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ErinestineWith a talent that defies classification and an intelligent wit that cuts straight to the heart of the matter, Lily Tomlin has managed to carve a monumental career for herself as an entertainer who can take on a wide variety of media, the more disparate the better.

Tomlin’s ability to draw a crowd can truly be described as powerhouse, yet there is a real human warmth to this multiple-award winning performer that endears her to everyone she meets. It is this warmth and – though she would protest otherwise – her pure comic genius that has made her so appealling to audiences no matter gay or straight, white or black, rich or poor.  In an age where many entertainers are a one trick pony, Lily Tomlin is a mistress of comedy whose ability to surprise is unparalleled. 

Dish recently caught up with Lily Tomlin at her home in California to talk about her two great loves — making people laugh and her partner Jane Wagner.

 Dish:  I know you have a lot going on right now, but the most recent thing people have seen you in was “East Bound and Down” as Danny McBride’s mother. How did that come about?

Tomin And Danny
 Lily Tomlin:  I did three guest shots. When they approached me a few months ago I didn't even know about it, but I found out it was a cult show. Every hip person I talked to had been watching it. So, I watched the first two seasons and I just really loved Danny McBride. I had great fun doing it.

 D:  I also understand you are about to start filming a new pilot with Reba McEntire. Is it too early to talk about it?

 LT:  Not at all. I took the part as Reba's mother in her new pilot called "Malibu Country". It hasn't been picked up yet but I know the networks like it. But who knows, really?  I’m really looking forward to working with her. 

 D:  You are perhaps best known for your character monologues. How are you able to put yourself into the minds of the many characters that you are so well known for?

Madame Lupe LT:  You know, just spit and grit (laughs). Some of them come very easily. One of my earliest monologues was the world’s oldest living beauty expert, Madame Lupe. I used to do her because I was so conscious of the double standard of how women were supposed to be younger and sexier, and if they weren’t, then they were sort of disposable. Men could be as old as they wanted to be. The old joke is ‘if he’s still breathing,  he’s a viable date’. When I was growing up, the women who were the beauty experts – like Estée Lauder, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein – were all well into their eighties, and if you saw a picture of them you would realize how ephemeral the idea of youth and beauty really is. We are all human and it just is not going to last.

 D:  How often do you find yourself looking at world events and the things that are happening around you, and wonder what your characters would have to say about them?

 LT:  I wouldn’t want to do the characters if they weren’t relating to something human and relevant even now. I still have Ernestine call people. She might call President Obama or Dick Cheney or Pat Robertson so she can still keep her fingers in as long as it’s relevant to the human condition. I was doing an interview the same day that Tom DeLay’s mug shot was shown on television, and I told the interviewer that ‘I would do any joke if I could put a smile on your face half as big as the one on Tom DeLay’s mug shot’.

 D:  When you first started on “Laugh-In” in the ’60s, did you ever imagine that you would one day be where you are now — one of the most successful and well recognized comediennes in the world?

 D: 
I really don’t think that I did. I was so into what I was doing that I just really wanted to have a place to do it. Fame is relative anyway. In the old days, wh
en I was in New York, Merv Griffin used to have a show that he would put a lot of unknTommy Velourown comedians on, and before I was on “Laugh-In” I would do that show once a month. I would do a monologue on the show and sit on the panel or something. The next day I would be walking down the sidewalk and some cabbie or truck driver would shout out at me, ‘Hey, I saw you on Merv last night and you were really funny.’ To me that’s just like being on the cover of “Time” magazine. I always wanted to be acknowledged or appreciated, but I would have been happy if I had a coffee house in my hometown of Detroit where I could do my thing. The excitement is the creative process of making things up, but after that is the more erratic part, where it becomes a product and you have to market it and sell it.

 D:  As one of the few artists who have had continuing success throughout the years, what would you say it is that drives you and keeps you going?

 LT:  I still get pleasure out of it. I still like to perform and make people laugh. You either have to leave the business or be in the business. As long as it’s a part of your lifestyle, it will always be there. I get job offers that I like and am excited by them, so I do them. I’m sure that you run out of steam at some point where you just want to lie in a hammock by a lake somewhere. I wouldn’t mind having a house in Old Hickory, Tennessee if and when that ever happens.

 D:  I know that your brother lives in Nashville, but it’s also my understanding that your partner Jane Wagner is from Tennessee as well.

 LT:  Yes. She’s from Morristown originally. Dolly Parton is from Sevierville, and she told me when she learned where Jane was from, she said ‘We used to go to Morristown to get our teeth fixed!’ 

Tomlin and Jane Wagner D:  The two of you have been together for 40 years now as partners in business and as a couple in your personal lives. Not only that but you have also managed to avoid the “Hollywood curse” of couples who work together and then end up hating each other. How have you managed it?

 LT:  It’s really hard work. The hardest part is what I was talking about earlier, about when it becomes product and has to be sold. That’s the reality part of it, and if you get bad reviews or you get hurt by it, that is the really painful part. The creative part is the joyful part that really sustains you. The excitement of a new idea and creating something new and interesting and artful is a real turn-on.

 D:  How did you first meet each other?

 LT:  I met Jane when I was working on my Edith Anne album and I saw a thing that she had  written on television called “JT,” which was her first screenplay. When I saw it I remember saying to myself, ‘This is so exactly what I look for in a monologue.’ It was poetic, tender, edgy, intelligent, and satiric and everything else that I wanted. So I wrote her and asked if she would work on my Edith Anne album, and I didn’t hear from her for ages. Then suddenly I got a bunch of material in the mail and it was much better than anything else that I had or was doing at the time. So I convinced her to come to Los Angeles to produce it with me.

 D:  Do you remember the moment that you just knew this was the person that you wanted to spend your life with?

 LT:  Yes, it was as soon as I first laid eyes on her. I was really smitten. You don’t really think about time passing when you are as young as I was, but here we are, still together 40 years later.

 D:  Over the years you have become a real life icon to a wide audience of people. Many of them point to you and your work as inspirations. Who would you say it is that inspires you?

 LT:  There are lots of artists who inspire me because they are so good at their craft, but really, talking to everyday people does it for me more than anything. You know…people just living their lives. I’m not so naive as to hold people up as heroes. It’s not quite fair to them. I was always very in love with my parents who were blue collar Southerners who moved to Detroit to try and make a way for themselves. I grew up around my Aunt Pearl who was a divorced mother of three in a time when people didn’t get divorced. She worked hard all her life but she always had a dignity about her that I always admired. People like that always give me a real kick.

Beginning her illustrious career on television's "Laugh-In" and continuing on to her smash one-woman Broadway hit show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe to her numerous film appearances including such movies as 9 to 5 and All of Me, Lily Tomlin has had quite a run of success in everything she has undertaken. She is currently on tour, so check out dates at the address below.

Lily Tomlin’s entire career in art, text, photos and videos can be found at www.lilytomlin.com

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 134 - September 7403
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