With a career spanning five decades, Lily Tomlin has entertained generations of families through appearances on shows as diverse as Sesame Street, Laugh-In, Damages and, most recently, Malibu Country. But the Tony, Grammy, Emmy and Peabody award-winning actress, who got her start in standup, says that career didn't come easily: She had to challenge the stereotypes hung on female entertainers.
In advance of her performance this Saturday, April 13, at the Paramount Theatre, Tomlin spoke with Westword about what it was like doing comedy in the '60s and who she admires in the current world of funny women.
Westword: Your latest television role is playing Lillie Mae MacKenzie, Reba McEntire's mother on Malibu Country. Your chemistry with Reba McEntire is so real -- it seems like a real relationship. How did you come to be on that show?
Lily Tomlin: I've known Reba for a long time. My family is Southern -- they're from Kentucky -- and my brother lives in Nashville, so I used to run into Reba a lot in Nashville. I thought she was a great country singer -- she has a great voice, and I admire her on that level. But then I saw her do Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway, and she was so fantastic. She was out of this world.
I've told this story before, but as soon as she hit the stage, about two minutes in, I began to weep. She was so alive and so in the moment as an actor. It was wonderful. During intermission, I couldn't stop crying at the perfection of it -- when you go to the theater and see something absolutely astonishing sometimes, you are moved. It's like an affirmation of your own humanity.
She was so good in it and I became a devoted fan of that artistry. I had never really watched her old TV show (Reba) because I never get to watch that much TV anyway; I'm always traveling and working. But I knew she had a really popular show and a huge popularity herself. People love her. So I had known her, but not well -- I had introduced her on country music awards and things like that.
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Then the job just came up, and she would be the main reason I took it, initially. I thought the script was interesting, in terms of the relationship and my role as an older woman who really cuts loose -- or as much as she might in a sitcom. Middle America gets to see a woman who's supposed to be that age and is full of life, who wants to take risks and have fun. I just love doing it and love working with Reba.
This character of Lillie Mae is named after your mother?
They let me name the character after my mother. I had that white wig made, because my mother had white hair. My family gets a kick out of it, too. I wish my mother would have been able to see it -- she would have been delighted.
Do you feel like you channel her at all?
No. My mother was pretty lighthearted. She had a sweet and fun personality. I don't know that she would do everything that Lillie Mae has done. She might not go to the nude beach. I doubt my mother would have gone -- well, she may have gone to watch.
You've worked in so many different arenas -- television, movies, theater, live shows, stand-up -- is there something you like to do more than the others?
I suppose if I had to do one thing, I would just do theater or the stage. It's what I've always done. I've put on shows since I was maybe six or seven years old, putting on shows on the back porch. I'd try to get other people to come and try to get other kids to be in it. It's partly because I used to take ballet and tap and stuff at the department of parks and recreation -- I should tell that to Amy sometime, Amy Poehler. She should let me come on and talk about Parks And Rec. [Laughs.] It was a big part of my life.
We lived in a pretty rough neighborhood, so there were a lot of programs to keep kids off the streets. Like I said, I took ballet and tap because my rec teacher, Mrs. Fitzgerald, was a ballerina. She taught ballet and tap and put on shows, and that's probably where I got the idea. But I made up my own shows -- I loved to imitate people in the building, my parents, my relatives.
I don't remember when we first got TV -- we didn't get our own personal TV (in the house) until I was ten. I lived a lot with radio and I always loved the characters on radio. I've always loved those characters -- people who were surprising and interesting and made you laugh.
What will you be performing when you come through Denver?
It's kind of like stand-up -- I mean, I do a lot of characters. There's much more variation. I interact with video, and the characters use it to tell things about themselves and their history. I use it to satirize myself or the character.
I used to love to go to Vegas in the '70 and see Sonny and Cher when they would show their house (via video.) [Laughs.] You would go through the gates and you'd go up into their house and into Cher's closet and things like that. I don't do that, though I should.
You should just replicate Cher's video exactly, from that moment in time.
I should! Or I should just take her figure talking and put my head on it.
Now, with culture of celebrity, we see everything in this "Stars: they're just like us" mode. But in the '70s, I'm sure it was interesting to see Cher's world.
It was exciting in those days for civilians to go inside those big houses and closets that were bigger than their own house. Little Chastity would be coming out with her little school bag, ready to go to school -- and get into a chauffeur-driven car. [Laughs]
Did you ever do a stint in Las Vegas?
Yes, a couple of years ago I did a few weeks at the MGM Grand. But it's not really for me. First of all, it's really hard to stay there week after week. I still go back and will do a concert in Vegas where more of the people who live there will come -- not in a casino, but a theater.
I love to work in the theater, but especially with Broadway, I did some shows that were booked nightly. I did that on and off for a long time. It's not like doing stand-up and jumping from joke to joke -- but if the material is rich and deep, you can find something to do with it every night. As an actor, you find it. You love it. A new sense memory might come to you, and that's exciting.
Are there any women actresses and comedians you have seen or worked with in the last couple of years who you think are doing great work?
There are so many. When I started out, very few women did comedy -- certainly very few did standup. I'm just going back through the mid-'60s and the mid-'70s -- if you did comedy, you either played on being homely or overweight, or that you couldn't get a man, or that you were flat-chested. Honestly, they played a persona and talked out of that place.
So there are so many young women doing comedy now -- intelligent comedy, observational comedy, and they are very perceptive. Tina (Fey) and Amy (Poehler) are both fantastic. Kristen (Wiig) is wonderful. When I started out, there were very few women doing characters -- Tracey (Ullman) did, of course. I mean I'm older than Tracey, too, but Tracey came along and she was remarkable. Kristen, I would say, is the next person to come along and do a bunch of characters.
I think Wanda (Sykes) is really funny. Kathy (Griffin) is another type of comic. I love Kathy and she's a professional friend. I've always like Maya (Rudolph) -- I was in A Prairie Home Companion with her. But I knew her from SNL.
A lot of women are very good and do their own comedy -- they don't have as much opportunity any more (as standup comedians.) You either get a special on Comedy Central or HBO -- but you've gotta be pretty far along to get one of those. Back in the old days, there were more talk shows that people went on for five minutes or whatever. They don't seem to do that anymore.
They didn't have comedy clubs when I started out, either -- I got very well known from Laugh-In in the '70s, and I never got to go to the comedy clubs. I used to think it was like it was in the old band days, when you would go from club to club, that's how I imagined it. I used to kind of envy those kids -- (I thought) that must be kind of fun. You're starting out and you've probably had a little exposure, but you work on your set at these different clubs. I thought that must have been great fun to drive around the country and do that.
Lily Tomlin will perform this Saturday, April 13, at the Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Place. Doors open at 7 p.m.; the show starts at 8. Tickets start at $41; a portion of the proceeds benefits CPT12. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 303-623-0106 or visit the Paramount's website.
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