More Than a Footnote: 18 Minutes of Conversation with GRANDMA’s Lily Tomlin, and 40 Years of Loving Her Comic Creativity

by Lisa Geduldig

Two weeks ago, EatDrinkFilms editor Johnny Ray Huston messaged me: “I wondered if you might be interested in interviewing Lily Tomlin.” Uh, yeah, I might be. (Actually, I was never so sure of anything in my life.)

Ernestine

Lily Tomlin as Ernestine in Laugh-In.

When I was a kid in the early 1970s in the suburbs of New York, I would eagerly await my favorite magical moments on TV: Topo Gigio saying to Ed Sullivan, “Eddie, kiss me good night,” Johnny Carson’s monologues (unbeknownst to my parents I was watching TV rather than sleeping at 11pm, and unbeknownst to all of us, I would become a comedian), the goings-on in the political sitcom All in the Family, and Lily Tomlin as Edith Ann and Ernestine the Operator on Laugh-In.

As an adult in San Francisco, where I’ve lived since I was 21, I’ve seen Lily’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe a couple of times, and 5 or 10 years ago I was privileged enough to be at the Fox Theater in Redwood City seeing An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin when she asked the audience at the end of the show if we’d mind if she worked on some new material. Did we mind?? Lily went offstage and came back with her laptop and tried out new material. Speaking on behalf of all 1,300 of us in the audience, I’d say we felt like we were invited into her lair to watch her create. And now I’m being asked if I might be interested in interviewing her? I’d pay to see her do her dishes. (I reserve that comment for two people: Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep.)

Lily Tomlin in the film version of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.

Lily Tomlin in the film version of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.

Lily Tomlin and Anna Deveare Smith at the opening of Twilight: Los Angeles in 1984. Credit: Getty Images.

Lily Tomlin and Anna Deveare Smith at the opening of Twilight: Los Angeles in 1984. Photo by Getty Images.

I’ve admired Lily’s work for over 40 years. I identify with her in that we’re both women in comedy, though my career basically takes place here in “Gayberry,” with an occasional gig elsewhere, and hers is global. I came out 30+ years ago when I arrived on the shores of San Francisco. (There’s basically a check-in station at the San Francisco airport.) Lily has been with her partner, now wife, Jane Wagner for over 40 years. She came out publicly about 10 years ago (but my mom knew years before that; she’s the gauge). I remember seeing Lily and Jane interviewed by Anna Deveare Smith at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco about 20 years ago, and they kept finishing each other’s sentences. They weren’t out yet, but the 2,990 lesbians and 10 gay men in the audience all had a collective “uh-huh, wink wink” moment.

Lily has been with us consistently for over 40 years, and she’s not going anywhere. She’s currently stealing the show in the Netflix series, Grace and Frankie. I binge-watched Series 1. She’s the best thing about it. Second best: her friendship with Jane Fonda. What doesn’t make the list is the relationship between their husbands (law partners who have apparently also been shtupping each other for the past 20 years) who are leaving their wives for each other. Hopefully in Season 2, the writing and acting for the men will be stepped up. As of now, their relationship is not believable. Frankie (Lily), on the other hand, is a delight.

Lily Tomlin as Frankie and Jane Fonda as Grace in Grace and Frankie.

Lily Tomlin as Frankie and Jane Fonda as Grace in Grace and Frankie.

Lily, whose age is irrelevant (I cringe when an article mentions a woman’s age; journalists never say “Harrison Ford, 73”), plays the role of Grandma in the film of the same name. Her character, Elle, a widow who recently lost her girlfriend of 38 years, is visited one morning by her granddaughter Sage (played by Julia Garner),  who needs $600 by 5 o’clock for an abortion. The film opens with a breakup between Elle and her much younger girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer), who’ve been in a relationship for 4 months. Elle delivers to Olivia what to me was the most painful line in the movie: “You were a footnote.” Ouch. A footnote. Elle is not going to be the most lovable character, is she? Well, actually she is. She’s cantankerous, and you love her.

Lily Tomlin as Elle and Julia Garner as Sage in Grandma. Credit: Sony Pictures Classics.

Lily Tomlin as Elle and Julia Garner as Sage in Grandma. Photo by Sony Pictures Classics.

I’m not one to get star-struck. I’ve met and worked with several famous people, including Robin Williams, Henny Youngman, and Charo. But leading up to the interview, I found myself to be a nervous, babbling fool. But once I walked into the interview and saw Lily’s smiling face exuding graciousness and her extended hand to greet me (and the other 3 online journalists), I was at ease. Here we were sitting around a coffee table with Lily and Grandma writer/director Paul Weitz in a room at the swank, marble-columned Fairmont Hotel atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill. A roundtable interview it’s called. We had 18 minutes to take turns asking questions. I asked about Grandma but sprinkled in some Ernestine and The Search for references. I had 40 years to cover.

Lily Tomlin as Elle in Grandma.

Lily Tomlin as Elle in Grandma.

Lisa: It’s funny, the title Grandma. I just don’t look at you and see Grandma, but of course I’m old enough to be a grandma, too. It’s so refreshing to see that Grandma is foul-mouthed, and has tattoos, has trans friends—

Lily: And she has a sex life.

Lisa: Was it odd at all to be playing a character known as “Grandma?”

Lily: No, I thought it was a good point of irony for the film to be called Grandma.

Lisa: I liked how matter-of-fact it was that Grandma is a lesbian. It’s not even an issue: Yes, and I’ve lost my partner of 38 years, and we raised a daughter together. There was no announcement: I’m gay. I was wondering how you were feeling about playing openly gay characters these days.

Lily: I would want this part to be that way. It makes it more meaningful in terms of the content of the movie and the way it goes along and the other people that come into the film, and they sort of revealed what her life has been, or who she’s been involved with, or some part of it. I feel great about it.

Lisa: Do you think it would have been impossible to do 40 years ago during Laugh-In days?

Lily: Oh my God, I think 40 years ago it would’ve been difficult. (Laughs.) Maybe something was done. Who knows. Maybe it never got released. (Pause.) Do you know of anything?

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 9.03.37 AM

Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner.

Lisa: Let me quickly check. Ask Siri. (Everyone laughs.) Siri? Openly lesbian characters in 1975?

(Acting like Siri.) “Just a second. Lily Tomlin!”

(Switching back.) Ernestine. She said “Ernestine.” OK, was Ernestine a lesbian?

Lily: Well, Ernestine, she did come out at the big gala in LA.

Lisa: Oh right, right, right, I did see that.

Lily: Oh, did you?

Lisa: Well, I saw a clip of it on YouTube.

Lily: She said she and Phoenicia had been lovers. (Laughs.)

Lisa: How would Ernestine have reacted to Sage showing up asking for $600? How would she have gotten it? Calling General Motors?

Lily (laughs): You’re good! Let’s see. (Switches into Ernestine’s voice and crinkles her nose to get into character.) She’s not above blackmail.

Standing up: Lily Tomlin and Lisa Geduldig.

Standing up: Lily Tomlin and Lisa Geduldig.

After the interview, we all got up, but my feet didn’t want to move. I lingered and thanked Lily for all the years of humor she has provided me. At that moment the publicist told her that I’m a comedian. “Oh really?” Lily inquired. I felt like the journalist mask I was wearing was taken off, revealing my true identity. When the publicist mentioned my annual event, Kung Pao Kosher Comedy: Jewish Comedy on Christmas in a Chinese Restaurant, Lily said, “I want to go!” and grabbed my reporter’s notebook to get a piece of paper for me to write down the information. I reached into the little woven change purse where I keep my various cards (comedian, publicist) and handed her the comedy one, writing down the dates. I think I repeated two or three times, “I’ll fly you up.”

So, what can we expect from Lily in the near future? Grandma is opening around the country, she’s shooting season two of Grace and Frankie, and doing more live performances. More stage. She says she has always done her version of stand-up, and she’s never stopped. She says it’s always been “the core” of what she has done “from the beginning.” She doesn’t plan on stopping doing it. “I’m always eager for Jane to write me a new play,” she says. “I’m hoping when I go back tomorrow she’ll say, ‘Well, I’ve got the play done.’” Hopefully, there will be a new stage show on the horizon. Lily’s on a roll, as she has been for decades, and is not slowing down.

Horizontal RuleGRANDMA

Read Critics Corner reviews by Pam Grady and Emily S. Mendel also in this issue!

Opens Friday, August 28, 2015 at Century 9 and Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco. Opens Friday, September 4, 2015 at Landmark Albany Twin in Albany, Century 16 in Pleasant Hill, Landmark Guild in Menlo Park, Camera 7 in San Jose, and Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.Horizontal RuleLisaGeduldigLisa Geduldig is a San Francisco-based comedian and creator/producer/MC of Kung Pao Kosher Comedy: Jewish Comedy on Christmas in a Chinese Restaurant (now in its 23rd year). For the past 6 years, she has been running a monthly show, Comedy Returns to El Rio,” at El Rio in San Francisco’s Mission District, where she began her comedy career 25 years ago. Lisa also has made one film, Esther & Me, a profile of octogenarian Esther Weintraub, a former comedian and resident at The Jewish Home San Francisco. The film made the rounds on the film festival circuit and screened at 12 festivals in the US, Canada, and Europe. Lisa also does freelance PR (arts, health, news, politics) in both English and Spanish. www.SFPublicist.com.

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