Lily Tomlin is a total badass. Whether she’s reprising classic characters Ernestine and Edith Ann or playing the duplicitous Madoff-ian wife on the TV drama Damages, Tomlin is led by a singular razor-sharp sensibility that’s rooted in her 41-year professional and life partnership with playwright Jane Wagner.
Wagner started her career with an afternoon special called J.T. that earned her a Peabody and the admiration of Lily Tomlin, who recruited Wagner (begged her, in Tomlin’s words) to help her develop her Edith Ann character. They’ve basically been working, and living, together ever since.
Wagner wrote Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, The Incredible Shrinking Woman and other Lily Tomlin specials.
In light of her exclusive area performance at the Keswick Theater on May 3, the first woman to ever star in her own Broadway show gave PW a ringy-dingy to talk comedy, love and breaking into the business by playing Kitty Genovese in a re-enactment scene for an unaired documentary.
PW: First off all, I just re-watched The Incredible Shrinking Woman last night. The last time I saw it I was probably 10 years old, and completely missed the subversive feminist cultural critique. Did anyone get it at the time?
It was meant to be somewhat in the mode of satire, with ‘the little woman’ and all that stuff. A lot of plays [back then] had the little woman and her being at the mercy of her husband’s career and consumerism and so on. It probably was as much about consumerism and the environment. The studio wouldn’t have wanted it to be too didactic.
When little kids saw it, they were more concerned that her mother would shrinking. Kids 4 or 5 years old, would say, “You’re not going to shrink, are you mama?”
PW: Do you and Jane have similar senses of humor?
They’re way complementary and almost identical in the sense that we’re just inclined toward a more connected humor than a divisive humor. And Jane is from the South, and my parents are Southern. I know that culture very well. But she went to New York when she was 17 and I would go to Kentucky until I was about 17. I’d go every summer. So we had a similar sensitivity.
In fact the first thing we worked on together was my Edith Ann album. I had met Jane, but that the first thing I got her to work with me on. She had done a teleplay in 1969 called J.T. and she won a Peabody for it and I saw it in reruns in ‘71 then I begged her to help me with the Edith Ann album … We really became a couple ever since we worked on that album.
PW: Dave Chappelle has talked about being sick of fans yelling, “I’m Rick James, Bitch!” at him on the street. Do people yell your characters lines at you? Do you get sick of it?
To some degree they do, because of Laugh-In and all that TV history. People are also say “ringy-dingy” because of Ernestine and snort, or for Edith, the kid I did on Laugh-In, [say] ‘and that’s the truth’ and blow a raspberry but … I feel very affectionately toward that stuff because it has an innocence about it. None of that bothers me.
I was in a restaurant and I was walking by a whole table full of middle-aged adults, probably ten people had put their napkins on their head so the point fell down in front of the their heads, [and they all said] “And that’s the truth!” and the napkins all flapped. They got a kick out of it.
PW: Do you watch a lot of comedy? Who are you into these days?
There’s all different permutations. There’s stand-up and sketch comedy or sitcoms or real character-driven comedy. I like Dave Chappelle, Paula Poundstone and Wanda Sykes. Kristin Wiig is really given, and Maya [Randolph]’s very good too. Melissa McCarthy too, all the girls who were in Bridesmaids are good. In the old days, I was very influenced by Richard Pryor and he was on a couple of projects because I loved Richard’s characters so. I’m sure there’re a dozen others I can’t think of. I love all the political commentary shows too because I love that kind of humor.
Then there’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, anything sort of outrageous … Do you know East Bound & Down? I’m playing [Kenny Powers’] mother. I’m playing everybody’s mother!
PW: In drama, too. You were on Damages! I love that show.
I was mad for that show, crazy mad. Mary Kay Place and I were doing a series on HBO we would practically leave the set illegally [to watch it]. That first year was out of sight.
PW: I saw that you and Jane just got a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. Was it two stars together? How psyched were you?
It’s always fun when Jane gets acknowledged because it’s unusually hard when you’re a performer and everyone [sees you]. When I got the Mark Twain prize in 2003, I turned it down a couple of times because I wanted them to honor Jane with me, especially in the context of Mark Twain, because she does write things like Mark Twain that’s socially observant. Finally we decided to accept it anyway and when I did my acceptance speech I said why I do, and do not, accept the Mark Twain award.
PW: You and Jane have been together, like, 2,000 years in Hollywood years. Do you have a secret to relationship success?