tomlin01Lily Tomlin on Enough Rope

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Over a career stretching back more than 40 years, Lily Tomlin has established herself as one of the legends of American comedy. With an astonishing body of work, from 'Laugh In' to 'Sesame Street', from the movie, 'Nashville', to the TV series 'The West Wing', Lily Tomlin's characters have consistently shone light on the human heart.

ANDREW DENTON: Here's a sample.


ANDREW DENTON: It's her first time in Australia. Please welcome Lily Tomlin.

LILY TOMLIN: Thank you. Thank you.

ANDREW DENTON: It seems remarkable to me, over such career, that this is your first time here. Why so long to visit us?

LILY TOMLIN: I wanted to come several times. I had two shows on Broadway, I never took them to Australia because I always had a dog. I never wanted to leave my dog for any length of…

ANDREW DENTON: We accept dogs in Australia.

LILY TOMLIN: Don't you have to quarantine?

ANDREW DENTON: There is that. But couldn't you have arranged a dog sitter, though?

LILY TOMLIN: You mean at my home?

ANDREW DENTON: It seems a feeble excuse, Lily.

LILY TOMLIN: No, no, no. Did you ever look in your dog eyes deeply and say you're going away for six months?

ANDREW DENTON: I do, yes. They always know you're seeing someone else.

LILY TOMLIN: That's right, yes. That's true.

ANDREW DENTON: You're going to do an evening of classic Lily Tomlin. Now many Australians know your career, but some don't. Who are the sort of characters, because you've done so many over the years, that people are going to meet?

LILY TOMLIN: Well, certain characters that are really popular from television, particularly from 'Laugh In'. I just saw young woman back stage, Polly. She said, "Oh I know Edith Anne from 'Sesame Street'." That's about 20 years later or something - not really, but quite a difference from seeing it on 'Laugh In'. So Edith Anne is from 'Laugh In' and Ernestine the telephone operator is from 'Laugh In'.

ANDREW DENTON: Actually we have a little bit of Ernestine.

LILY TOMLIN: You do? Okay.

ANDREW DENTON: I remember watching Ernestine when I was about as tall as I am now.


ANDREW DENTON: This is a little bit of Ernestine - a classic from 'Laugh In'.


LILY TOMLIN: Yes, see…

ANDREW DENTON: That would have been about '68. What do you think when you look back on that?

LILY TOMLIN: I think, "Gosh, I look young." I think Ernestine looks young and I look young, too.


LILY TOMLIN: Then I realise - I don't know, I remember back doing, because we had great fun doing things like Mr Fubuckley. That was always part of the American television pursuit, was to get the 'f' word as close as you could on television.


LILY TOMLIN: Americans live for that.

ANDREW DENTON: It's what made them great.

LILY TOMLIN: Right. I mean we didn't have "Flying Fickle Finger of Fate" for nothing on that show.

ANDREW DENTON: You corrupted me as a child, I can tell you.

LILY TOMLIN: I bet, yes. Stunted your growth.

ANDREW DENTON: That's alright. That's absolutely - I look up to you, quite literally.

LILY TOMLIN: I only did it because you seemed like such a good sport about it. You'd done it yourself, and I don't know why you'd be so self demeaning, but…

ANDREW DENTON: It's the difference between self deprecation and just cruelty.

LILY TOMLIN: That's right.

ANDREW DENTON: You were a fairly bohemian, certainly, teenager. You and your brother would stay up really, really late. Is that right? When your parents had gone to bed.

LILY TOMLIN: My brother is fantastic. When he was 13 he actually sawed our mother's couch into three pieces, so that we would have sectional furniture. I do that as a line, but it's the gospel truth.

ANDREW DENTON: Was your mother appreciative?

LILY TOMLIN: No, she was horrified. She was a nice, working class woman who didn't expect her sofa to be in three pieces.


LILY TOMLIN: She wanted it up against the wall in one piece.


LILY TOMLIN: My brother wanted it scattered in the middle of the room.

ANDREW DENTON: You would stay up late, until two or three in the morning, the two of you, when you were young.

LILY TOMLIN: We did, yes, and my brother had a smoking jacket, and in fact. I had a lot of gown kind of things, too, that we'd get at the thrift shops.

ANDREW DENTON: What would you do at two in the morning?

LILY TOMLIN: We'd pretend we were drinking vodka, we'd drink water in a shot glass or in a champagne glass or something and pretend we were drinking whisky or some kind of alcohol. My brother was the best, my brother far exceeds me. That's when he moved that sectional furniture around because he was very good at - he could have - he literally sawed it in three pieces with a handsaw. I mean this a real commitment to style, you know. He wanted that style. Then he would put sheers at the windows and he would put a fan down below, so the sheers would blow. It would be like, here we are living in this second floor apartment in Detroit and he would pretend he was living in a penthouse in New York.

ANDREW DENTON: That's fantastic. You'd be pretending to drink vodka - the next morning would you have a pretend hangover?

LILY TOMLIN: I think we believed it so much that we did have a hangover.

ANDREW DENTON: One of our viewers that was at college with you sent us a photo of you as a cheerleader. There we go.

LILY TOMLIN: Yes, there I am down the front there.

ANDREW DENTON: That's you.

LILY TOMLIN: I was the co-captain.

ANDREW DENTON: Do you remember the cheer?

LILY TOMLIN: Sure, I'm a great cheerer. We were like, because we were much more - we weren't like an all white school that just did like rah, rah, rah, we did - (Lily singing).

ANDREW DENTON: I'm so glad I asked you that.


ANDREW DENTON: That was fantastic.

LILY TOMLIN: I'm better at stuff like that than talking about something that makes sense.

ANDREW DENTON: I think when you were 14, is it right, you hitchhiked from Detroit to Chicago without telling your parents.

LILY TOMLIN: No, no, my mother still didn't know. My mother died not knowing.

ANDREW DENTON: Did she not wonder where you were?

LILY TOMLIN: I was pretty independent.


LILY TOMLIN: So I never had to answer to parental authority. I had learned long ago that my mother has been a child.

ANDREW DENTON: How did you discover she'd been a child?

LILY TOMLIN: Well I had a picture of her as a baby, it was just a little thing, and I couldn't quite get it together. How could my mother have been a baby? But my mother was a baby. In those days they didn't have children lay their heads against their mother's stomach, they were covert about where babies from.

ANDREW DENTON: Yes. So when the realization…

LILY TOMLIN: So then, by transference, my teacher had been a baby and my father had been a baby, and the neighbours were babies. Everybody was a baby.

ANDREW DENTON: So it's hard to respect people that know as little as you do.

LILY TOMLIN: Exactly. That's exactly it. I said, "They know nothing." It's liberating and it's destabilising, too, but…

ANDREW DENTON: Yes. Who is in charge here?

LILY TOMLIN: Nobody is in charge. My mother was adorable and she only died last year and she was very witty and engaging, people adored her. So in spite of that - and I was charmed by her, too, but I knew that she really didn't have the answers.

ANDREW DENTON: Which is kind of good and kind of bad.

LILY TOMLIN: It's kind of bad.

ANDREW DENTON: You said your mum Lily May, she was witty - my mum was like that, too, and she died last year. My mum was sort of witty up to the end. Was your mum like that?

LILY TOMLIN: Yes, that's what I am saying. Even though she was in bed, she had osteoporosis and she really couldn't stand any longer by herself, but she read the paper every day, she was very engaging, she loved company. She was very hard of hearing, too, she was almost totally deaf, but somehow she seemed to always have the right witty answer, even though I'm sure she didn't know what she said.

ANDREW DENTON: Now that's skill.

LILY TOMLIN: My mother was very endearing. People just liked her.

ANDREW DENTON: You won a Tony some years ago for "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life", which was written with your partner, Jane Wagner.

LILY TOMLIN: She wrote it.

ANDREW DENTON: She wrote it?

LILY TOMLIN: Oh yes. She's really much brighter than I am.

ANDREW DENTON: That was a very generous thing to say, because in fact most artists prefer not…

LILY TOMLIN: To pretend that they did write it. I'd like to, but she won't let me.

ANDREW DENTON: I guess that's the thing about living with your…

LILY TOMLIN: I would like you all to think that I was that brilliant, that I not only performed it, but I could write it. That would be saying a lot.

ANDREW DENTON: How tricky is it living with a partner who writes a lot of your material? If you have an argument, isn't she eventually going to write a way to win it?

LILY TOMLIN: Well, she doesn't go to the theatre often, so I do whatever I want once I get there. I mean, we have jokes in the company, you know, especially when we're doing 'The Search', we'd say, "There are fans who have seen 'The Search' more often than Jane has."

ANDREW DENTON: Is that right?

LILY TOMLIN: Yes, she doesn't have the least bit of vanity about going in and basking the applause and the laughter and the stuff. She can't bear to have to go.

ANDREW DENTON: The thing is, you and Jane have been together 35 years, she writes a lot of your material.


ANDREW DENTON: Often, in a relationship, the work can cannibalise the rest of your life. How do you manage to separate the two?

LILY TOMLIN: Because she doesn't work that much. Writers don't like to write a whole lot. I mean, I guess they do if they're compulsive or they need the attention, but she - people always say, "Well how do you and Jane work together?" And I drop to my knees and say, "Please write, please." Because I can't get her to write that much.

ANDREW DENTON: So you don't have to constantly draw the line between life and material?

LILY TOMLIN: No. We're really the same person. People have rarely seen us together. That's what some people say because Jane absolutely has her own satellite dish on the roof, and she doesn't…

ANDREW DENTON: Is that a metaphor, or she actually has her own satellite?

LILY TOMLIN: Oh God, Andrew, you are a card. Would you prefer, she marches to her own drummer?

ANDREW DENTON: No, that's good. I like it.

LILY TOMLIN: And she has no fear of public obligation.

ANDREW DENTON: So it's a perfect combination - you're the one that goes out there…

LILY TOMLIN: I have to go out and face the public and do all that, be on this show, things like that, and she just takes a rest.

ANDREW DENTON: The thing with you and Jane is that you actually - I think you were in your 50s before you came out as a gay couple. Why did you wait that long? Was it because it was just not a great career thing to do?

LILY TOMLIN: Everyone knew, so it was sort of grandstanding, in a way. In '75 Time offered me the cover if I would come out. I thought, "Well that's just…" They just, out of the blue - do you know what I'm saying?


LILY TOMLIN: It was sort of like opportunistic or something, and it would have been on my part. I got on the cover two years later anyway, because of our first Broadway show. But it seemed, sort of - I didn't even come out at that time, it was just because someone finally wrote it.

ANDREW DENTON: So when you look at the way it works now, with Melissa Etheridge or Ellen de Generes, do you admire the way they've gone about it, or do you think, "Thank God I don't have to go through that climate?"

LILY TOMLIN: Well, it's another time. I don't like it when people in our community leave their partners and don't take care of them. I mean then they become just as bad as heterosexuals. Or they have children and they split up and stuff like that. I think they should be more circumspect about producing children, just like I think straight people should. Just don't even bother, just like marriage, is a bit imitative.

ANDREW DENTON: Marriage is a peculiar institution, don't you think, in that the expectation that people will stay together all their lives, is that necessarily a…

LILY TOMLIN: The whole thing is a little nutty, so I don't - I'm not really - I'm more antisocial than I appear. I'm not crazy about - I'm not terribly involved in society except - I just don't get it. I've never gotten it. I've never gotten the whole deal of being a human being and being born and everybody dying - evolution of life. I'm not keen on it. I'm not afraid of it and I'm not…

ANDREW DENTON: No, no, and in fact you have little option in the matter. But does this mean…

LILY TOMLIN: So what I am saying, even though I have an engaging personality.

ANDREW DENTON: Mm, and a winsome smile.

LILY TOMLIN: And a winsome smile, and I was just blessed to have that smile, because most of the Tomlin's have it, and they're mean as hell. They're not…


LILY TOMLIN: I got mother's charm gene and my dad's smile. I'm making it all up. I don't know what the hell I'm saying.

ANDREW DENTON: I got to call you on this because you don't strike me - you say you don't get the whole thing about being human. Does this mean you feel disconnected from the human race…

LILY TOMLIN: I don't feel disconnected, no, I feel so empathetic that it's almost painful. I'm probably sentimental about the species in fact. It's kind of a terrible admission to make, but…

ANDREW DENTON: 'Sentimental', that implies then in the past tense.

LILY TOMLIN: Oh, does it?

ANDREW DENTON: Yes. Is that how you look at human beings, like, "Gosh, they were great. I miss them."

LILY TOMLIN: He's clever, isn't he?

ANDREW DENTON: But it's interesting because…

LILY TOMLIN: Maybe saccharine is the word.


LILY TOMLIN: It wouldn't be in my work necessarily, but I'm saying - it's just I've known they were babies. When I knew they were all babies, I felt I could only take them to my arms, you know. I felt terribly sorry that they had to be in this predicament.

ANDREW DENTON: This seems like a good time to talk to your good friend, Helen Caldicott. Welcome back, Helen. You've known Lily for about 20 years now.


ANDREW DENTON: 30 years, sorry.

LILY TOMLIN: 34. I met her in '71.

HELEN CALDICOTT: I don't remember meeting her in '71.

LILY TOMLIN: She doesn't remember, but I do.

HELEN CALDICOTT: Where was it? The Hollywood bowl?

LILY TOMLIN: Yes, at an anti-nuke rally in the early 70s. I was terribly mesmerised and taken with her speech.

ANDREW DENTON: What struck you about Helen?

LILY TOMLIN: Just her passion, her commitment, her intelligence. I knew she was a physician, and a paediatrician at that, and just that she was really making a wake up call to the world, that nuclear power, nuclear energy, nuclear armaments were not such a good idea.

ANDREW DENTON: Helen, it's a long friendship, it obviously goes beyond the political. What is the connection for you? What do you see in Lily?

HELEN CALDICOTT: Well I love her. We've spent quite a lot of time together on planes and talking and getting quite personal, getting to know each other. Our history - Lily did pre-med, I mean she's extremely intelligent, as you can see.

LILY TOMLIN: That frog never did recover.

HELEN CALDICOTT: I'm sure. We used to boil our frogs and then stick the skeletons together, yes.

ANDREW DENTON: That sounds like the basis for a friendship right there. It's always a tricky things when celebrities commit to causes, because there is reason for scepticism, is there not?



HELEN CALDICOTT: Not at all. That's an awful thing to say. The celebrities I've worked with have been most committed, the kindest people, who would do anything. That's to a person, all the way through, Rosie O'Donnell and Richard Gere and Lily and Sally and everyone.

ANDREW DENTON: Is it an effective contribution?

LILY TOMLIN: That's the good question.

ANDREW DENTON: I'm not belittling the contribution of anyone…


ANDREW DENTON: …I'm actually suggesting that an audience looks and goes, "What do I need to know from Richard Gere?"

HELEN CALDICOTT: Lily and I had the same publicity person, Pat Kingsley. Pat was quite keen to get me on all these shows to talk about the medical effects of nuclear war because Reagan was in and things were scary. They didn't want to take a woman in a Fletcher Jones suit, with a doctor with a stethoscope round her neck, that's boring. So Pat would say, "I'll give you Lily Tomlin and Sally Field, if you'll take Helen." That's the way she did it. She got me on all the shows and Vogue and Time and Life. Pat actually orchestrated the nuclear weapons freeze and helped to win the Cold War. I really do believe that.

ANDREW DENTON: Lily was one of your Trojan horses?

LILY TOMLIN: That's right, I was. That good, that's true. But, you know, that's what guys like you demand.

HELEN CALDICOTT: That's right.

ANDREW DENTON: Are you suggesting that the only I would have Helen on the show is to talk to you. How dare you. We've seen Lily on show and we know Lily on show, but what's the private Lily that you know? Is she a different person?

HELEN CALDICOTT: She is one of the most generous, kindest people that I have ever met. Lily has done so many fundraisers for me, I can't tell. She will do her show, 'Search', for instance, and it will be a fundraiser. She will say she's so tired, she will stay and talk to everybody, have her photograph taken with everyone until everyone has left. She is - I do - Lily. Sorry, but you are one of the most generous…

LILY TOMLIN: It comes from working class roots, you know, I think. I really do. I think…


LILY TOMLIN: Yes, because when I'd be on 'Murphy Brown', I knew every extra on the set and I knew their names and I'd be friends. Candice would say to me, "How do you know everybody's name?" Because Candice was really very Patrician, she came from Hollywood royalty, you know, and it wouldn't be her nature. But me, I'm out on the streets all the time, you know, friendly with everybody. People approach me, I'm not the least bit - there is no real barriers up around me or anything. That's what it is when you come from a blue collar family and a big urban city like Detroit, where there is a big mixed neighbour. It's a very leveling kind of thing and you're kind of looking out for one another.

ANDREW DENTON: You won the Mark Twain Award for American humour, which is probably the most prestigious award in American comedy. Mark Twain used to refer to humour as the saving thing, the great placing of mankind. Do you feel blessed at this ability you have?

LILY TOMLIN: Well I feel blessed that people receive me that way. I don't feel like I'm particularly - I don't know how it's happened, truthfully, you know. Whatever it is that's impelled me along this way and given me a career and made people respond to me or…

ANDREW DENTON: But just the ability to make people laugh.

LILY TOMLIN: Of course, yes, but I'm not trying - I feel like it's what I do. With the help of many other people, it's like how I've come to this place. Why did I make a character to do this or to do that? I don't know why and I don't even know how it happened. But, yes, I feel joyful and excited when I'm on stage. That's why I still do it.

ANDREW DENTON: You've recently made a movie with Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan which is coming out later this year. Speaking of the movie experience, there you were with Lindsay, the teen sensation of the moment. What was that experience like? What did you see?

LILY TOMLIN: Well, I was telling somebody earlier today that Meryl was pretty maternal with Lindsay, because she has three daughters herself in that age range, and I will never grow up. I thought I should be out clubbing with Lindsay. It never occurred to me, I thought, "Surely she sees that I'm just as hip as she is, that I'm just as current." But, no, she didn't at all. She looked at me as like an old school icon. I mean she liked me, I'm sure, but she'd look at - it would be like a kid in your family who looks at their older aunt or their grandmother or something and they get a kick out of them because their kind of old school, or they're from another time, and they think, "Geez, that's weird that they were like that."

ANDREW DENTON: As you get older, does life get funnier?

LILY TOMLIN: Kind of, in one way they do and in one way they don't. Because life is getting more and more finite, and that's not terribly funny. But, yes, things get - because you're easier with yourself and with other people. So it's easier to find something funnier to laugh about it, or blow it off or whatever. I mean, unless you're still committed to some kind of - things have got to be a certain way or not. Although I think you can draw a consensus, a pretty strong consensus about when big things are not right. I know enough about human beings and being a human myself that it's not a good idea to approach problems in a violent, domineering way. It would be better to be cordial. It would be better to try to reach out, say why, at least ask, "Why do you feel this way? Why are you behaving this way? Why do you want me to die? Why do you want someone else to die?" Let's create some kind of dialogue.

ANDREW DENTON: So you're saying the answers to the world's problems is more chat shows?

LILY TOMLIN: Oh God, yes. Why can't I say what you say?

ANDREW DENTON: We've reached…

LILY TOMLIN: Couldn't you just, when you go back into production, put your words into my mouth.

ANDREW DENTON: It would sound a little weird, but we'll try. We've reached a philosophical endpoint here - from one baby to another, Lily Tomlin, thank you very much.

LILY TOMLIN: Just think, every kid on earth had to be potty trained.


LILY TOMLIN: Thank you, Andrew.


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