For me there is nothing more nervewracking than waiting for an interview call from someone you really respect. I was surrounded by pieces of paper covered in scribbled notes and I just didn’t want to fuck up. I remember watching 9 to 5 as a kid and thinking Violet Newstead, Tomlin’s character in the film, reminded me of my mom. Both were single parents slaving away in the corporate world, such as it was back then for a lot of women. They were both good at their jobs and were mostly under-appreciated. They both wore ridiculous faux silk shirts. So this interview felt like a little bit of comedy, and a little bit of coming home.
Thank you so much for calling.
It’s okay, I’m glad to.
How are you?
Great! First of all I just found out about Grace and Frankie. I am very very excited about that.
We are too. Jane and I haven’t worked together since 9 to 5.
Will there be a Dolly Cameo?
I said we oughta have Dolly’s picture hanging on the wall or have her somehow materialize.
So many actors are going with Netflix shows. What made you decide to take the leap? Was it just the right script?
Yeah…everything. Marta Kauffman, who was one of the creators of Friends, she’s a writer at the same agency I’m at. People get ideas. They just coalesce. You don’t know why. It’s like a miracle in a way when it’s the right team at the right time. And then the fact that Netflix went for it, was just very excited about it, about having us.
It certainly feels like a miracle to me. Have you begun shooting yet?
We start shooting around July.
I’m looking forward to binge-watching the show. You’re on tour now and will be at The Strathmore this Friday. I can’t wait. I’ll be there, not in the same exact location as you, obviously, but I’ll be in the audience. What can we expect to see in this tour? Will you be revisiting some of my personal favorites like Edith Ann or…and this is a weird one. I always loved Susie the Sorority Girl because she was always looking for her Carpenters album.
Ha ha ha ha…I’ll have to resurrect Susie. I haven’t done her in so many years. I’d have to update her, research sororities. She was so fanatical. If you wore stockings when you weren’t supposed to she would lose it.
You don’t even have to update the album part though you could have her looking for all of her missing MP3 files.
Ha ha ha ha…I used to love that old character. I haven’t done her in years.
Will you be doing stand up? Storytelling?
I do a lot of characters, probably many that you know some you don’t. I do 10 or 12 characters. It’s always been the kind of stand up I did. It’s always character-based but I use video too. I use video kind of just to satirize myself and to have fun with the character, interact with it. But there’s lots of first person stand up too. I just talk to the audience and try to talk about where I am, in this case Bethesda. Oh you know I shouldn’t even tell this story. The guy who reviewed me there a couple of years ago was so great, but in the dark…and I’m playing at that same concert hall…I come out in the dark and there’s a riser there like a permanent riser of some kind maybe for the orchestra. I fell over it, in the dark, but I tumbled and rolled. When I jumped up my shin was killing me, but I stood up just as the lights came on and he thought it was purposeful. It was all a damn accident. He said it was the greatest slapstick he’d seen. I don’t want to embarrass him for thinking it was real but it was a terrible accident.
Oh no, well now you have to fall every time.
Do you feel like doing characters gives you a little bit more freedom? It takes you out of yourself so you can be funnier?
You know certain culture types, certain things in their mouths it works better. Take a character like Ernestine, that little id working all the time….she’s had a lot of different jobs. She transposes very easily to any place that’s bureaucratic or harasses people or customer service. For a while she had a webcast chat show called Ernestine Calls You On It, You Better Have An Answer. She had that all during the Bush Administration so anything that went on she would call up Bush and give him hell. She always played both sides of the street so sometimes she’d give him a pep talk. One of my favorite things she said during that time was: You don’t have to worry about Senator Kerry. He only served in the war, you actually started one. She even talked to Saddam Hussein once before he died. So she can do anything if you put her in the right place. Ernestine can live anywhere. There are so many ways to communicate. She can do it via the Internet or phone…any company that is abusive.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvesMBkduQo
Did you always well…I do stand up comedy but I feel really foolish telling you that…
No you don’t!
Some of my questions will come from that place. Did you always know that you wanted to be a comic or work in comedy. Did you feel funny?
I think performing was just natural to me. I started putting on shows…I’m from a blue collar family. We lived in an old apartment house in inner city Detroit. We never went to the theater or anything. We went to the movies sometimes. I would put on a show and I would try to get other kids in the building to be in it. And of course they didn’t understand. They didn’t rehearse. They wouldn’t come work on the show or they’d leave in the middle. They were totally unreliable.
Well you can’t work with kids and animals.
I was a kid! I was like P.T. Barnum or something. I just always put on a show. I took ballet and tap at the department of parks and recreation which was free but that was my neighborhood. That was my life. We did all that stuff…summer, winter, they had programs for kids because it was kind of a tough neighborhood. I pitched on the police athletic league baseball team. I was Jacks champion. Do you know what Jacks are? Kids don’t even play Jacks anymore.
Yes! The game with the rubber ball and those metal things. Those are the Jacks I guess. I used to play very unsuccessfully as a child.
Ha ha ha, so I would do everything. I was fascinated with magic tricks. I was always enterprising. I’ve told this story so forgive me but it was so pivotal for me. I was home sick one time from grade school and in an old Red Ryder Comic Book I see you can order all these old you know plastic vomit, hand buzzers, dribble glasses…gags…Whoopie Cushions. It said COD Send No Money so I think, well, great. I think I’m the smartest kid in the world. I’m the only one who figured this out that you can get this free stuff. And I ordered a big old bunch of stuff like $11.00 and I come home from school and my mother’s waiting for me at the door. Now my mother is a very darling woman. If the postman came to her door and said you owe me $11.45 she would fork it up because he was a figure of authority. So she had to use her household money to pay for these old jokes. And she said: Did you order a bunch of old junk from a comic book? I was all excited, jumping up and down. She said: You can have it when you can pay me back. That was an epiphany. I asked her how a kid was supposed to make any money? She told me to take out the neighbor’s garbage, walk their dogs….
It’s too bad she didn’t let you have them then. You could have used them to earn money to pay for them and everybody would have won.
That’s so funny you say that because that’s how your mind works. I did have a yard sale once and then sold all the gags. I managed to pay her back and went onto higher things. I took that money and bought the equipment to do an illusion. I went down to the magic shop in Detroit.
Yeah, Steve Martin got his start with magic as well.
A lot of comics started with magic.
I wonder what it is about magic and comedy…
Maybe it’s something about controlling the audience’s reaction.
Perhaps because you can open up a dialogue with the audience? Obviously you’re still so active in comedy, do you follow comedy today…any comics that are coming up?
I try to. You have to watch a lot of stuff and go to a lot of places to really be up to the minute because so many people do comedy. Not that many people did comedy when I started, especially girls. It was considered unladylike. There is also that thing, there’s a truth to dominating the audience or controlling the audience by their reaction. I think for a long time men didn’t like for a woman to make them laugh. They didn’t want women to have that dominance. If women did do comedy, the few that did stand up, made jokes at their own expense. They were either overweight or homely or…Joan Rivers liked to play on the fact that she was flat chested, which she wasn’t, and couldn’t get a man. At that time women made themselves the object of the humor. It was just more acceptable. And you as a comedian would probably appreciate this story…I was in An Evening At The Upstairs At The Downstairs in ’68 and the girl that was in our show that was the ingenue she was very boring on stage because the ingenues always are. They don’t have anything to do in the classic ingenue tradition. They’re like the nice girl who are not very original and blah blah blah but in the dressing room this girl was so funny I was just doubled over. I would say: You’ve got to do that on stage. She would pull her stuff up and get real glamorous and say: I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was unattractive. She literally said that and lived by it. She was just wonderful but she never did it. Now there are so many women that speak out on their own point of view. They aren’t afraid to do very intelligent humor or observational humor or express their own lives.
It’s very refreshing but it’s also very overwhelming.
Yes, there is so much. I feel sorry for younger female comics. It’s a much much deeper playing field. When I started out there was almost nobody. There were women doing sitcoms and such and there were a few doing shows like Martha Raye did The Colgate Comedy Hour and Imogene Coca was on Your Show of Shows and she did characters but that was in the context of a show. Very few women stood up and told jokes.
Did you know at the time you were doing very groundbreaking things? For example, you were one of the first female comics to dress in male drag.
No, well, by then I was famous. I was already famous and had a career and was doing specials. It was just another wonderful way to do another culture type and to express something with the culture type. In ’77 I did a guy in my first Broadway show, Rick. He was a singles bar cruiser during the disco days so he just went out and tried to pick up women. You have to fill out the human family if you can, try to. I didn’t even do men for a long time because I thought: Well if I’m going to do men I should be able to do almost as many men as I do women. I thought it was harder to do men without a certain amount of costuming, but I didn’t costume Rick. Certain guys you can do easy. Then when I did a couple of specials that’s when I did Tommy Velour the Vegas Headliner and Pervis Hawkins the soul singer.
He was based on Luther Vandross, right?
He was kind of a mix of Smokey and Luther and Teddy Pendergrass, all those guys…wanting to have an essence of that.
Before I go I do just want to say, and I’m sure you hear this a lot…I don’t know which of your work people most identify you with but I just wanted to thank you for, and this will sound crazy…Big Business has always been one of my favorite movies. I have always loved that movie so much. I do love 9 to 5, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and All of Me because you and Steve Martin together in one place is pretty spectacular, like a shooting star. You and Bette Midler…you got to play two different people in the movie. It must have been a treat. I just love that movie and I want to say thank you for making it.
Oh ,you are so welcome. I don’t know what it is about that movie but a certain group of young people love Big Business. I like it too. It was a lot of fun and everything. A lot of times people from other countries will tell me: My daughter and I learned English by watching Big Business.
Well thank you again. I will be at the show on Friday and I really can’t wait.
I will see you there!
The show is SOLD OUT because Lily Tomlin, of course. If you were lucky enough to snag tickets I’ll be the one laughing/crying.