughs).
Mervyn LeRoy, who produced Wizard of Oz, came to me and wanted to do, like, a Walter Mitty movie with Ernestine that first year. Well, I wouldn’t do it, stupid as I am. And I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t want to exploit Ernestine (laughs). I wanted to be whatever my idea was of being more of an artist. Well, I wish Mervyn LeRoy was still alive. (laughs)
D: Although, you know, the person that you were then . . . would you have felt comfortable doing that? Could you have been funny doing that?
T: No, I couldn’t have done it. No, that’s why I didn’t do it.
D: So you made the right choice for yourself.
T: But if it had been just 10 years later, I probably would have done it (laughs).
D: So, now, you’re on Desperate Housewives.
T: Well, I did four and I’m probably going to go back and do a wrap-up at the end. They put us on during sweeps week, you know?
D: How did that come about?
T: (Housewives co-star) Kathryn Joosten (Mrs. McCluskey) is a friend. She had that part on West Wing as the president’s assistant and I’m thinking, how in the hell did Kathryn get that part? (laughs) And I wanted to be on the show. I got on West Wing as Kathryn’s replacement when her character got killed in a car crash and we just stayed friendly. And so then we were at a meeting and she said, my sister’s gonna come on the show, why don’t you come on and play it? We had a lot of chemistry, we had a lot of response around those two sisters. So now we're thinking about developing a series.
D: You talk a lot about your partner Jane Wagner, and I think we’re in an interesting place regarding gay people and America; on the one hand, performers can be as open as they’ve ever been, but on the other hand, we just had many states pass anti-marriage laws. Does it feel like a contradictory environment?
T: My family is Southern Fundamentalist. I grew up in that church. It’s not unusual to me, you know. Some of my friends were just absolutely beside themselves about Rick Warren speaking at the inauguration, and I thought, it’s like my uncle giving the invocation (laughs). People have got to be more tolerant, but you’re not gonna change people’s minds, people who believe deeply in the Bible and that interpretation. Some peoples likes ya and some people's don’t (laughs).
D: When did you sort of feel comfortable being public about your sexual orientation?
T: Well, you know, it’s a funny thing 'cause I’ve been around so long that it was certainly no secret in the industry. Jane and I were very out and doing stuff and we always produced and worked together. I even had one of our writers say to me one day, You know, I think you and Jane should come to work in different cars. (laughs) And I said, Well, why would we do that –- aside from the fact that we don’t have two cars? She was probably being protective but also her own politics, you know, her own prejudices were getting the better of her.
Lily Tomlin performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at Morsani Hall at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. Tickets are $25.50 and up. (813) 229-7827; tbpac.org.