Archive Interview: Lily Tomlin In Her Own Words

In 2007 I did an interview with Lily Tomlin that I cut down to fit into print, although true to form with one of my favorite people, most of what she said was gold. Here are uncut quotes from that interview.

“Erenstine has a reality webcam chat show now. So she calls President Bush or whoever’s in the news It’s much more informal, much more freewheeling that if I was doing a more theatrical piece like Search for Signs or something. More interaction with the audience. I’ll try to talk about topical things about Washington DC, do what I’ve always done.”

“Here’s a story: I was playing at the Gaslight in the Village [The Gaslight was originally a “basket house”, where performers were paid the proceeds of a passed around basket. Opened in 1958 by John Mitchell the  Gaslight had showcased beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso but became a folk club when Sam Hood took it over. Dylan premiered Masters of War and many other songs here], people would say, ‘Well people don’t understand if you do all these characters, they don’t know who you are’. And I’d say ‘That’s ridiculous, I’m standing right there and talking as myself between the characters’. So I was always trying to develop a persona, like Joanie Rivers, she had a persona which she worked out of the last screw on the freeway, like her mother had a sign up that said ‘Last Single Girl before Exit to Freeway’. And other people, like Totie Fields, you know, would work out of a persona that was close to them but exaggerated. I was at the Gaslight one night; I tried to work out a persona of someone who does all these characters and tries to relate to the audience. So I’d sit down at the table and look deep into their eyes – I’m on the phone, honey – I’d be frank with them, I’d say, ‘I’m trying to be myself on stage, and I’m going to try to relate to the audience as a human being’ (laughs.) And I’d say ‘This is the part that’s kept me in the small money all these years, and when I do the character part you’ll see that’s the good part’. People were cheering by the end and I’d say ‘Now that I’ve used you to this extent, I’ll be moving on to bigger and better things’. There weren’t that many places to do comedy in those days because music, folk and then rock music was so prominent.”

“Something came out about Karl Rove’s playbook being disinformed misinformed you come right around to being uninformed again. The more you peel back the layers, the more the misinformation and manipulation is so strong, why do we give these people credit for being masterful, being masters of misinformation, Why do people give Karl Rove credit for being a strategist, a genius just because he’s put out these destructive, heinous, manipulative, rotten. What is my point of view on the state of things? What could it be? Not much. You try to make it funny, laughable – it’s kind of payback. What so frightening is that so many people, the average person is so busy with their lives that they only catch a fragment of something on the news, that’s why there’s so much confused opinion. No wonder so many people still believe Saddam was behind 9/11, with most of the media co-opted, it amazing how thorough this misinformation is.”

“I first came to New York in ’62 because I’d gotten into a show in college. For the first time I consciously did a character it was pegged to the fact that Grosse Pointe was covertly segregated, which had just been exposed, the little bit I did was very relevant, I thought oh God I maybe I can make a living doing this. I was not a really great student I  first lived on Second Avenue over the old B & H Dairy. These are deep imprints on me, I don’t know exactly how they manifest themselves. I lived in an old railroad flat for a few weeks, I lived with a friend, Jenny, I knew very slightly in college and she was living a guy, Jerry, who thought he was carrying the legacy of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline who died in ’62. They didn’t speak, they hated each other. At eye level they would curse each other — ‘I hate you, you’re mother’s dirt’. So I come in like Holly Golightly — that was the year Breakfast at Tiffany’s came out, and I was profoundly influenced by that. I could show you photographs where I had major Audrey Hepburn damage. I get to New York I borrow nine dollars from five people, I go to the thrift shop where by some lightining of god there was some cream-colored trench coat like she had in the movie, and I got my hair up like hers. And I immediately am going to clean up the apartment and get rid of the roaches, and I painted the whole apartment – ack you don’t want to get me started on this story, this is a movie in itself  – Jerry slept in the living room and painted all night, with a ¾ bed on the airshaft, she wouldn’t let me sleep with her and I couldn’t fraternize by sleeping on his rollaway during the night so I had to sleep on a  there was no mirror in the house so I had to use a mirror up the street, the roaches, just profound, unbelievable.”

“I got a job right away at a talent agency Marvin Josephson Associates – Marvin later became a founder of ICM. I came to be a waitress at the Figaro, and I was going to study mime, that was my first ambition in New York. This was a job in midtown so I had to start wearing pumps and heels, I moved to NY with a burlap skirt and a striped jersey and a great big old pair of sandals (laughs), and I get a job a this talent agency because I knew how to be a bookkeeper, I was very good with numbers. And here I am going to work with two girls from Queens and the Bronx, who had big teased hairdos and long fingernails, and I thought of myself as a bohemian, a beatnik, sort of. Even in the East Village in those days women weren’t artists. Nobody believed even in musicians – you had to be composer, you were nothing if you only an interpretive artist like an actor or musician, you had to be a playwright or composer to be taken seriously. To be an actress was just so narcissistic (laughs).”

“So I went to the American Mime Theater, and lasted about three weeks because it was so movement-driven, and of course I loved words, so I wasn’t going to be happy being a mime. Everybody there was so physically gifted anyway; they’d fall from one end of this huge dance studio to the other wall, and do it differently each time. I didn’t think I wanted to put in that kind of work to just fall from one end of the room to the other, because I could do a fairly decent job of that anyway, and when I got there I’d rather say something, or better yet, say something on the way. In August it would be so hot in New York. This was in the days when construction workers would yell and grab there crotches for anything in high heels that walked by, and really say anything to you. I had to take the bank deposits to the bank, between 6th and 7th. There’s a reason people rail against high heels I can tell you.”

“I was so focused on auditions then, I’m trying to remember when I became aware of that whole downtown scene, like Candy Darling and everybody but that was later, for me that was the early 70s. I came to know some of the Cockettes, but I was pretty focused on my own work by that point, which in the case of ‘Laugh-In’ took me to California. I eventually bought an apartment up on the fifth floor. A couple of gay guys had lived there and it was fantastically finished. I was so lucky to get this apartment, the windowsills in those old tenements are covered with years of different paints, but these were all sanded down beautifully, it was like living at the Pierre or something.”

“I worked the Improv which back then was on the West Side, and I would hit the thrift shop, I used to buy so many gowns and things at the thrift shop. The first time I appeared at the Improv, must have been 66. I had a white fox fur and a bias cut halter dress that I’d gotten at the Salvation Army or something for about 50¢. I told them I have to go on between 9 and 9:30. I don’t know how I got Budd Freidman to do because in those days a woman doing comedy was so rare you had to have someone to vouch for you. In those days the Improv had a plate glass window that faced right on the street, so you could see the people coming in the club. I took the subway uptown to the theater district where I know there would be limos waiting for people. I gave the guy 5 bucks, and he drove me over to the Improv, I got out went right into the club did five or ten minutes, swept out went back in the limo, and he dropped me off. That made a big splash for me at the Improv. Plus my set went really well.”

“So after that I could go to the Improv. If I was working out a monologue and I would go to the Laundromat at Second Avenue, and then I’d go to the bar for a couple of drinks (laughs). So if I’d see somebody at the Laundromat that I knew, or even a person on the street. I would drag them back up to my fifth floor apartment, and I do it for them. It was probably a monologue they’d seen six or seven times, but if I’d change one syllable of course it was just revelatory. I can’t imagine how many times I did that with my pals on the Lower East Side.”

“New York of the Sixties is when Ernestine came about. Having some political inclinations, I hated the phone company because they were involved with governmental eavesdropping. So it was appropriate to satire the phone company on that level, too. And on the everyday level. I later learned when I became famous from ‘Laugh-In’, then I was adopted by all the union workers at the phone company — they told me that during that era, they completely ignore the private subscriber, because the subscriber had no alternative. They were putting all of their money into databasing and research and development. You didn’t have to go very far because the phone company did have all kinds of information on you, Ernestine would suggest they taped conversations and that they had access to all of your financial personal business and she would harass everybody.”

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