Lily Tomlin Isn't Holding Out for an EGOT

The Emmy, Grammy and Tony winner looks back at her five-decade career.

WORDS as told to Derrik J. Lang
January / February 2020

Lily Tomlin / Photography by Corina Marie Howell / August

I’ve always loved doing character-driven comedy. I can’t even remember all of my characters. Some are 50 years old at this point. I started on the third season of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in 1969. [Creator] George Schlatter was so fabulous. He was the first guy who ever really liked my characters. [Original cast member] Judy Carne was leaving the show, and she used to be at the switchboard, so when George found out I did a phone-operator character named Ernestine, that was just a natural place for me.

Ernestine turned out to be a huge sensation. I went to New York to promote the show, and people were stopping me on the streets to say, “Oh, isn’t that the girl from Laugh-In?” It was phenomenal. And that’s how it happened for me—I may have been the last one in all of show business for whom it happened that way.

Tomlin as Ernestine on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. / Alamy

I’ve seen so many Ernestine imitators over the years. In fact, housewives used to send me pictures of themselves dressed up as Ernestine. They would sit at their stoves—the old ones that had the burner waist-high—and pretend it was a switchboard. Kids would always do Edith Ann. I met these sisters once who told me, “Oh, Lily, our mother used to do Edith Ann every night for us before we’d go to bed.” How lovely and surreal is that?

Frequently, I had to stand up for myself on Laugh-In. There were a lot of sexist and homophobic jokes back in those days. I would say to George, whom I adored, “George, I can’t do this line.” He’d say, “You don’t have to. Jo Anne!” He’d call Jo Anne [Worley] in to do it. And Jo Anne would laugh about that.

I remember when Don Rickles was on the show. On the first day, everyone was laughing. He was poking fun at everybody. By the last day, people were in their dressing rooms crying. It just built exponentially, until it was too hard to take. I didn’t dislike Don as a person at all. That’s a different comedic sensibility, and there’s room for it all. I just don’t personally subscribe to it.

After Laugh-In ended, I did two shows on Broadway. Ernestine and Edith Ann appeared in the first show, Appearing Nitely. That was a compilation of what I had been doing on Laugh-In. Then, of course, there was The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Some of my characters found their way into it, and [my creative partner and wife] Jane Wagner wrote new material for them.

Tomlin with Dolly Parton and Fonda in 9 to 5 (1980). / Alamy 

I met Jane in ’71. She started out as a screenwriter. The first thing she’d ever written was J.T. in ’69. She won a Peabody Award for it. I just flipped over her writing. Everything was heightened. The lines were almost aphorisms, and yet they seemed perfectly natural to the characters. There was so much satire and tenderness in every line. It was what I had yearned for in a monologue and wasn’t really able to create myself.

Jane and I actually have a lot in common. We share a Southern background; she is from Tennessee, and my parents are from Kentucky, although I was born and raised in Detroit. We shared a sensibility, and so it was very easy for me to plug into Jane’s writing.

She would almost never go to the theater when I was doing The Search on Broadway. I used to say that there were fans who’d seen The Search more times than Jane—and she was the director. When she was there, she’d sit all the way in the back of the house and tell me what to do. I would get so put out with her by that, and scream, “Come down here closer and tell me, so I can actually hear you!”

My favorite moment from The Search was on closing night. As soon as the curtain came down, the audience started chanting, “Author! Author!” I loved that because I was able to get Jane out on stage. She had blonde hair and was wearing silver lamé. She looked like a princess. There was this homeless woman who always hung around outside the theater. When we left to go to the closing-night party, the woman said, “Ms. Tomlin, you should dress more like your partner.”

Tomlin with Bette Midler in Big Business (1988). / Alamy

I’m not holding out for an EGOT because it’s getting a little late in the game. My chances would be higher if I was Helen Mirren. I don’t know if I’ll have another opportunity to win an Oscar. Maybe. Who knows?

The first movie I did was Nashville with [filmmaker] Robert Altman. I became one of Altman’s players. I adored him. Every actor wanted to work with him. He didn’t force us to do anything. I’d ask, “What should I do in this scene, Bob?” And he’d say, “I don’t know. Why don’t you surprise me?” You never felt like you were going to fail him.

9 to 5 was such an important film for so many people, and it’s just as relevant today as it was in the 1980s. Jane [Fonda], Dolly [Parton] and I had so much fun making that film. We had no idea at the time that it was going to be such a big hit or so important. Jane asked me to do it after she came to see Appearing Nitely at the Ahmanson. We’ve honestly been friends ever since. When we started doing Grace and Frankie, it was important that it didn’t feel too much like 9 to 5. I’m totally in support of a reboot of the film. I’m just not sure we need to be in it, you know? We may not even be alive. We’ll see.

Tomlin with Steve Martin in All of Me (1984). / Alamy

I loved All of Me with Steve Martin. He made such outstanding choices. All of Me was wonderful. I was protective of it because I knew it was special, and we had to get it right.

I’ll never forget when I was making Big Business, Bette [Midler] and I would have to run and change clothes and then come back as the other sisters. I always thought somebody should have given the person who changed quickest an extra $10. They never did take us up on that.

It’s wild to think Jane and I are going into the sixth season of Grace and Frankie, and the seventh will be our final one. We don’t feel anywhere near like we should retire. I mean, Jane has been in D.C. fighting climate change.

During the first season, it was difficult feeling comfortable in the character at first. We have so much confidence now. The writers have created something that is really working. Jane and I love going to work. We have an incredible crew. We don’t even want to stop doing the show, except the climate crisis is so much more important.

I’ll have to come up with a cause for myself. Or maybe I’ll just go around and be Jane’s handservant.


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