Lily Tomlin on Producing Leslie Jordan, Playing Staten Island


If Lily Tomlin’s beloved characters aged at all, Edith Ann, the precocious 5-year-old, might just fit in that oversize rocking chair. Though Tomlin’s personifications haven’t changed, the world they live in certainly has in the four decades she’s been performing. This Saturday, April 17, the comic legend sails into (or out of) Staten Island to the historic St. George Theater for a show that will be part retrospective, part modern-day commentary, part Q&A, and all funny. (The sharp activist/stand-up Kate Clinton opens.) Get your tickets here.

Tomlin’s also in town producing her friend Leslie Jordan’s stage memoir, My Trip Down the Pink Carpet. Previews begin this Wednesday, April 14. The self-described “gayest man I know” shares his life story at the HA! Comedy Club’s Midtown Theater over a 12-week residency. Get those tickets here.

We called Tomlin at her home in L.A. to talk about showbiz memories, whether Edith Ann should be on Twitter, and just what the heck one does in Staten Island.

Are you taking the ferry to Staten Island for your show?
Well, I may take it home, but I’ll get on it one way or the other. I used to take it all the time. I’d go over there once or twice a week when I lived in New York, when I started out working as an assistant bookkeeper or a waitress somewhere. It’s a real holiday to take that ferry ride, smoke cigarettes. It was kind of romantic, or glamorous, or just a change of scenery.

Did you do anything when you got over there, or did you just turn around and come back?
No, we’d go to one of the cafes. My girlfriend Jenny and I — I’d gone to college with her — we both smoked Luckies. So we’d go and smoke Luckies on the way over. And we’d go someplace right there near the ferry and have coffee or a drink and just fool around or sit around, maybe there was a jukebox. Listen, it’s been more than 40 years.

Have you quit smoking since then?
Oh, ages ago. In ’73 I quit smoking. And I didn’t even inhale in those days. It was very shallow. I was like a glamour smoker.

What will you be doing in the show?
Well my version of stand-up is not entirely typical because I always did characters, and in between I’d fool around and do what might be more commonly construed as stand-up. So I do a bunch of characters, and talk about culture, and just try to engage the audience in a kind of a trip. It’s a form I always loved — to do character with nothing but your voice and your body and whatever you could conjure up, and make an audience believe, and be able to switch between one and the other and change in as unexpected a way as you could.

Do you still make new characters?
I try to, or I find a new way into something, use an old character for something new. Truthfully, the American culture types that were really eccentric or individual or regional have gotten so old by now, because young characters are sort of not dissimilar across the country. The media and everything the kids are plugged into is so homogenized, you just don’t have so many eccentric individuals.

I saw a video of you performing as Tommy Velour at Liz Taylor’s 65th birthday.
I did, and Michael [Jackson] was sitting there beside her wondering who the hell I was.

You think?
Yeah, in the beginning. When I first did Tommy in ’81, I had him on one of my specials, and the next day everybody would say, “Oh God, your special was so good last night.” But everybody would say to me kind of with trepidation, “Who was that guy on the show? ‘Cause he was so not talented.” And I’m thinking, Why would they think that I would have some guy on the show that nobody knows and doesn’t have any talent?

Did you consider yourself a drag king?
No, it never occurred to me. I’d done men before that. In my first Broadway show, Appearing Nightly, I’d done Rick, who was hanging out at a singles bar picking up women. I just never did men in the beginning because I thought, If I’m going to do men, I should be able to do as many men as I do women. I should be able to give them a broad shake across the spectrum.

Did you ever feel like you were doing something subversive?
No, that never occurred to me either. Lots of people have said that to me in the interim. But I wanted to do them as types, you know? Honestly, they come because you want to make a culture type that people might not normally like. You want to find the sympathetic engine to them. Like Tommy, everybody would think he’s schlocky, glitzy, playing Vegas in the day. We had a scene in that show that we had to cut for time. The show was about how Lily had sold out and had gone to Vegas for the money. And Tommy’s in his velour bathrobe in his dressing room, with the velvet slippers with an insignia on them, and we had a made-up comic on the show, Mickey. Mickey comes backstage and says “Hey, Lily Tomlin was here tonight,” and Tommy says, “What did she say, did she like me?” There was such a sweet element about him, like he would actually care if I’d like him or not.

Do you have a least favorite character?
Wherever they stand, even if I never did them again, I always think that whatever piece we did honored them in some way, and that they stand as they were. Something about them is sort of wholesome, or they’re layered enough that they seem like real people. I did a country singer in ’73 on one of my specials, Wanda V. Wilford. She was supposed to be the queen of country music and of course Loretta thought I was doing her. And Loretta wrote me and said, “Next time you’re in Tennessee, I’ll show ya how it’s done.”

I wasn’t doing her really, but I did take a little piece of Loretta, because I read an interview with her once where she said, “My daddy didn’t think much of my career till I bought him a five-room house and a color TV.” So in the special, a young girl stops me when I go back on stage and says, “Remember me? I’m Janice Lou Reid, I wrote you about wantin’ to be a country singer.” And then she says, “My daddy says once you’re born poor, you’re meant to stay that way.” And I said, “My daddy wasn’t much different. He didn’t think much of my career till I bought him a five-room house and a color TV.” And she says, “But how did you make it, Wanda, how’d you get to be a country star?” And I look at her, and there’s this long pause. And Wanda’s really thinking about it. And she says, “I guess it’s ’cause I’m a sincere person.” That just brings me goosebumps even now when I tell you.

Later, I was meeting with Norman Lear to be the executive producer on one of my specials, and he said, “What was that supposed to be?” And I said it was a poem to country singers like Loretta.

Did you know Dixie Carter?
My friend Dixie Carter and Madeline Kahn and I all started out at the Upstairs at the Downstairs, in ’66. [Carter’s death] was a total shock to me. And Madeline was so dear. Dixie was great, and Madeline was so eccentric and so herself.

You’re producing Leslie Jordan’s new show.
Jane [Wagner, Tomlin’s partner] and I are among the producers. And Leslie’s a good friend. Here at the L.A. Gay Center, our names are on the cultural arts center, because someone made a huge contribution in our names. He did workshops of My Trip Down the Pink Carpet at the Gay Center and we saw them. I knew Leslie from other jobs, and I became very fond of him because he’s so darn funny and open and free in his expression of himself and his history.

You and Jane also produced Beebo Brinker Chronicles.
We’re developing that for television now with other people who were involved in the production. We’re doing it for HBO. There’s been a pilot written and we’re waiting to hear if we’re going to film it. It’ll be a series, a kind of L Word but set in the ’50s.

How was it working on Damages?
Fabulous. I loved it. I was a huge fan from Season 1, and then I ran into a couple of the creators at our photography show here in L.A. during the first season, and I was so vocal about the show and how much I loved it, that’s probably what got me the part. For the third season, they probably remembered, “Hey let’s get Lily, she really loves our show.” I was just mad for it.

Do you survive?
I’m not telling anything.

Are you on Twitter and Facebook?
I have accounts, but I don’t really do anything. I can’t even handle my e-mail, it’s so much to deal with. But you know I saw kids texting, they can text so fast. And I’m a good typist, but they text Wham, wham, wham, wham, wham. It’s unbelievable.

I heard they made a new app for the iPhone that shows you what the camera on the back of the phone sees as you’re texting, so you can actually see the ground where you’re walking through the phone, and you basically never have to look at anything but your phone ever again.
Ha! I didn’t see that! God, that’s great! You need that or you’ll run into a light post. That’s a bit I should do, I’ll just be texting and keep running into posts, and they go to the hospital and then they’re brain-dead I guess.

Has Edith Ann aged at all?
She’s pretty much still the same age, though she lives in the current world. I mean, she has to program her mother’s iPod and stuff like that. Her mother can’t do it.

Is she on Twitter?
She’s not. I guess I should put her on Twitter, you’re right. I don’t know if her mother would let her have a Twitter account, though. I guess she could bootleg one herself. She probably has the wherewithal to do it.

She could handle that.
In the beginning, it would be, “Today I had a waffle.” That would be the content. Then when I saw Ashton post a shot of Demi when she bends over in her little cotton printed panties, and wrote “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” I thought, When is this gonna stop?

So we won’t expect that from your and Jane’s Twitter?
No, no. Jane would only kill me if I did such a thing.