THR Icon: Lily Tomlin on Insult Comedy, the Oscars and Her Upcoming Tom Brady Movie
The comedic legend and 'Grace and Frankie' actress also ruminates on the two Janes in her life (her wife, Jane Wagner, and frequent co-star Jane Fonda) and inoculating against cancel culture: "Develop or make [your comedy] better."
Lily Tomlin, 82, has been charming and disarming audiences for more than five decades with a parade of sketch comedy characters, TV appearances, a groundbreaking one-woman Broadway show, movies — from Nashville to 9 to 5 to All of Me — and, most recently, the Netflix series Grace and Frankie. She burst onto the scene Dec. 29, 1969, on the cutting-edge Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, where Tomlin’s rich stable of characters — including Ernestine the operator — made her famous overnight. She’s also been a subtle disrupter without drawing too much attention to herself. She was the first woman to appear solo in a Broadway show, Appearing Nitely, in 1977, followed in 1985 by The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which was written by her longtime collaborator and partner, Jane Wagner (they married in 2013 after 42 years together).
Since Grace and Frankie wrapped (with the final 12 episodes to be released April 29), the unstoppable Tomlin has lined up two more movies with another longtime compatriot — Jane Fonda. The first project is Moving On, from director Paul Weitz; the other is the road-trip movie 80 for Brady, also starring Sally Field and Rita Moreno as Tom Brady superfans, with the quarterback producing. “When I’m not with Lily for a few days, I miss her. It’s visceral,” says Fonda. “She has a humor that comes from deep within. It’s soulful, it’s not cynical, and it’s never at anyone’s expense. She’s the first one to credit her lifelong partner, Jane Wagner, for the quality and depth of her humor, but she’s the one that embodies it and brings it to life with her different characters.”
On April 22, Tomlin will be honored by Turner Classic Movies as part of its annual festival with a hand and footprint ceremony in front of the TCL Chinese Theatre Imax. Tomlin recently spoke with THR about the comedic riches of growing up in a Detroit apartment building, why she doesn’t like it when comedians cut down movies at the Oscars, and the pile of stuffed animals in her home office.
Which actor would you like your hand and footprints to be next to in front of Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre?
Perhaps Gloria Swanson. I remember seeing her on the Today show 30 or so years ago promoting a book about how bad sugar was for you. That’s why I remember her.
What did you think of the recent Oscars telecast?
I sometimes think they shouldn’t be able to tread on the nominees, like the reference to Power of the Dog being boring. Every remark they made kind of put that film down.
Are you talking about the opening monologue, when Wanda Sykes quipped that she’d watched the movie three times and was still only halfway through the film?
Something like that. I’m sure Johnny Carson must have done that a little bit when he hosted at the Oscars, but I don’t have any recall [of it]. I get protective about the films when people start putting them down. I think, “Well, that’s sort of making even a bigger sham of the awards by allowing such things to be said.”
Good point. Your brand of humor is sketch, not insult comedy.
I try to be more thoughtful or informative or enlightening. I try to be wittier, at least, rather than just taking a cheap shot at someone. Don Rickles came to Laugh-In one year, and he hurt everybody’s feelings so bad. At first we were all laughing. But slowly, it just got closer and closer to the bone. It got very painful.
Were you watching the Oscars telecast when the slap happened?
I was up and down, but I saw Will Smith walk up and something happened. I thought maybe I saw Chris Rock’s legs up in the air, but I guess not.
Do you think culture and comedy have evolved in the time since you first started out?
People are more conscious about misogynistic jokes or homophobic jokes or racial slurs. Those [jokes] are just expressions of anger and fury and dislike and propaganda to separate groups and individuals. I don’t know how well-founded this is, but as tragic as Ukraine is, you think of it as a white European country. I think of the people in Haiti and in all the countries of color where terrible things happened and not as many people responded, and it was not as widely spread in the press. There was just an embrace of the Ukrainian people and a dismissal of people of color in other countries.
Looking back over your career, is there a sketch character you haven’t taken on that you wished you had?
I really don’t have any. I haven’t created any new characters in a few years, especially once Grace and Frankie started. Once its success was assured, I didn’t go on the road as much, which demands that you produce something new and meaningful.
Does Grace and Frankie‘s success over its seven seasons open the door for other older actors?
I think it does a lot for that — if they can get the insurance. That’s sort of a truism that’s tinged with a bit of humor. You can laugh at it from an ironic point of view. But it’s not terribly funny.
What did Grace and Frankie mean to you?
Well, I had a steady job for a long time on a hit show. And that was beneficial to me financially because I never really accumulated any real money in all the years I worked. In fact, I was on a show once as a recurring character, and the producer said something like, “If I have more money than you, the world is not an equal place.” Meaning that he so admired me or something I’d done, I probably deserved to have an easier life of it financially.
Have you thought about what it would be like if you were starting out in today’s times?
Thank God the internet wasn’t the big instrument of defaming people as it is today. Who knows what might have happened to me.
What advice would you have for young comedians coming up in the age of social media and so-called cancel culture?
Develop [your comedy] or make it better, or step into the wrong thing. Unless they’re just trying to get a job in Vegas or something. Things are very different now from when I started out.
You have two Janes in your life — Jane Wagner, your wife and collaborator, and Jane Fonda.
Jane Wagner is Jane No. 1. We refer to Fonda as Jane No. 2.
You met Jane No. 1, a writer, producer, designer and artist, in 1971. She’s written much of your material, including The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life. How have you been able to juggle both roles?
Yes, it can be challenging. Jane is such a wonderful writer, and we’ve had enough success that it has sustained us. Plus, we just respect one another, and she makes me laugh. And Jane doesn’t like to be in the limelight.
Did it ever bother you that you were called a feminist at a time when that wasn’t always considered an accolade?
No, it never did. I thought, “Well, heck, why wouldn’t I be a feminist? They’re just humanists to the nth degree.” In the second act of Search for Signs of Intelligent Life, Jane did a whole long saga about the women’s movement.
You and Jane were together for 42 years before marrying in 2013, and you hadn’t “officially” come out of the closet. How were you able to manage that, when people in Hollywood power circles knew?
I was so popular from Laugh-In that I was able to go on the road and cultivate a whole other audience, a concert audience, and I had all the old regular people who loved the Laugh-In characters, like Edith Ann and Ernestine.
But I was developing new material too. I was at my mother’s with several of our relatives when my second special [Lily, which referenced such topics as race and methadone] aired on CBS. My mother and father both are from Kentucky. And so all my relatives are mostly fundamental Christians, and I’m sure many of them now are Trumpers. They hardly laughed at all. They were just saying, “Well, we have to be up in the morning to milk,” or whatever. And my mother said to me, “I think people can tell that you’re trying to do something good, something that would communicate something.”
Richard Pryor appeared on that special. What did he teach you?
I can’t remember who it was, but someone wouldn’t put stuff in the script. The script would come back, and I’d say, “Well, where’s Pryor’s sketch?” The first time I’d seen Richard Pryor was on Ed Sullivan in the latter half of the 1960s. I fell in love with him. He was so very vulnerable, and very dear. He could cut you if he wanted to. I mean, he was a rascal and he would carry on. He so much wanted his acceptance by the real people and the real folks in his life. I loved his material.
You created so many popular characters for Laugh-In. Where did you get your inspiration?
We lived in one apartment house in Detroit for 14 years. What I got from that was a sense of humanity. There were women who were teaching at private boarding schools. There were women teaching at regular schools. Then there were a lot of Southern people who had come to work the factories. There was just a huge mixture of human beings. And I saw them all to be honorable, noble, brave, real, indiscreet, embarrassing creatures at the same time. And they were all the same in many ways. I had people lie to me and tell me incredibly extravagant stories because I was the kind of kid who was just rapt and terribly interested.
What were you looking for?
Well, I just loved them. I would be so tickled by all their habits. There was Mrs. Rupert, who was a botanist. She had two sons who I’m sure were in the CIA because they could take radios apart, and they were, like, real studious and strange, and they wore those old plaid wool caps with the earflaps and they snapped. She asked my mother if I could come over and spend the evenings with her. And she would take me shopping on Saturdays. She taught me how to be a lady. And this was the best part — when we’d go out in the wintertime, we’d go up a side street into an empty doorway and we would blow our noses before entering our destination.
And I would walk her dogs every night for 15 cents. I became crazy about magic tricks when I was 10 or 11. I discovered Abbott’s Magic shop and used the money I had made from the time I was walking the dogs, or taking the garbage out or going to the corner store. Mrs. Rupert started hitting the ceiling. She said, “If you’re not careful, you’re going to end up in show business.”
What run-ins did you have with network censors back in the day?
The censors on Laugh-In started watching me closely because Ernestine would dial with her middle finger — intentionally — and they would say, “No, you have got to dial with your index finger.” They never mentioned the third finger. They’d just say, “Dial with your index finger.” And I don’t even know if we had abided by it, but I went back to using my middle finger as soon as it blew over. Now, nothing is forbidden. I mean, there’s nothing in language that I think is forbidden.
Can you tell me about the stuffed animals on the couch behind you?
Oh my God, those are stuffed animals people sent me. I can’t throw them away, and nobody wants them.
You must have a soft place in your heart to keep them.
I’m not going to tell you my terribly personal secrets. But I do straighten them up all the time, like when the elephant has its trunk in front of someone’s face, and another one has slid down so they’re all being sort of crushed.
You are in two new movies. Why work so hard at this point?
In fact, I was sitting on the set of Grace and Frankie a couple of years before COVID, and I said to Jane, “I’m going to call Paul Weitz and tell him to write a movie for us.” I made the call, and he wrote Moving On. It’s my third movie with him. I just like him so much as a director and a writer.
And what is the secret to your working partnership (and friendship) with Fonda?
We both have the same work ethic and we genuinely love each other, even though we come from such different backgrounds. I know she has my back, and I know I have hers. And I’m of course interested in all her political activities.
You and Fonda have started shooting 80 for Brady with Rita Moreno and Sally Field. Why this project, aside from getting to work with Jane No. 2 again?
Well, I was a little leery of it at first, and then I got very interested in football and the astonishing games Tom Brady has played. Like the first time when he was something like the 199th draft pick, and he ran out onto the field and brought his team to win the Super Bowl. And then that one game they played in 2017, I think it was, they were like 20 points behind or something and there was three minutes on the clock to play and he just stormed onto the field and led the team to victory.
Jumping back for a second, how did Lucille Ball inform your early career?
I was mad for Lucille Ball because she was so physical.
And Carol Burnett?
I thought I was a hipster. I didn’t pay much attention to Carol because she’s only a couple of years older than I am. But she’d been around and had a very huge show. I didn’t want to be on TV. I wanted to be a theater actress, but then I became much more of a television performer. I’m grateful for that, totally. And I’ve come to love Carol Burnett, the stuff she did. Everything she did was very funny. And people adore her. I mean, my mother adored her, and you know, I would probably have looked enviously at my mother when she was talking about her.
Is there a role you still want to do?
I’m ready to sort of lie in a hammock by a running brook. But I’m physically still capable of ambulating, anyway.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Tomlin’s Hands and Feet in the Concrete
The TCL Chinese Theatre ceremony is one of several events populating the TCM Classic Film Festival.
Lily Tomlin’s April 22 hand and footprint ceremony at the TCL Chinese Theatre is not the actress’ only appearance at the four-day TCM Classic Film Festival — its first in-person affair since the pandemic started. The Grace and Frankie star also is participating in a discussion and screening of her 1984 body-swapping comedy All of Me later that day. Elsewhere on the itinerary, Robert Osborne Award recipient (and famed film historian) Leonard Maltin will hold both a book signing and a panel with animator and story artist Floyd Norman before a screening of The Jungle Book (1967) — each of those events taking place April 22 as well. On April 23, actress and one-time Bond girl Jane Seymour will be on hand for a screening of 1980’s Somewhere in Time, the supernatural romance in which she shared the screen with Christopher Reeve. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial will receive a 40th anniversary screening (Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy will attend opening night). And, just before the April 24 closing-night party at The Hollywood Roosevelt, actress Pam Grier is set to wrap up the programming slate with a conversation about her landmark 1973 revenge thriller Coffy.
This story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.