Lily Tomlin: Uncensored: This Lily is no shrinking violet

This Lily is no shrinking violet

Tomlin: Still in her comfort zone - just don't ask her to bust out a tune
Photo: Courtesy of Lily Tomlin

Tomlin celebrates 50 years of saying it like it is at Unique Lives and Experiences

When Tonight Show legend Johnny Carson loved you – like he did Bette Midler, his last-ever TV guest – doors opened. But when he hated your guts, like he did Joan Rivers, doors slammed shut.

The night comedian Lily Tomlin appeared on the Tonight Show back in 1973, it could have gone either way.

"Here I had become famous in 1970 and it was a big deal not to be married, and Carson said to me [on live television], ‘You’re not married, are you?’ And I said, ‘No,’" explains Tomlin, who would only publicly come out as a lesbian a good 20 years later.

Tomlin continues, "The audience gets completely quiet. And Carson said, ‘Don’t you want to have children?’ For a female to say you didn’t even want to have children, it was like, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ And I said, ”No, I don’t want to have any children, I don’t even want to raise children.’ So to break the tension I said to Carson, ‘So who has custody of yours?’"

Fortunately for Tomlin, Carson laughed.

And Tomlin would go on to become a living legend in her own right, winning six Emmys, two Tonys and a Grammy. She is perhaps best known for her stint on Laugh-In and her award-winning Broadway run in her life partner Jane Wagner’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. And next week in Montreal, as part of the Unique Lives lecture series for women, Tomlin – who turns 70 this September 1 – will reflect on her storied 50-year career.


Hour Your old friend Jane Fonda was the previous Unique Lives speaker in Montreal. She did a Q&A session. What can we expect from your lecture?

Lily Tomlin Mine is more performance-focused. There are a lot of characters like Ernestine speaking. But I’ll do a Q&A too.

Hour Why are there so few men at these Unique Lives events?

Tomlin It’s cultural. I mean, even with children, little girls will watch boys’ shows but boys won’t watch shows where girls are the hero of the show. It’s cultural. The male [is supposed to have] the more exciting life in this culture… I’m more interested in changing humanity. Even in the feminist piece in the middle of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe I say this is about moving the whole species forward, not just half of us.

Hour You’re a product of the ’60s. Did you set out to change the world?

Tomlin You think you’re going to affirm what’s positive, the right path, as if you would know, you know? I don’t know if I’ve changed all that much. For instance, as misanthropic as [stand-up legend] George Carlin would appear to be, he was an idealist. It’s the old thing: "Scratch a cynic…" There was a wholesomeness about George, a desire for us to be better. [But] how long can we go on saying these same old things?

Hour Carlin was famous for his routine "The Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV."

Tomlin The closest I ever came to swearing on TV was on Laugh-In many times – the "fickle finger of fate!" A lot of F words! There was a marked change [in comedy] when cable came in. You couldn’t even say the word "ass" [before] but now they say "bitch" and "ass." On radio they say "goddam sonuvabitch." [Still], look at the big fuss that was made over Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl!

Hour In Canada we were outraged that only one boob came out!

Tomlin [Busts a gut laughing] Exactly! That just shows you how provincial we are in so many ways [in America], especially sexually!

Hour What was it like to see 9 to 5 on Broadway this year?

Tomlin Opening night was a little surreal for Jane, Dolly and me because the people on stage are enough like us and wearing the same clothes we wore in the movie! I mean, even the clothes are iconic! So many of those outfits are recognizable. I felt like I was reliving it. I suppose we all would have loved to do it on Broadway ourselves if we were all younger…

Hour Is showbiz still a boy’s club?

Tomlin It’s a little better. Like men won’t come to see women [at Unique Lives], or little boys won’t watch shows with female heroes, there is still prejudice. Men still think they are the dominant figures in the culture. I mean, I’ve been in meetings where Jane [Wagner] or I would say something and then a young guy producer in the room working with us will say the same thing and suddenly everybody would understand it. [But] they didn’t get it when we said it! We’ve been through so much over the years that now we don’t respond emotionally. Now we laugh out loud. That moment is always ironic and funny and predictable!

Hour How did your father react to your incredible success?

Tomlin My dad was a big drinker and gambler and I went to the bookie joints with him and to the track, and my mom was a wonderful homemaker, a stabilizing force. But my dad was out doing stuff on the streets and I wanted to be with him… [When] I was on Laugh-In he arranged for this lady to go out with a buddy [of his] from work and he took us to this tavern, an upscale bar with a piano player. My dad sat with his legs outside the table like he’s ready to take off at any second and he calls the waitress over. I was already famous – Ernestine was a phenomenon – and he said to her, "Who do you think this is?" And the waitress goes, "I guess that’s your daughter." "You’re damn right!" And he said to me, "Babe, get up and sing a song for the people!" And I said, "Dad, I can’t sing." He said, "Babe, sing a song for the people!" I said, "Please poppa, don’t make me sing." He said, "Babe, you gotta learn how to be popular!" That was my one time out with my dad eating in a restaurant.

Hour If a gay actor or performer asked you for advice about coming out, what would you counsel them to do?

Tomlin I wouldn’t know what to say, other than it would be wonderful if it didn’t mean anything. But if they’re completely gay-identified in their performance, or speaking to issues of sexual identity, I suppose it would be fine. I would want them to be out so they could be themselves but it depends on how ambitious they are. My story is relative to the times. Jane and I were out, but we never called a press conference. In those days the press also didn’t write about [our personal lives]. And truthfully from my heart, I didn’t encourage them. It was the ’70s. But I don’t know what would have come of it if I had. It could have been great. I mean, Time magazine offered me the cover in 1975 if I came out and Ellen [DeGeneres] came out on the cover 20 years later. She was the right person at the right time.

Hour And if I called you a living legend?

Tomlin I’d say that’s a lot of hyperbole.

Lily Tomlin
At Unique Lives and Experiences
Take a Journey With the Real Lily
At Place des Arts, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, June 2, 7:30 p.m.

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