The Queerty Interview

Lily Tomlin On Why Grace And Frankie Isn’t A Comedy, How It’s Like AbFab And The New Generation Of Female Comics

lily-tomlin2015 is turning out to be The Year of Lily Tomlin.

She is earning Oscar buzz for her starring role Grandma (in theaters August 21), an indie film about an acerbic, post-hippie lesbian who embarks on a journey of life’s discoveries while driving around looking for money to fund her granddaughter’s abortion (the film also features Laverne Cox in a supporting role).

Tomlin will also return for a second season of Grace and Frankie, the Netflix series costarring her pal Jane Fonda and which follows two women who cling to each other for support after their husbands announce they are gay and are in love with each other. Grace and Frankie found a devoted following thanks to its mix of the friendship dynamics of The Odd Couple with the filthy sex talk of The Golden Girls, and it showcases Tomlin in understated, dramatic moments that give new life to the veteran actor’s image.

Queerty caught up with Tomlin during her current U.S. tour of her solo stage show, in which she performs a mix of stand-up comedy and a retrospective of some of her sketch characters, to talk about her current projects and her iconic history.

Queerty: The story to Grandma seems pretty serious, but is the movie actually a comedy?

Lily Tomlin: It has been reviewed as being funny, but I think that’s just because people expect that of me. A lot of little tags hang on from one project to another. Jane and I haven’t done a project together for years, and the last one we did, other than one of my TV specials, was Nine to Five, and it was terribly funny to most audiences. So people expect that now.

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Jane Fonda, Tomlin

I don’t view Grace and Frankie as a comedy.

I don’t either. But I’ve never been bound to that expectation. I’ve always just played the material, whatever’s on the page. Some projects allow you to be very big and comedic, with some projects you walk a line. It’s like when I did Damages with Martin Short, and people would ask “What’s it like to play something dramatic?” and Martin would say “It’s just another point on the continuum.” He doesn’t think anything about it. Nor do I. [Pause.] But the comedic part of me is very important, too. I invented stuff to do, characters to do. But I never thought the audience thought that was all I can do or who I was, any more than they would think I was one of the characters, like Ernestine [the telephone operator she frequently portrayed on Laugh-In]. Although in the beginning, 45 years ago, they did think I was Ernestine.

Who do you find funny now?

There’s so many people. There’s a lot of women who are quite funny now. Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman…Tina Fey, Amy Poehler…the current crop of women are quite funny. I don’t even know who to name.

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Tomlin, Jane Wagner

But when you’re sitting home with your spouse (writer Jane Wagner) and you’re watching TV, what do you turn on?

We usually turn on So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With The Stars. Or America’s Got Talent. That can be a real tear-jerker.

How long have you and Jane been married?

We’ve been married since New Year’s Eve, 2013.

Has being married changed your relationship?

Well, we’ve been together for 44 years. We railed against marriage for years, even when it wasn’t an option, and said we were going to wait until the gay community can come up with something better than marriage. It would be like imitating heterosexuals, in a way. But we caved to convention.

What would be better than marriage?

I don’t know. I’m waiting for the new generation to figure something out.

graceandfrankie-nowwhatAs a big fan of Grace and Frankie, I can’t help but notice how the characters are indicative of Patsy and Edina from Absolutely Fabulous.

Oh, are they?

The story lines aren’t similar, but the characters themselves, with Patsy being this vodka-drinking blonde who wears buttoned-up suits, and Edina would drape herself in long flowy clothes and head scarves, and had the long hair, and she was a Buddhist…

I hadn’t even thought of that.

They are just like Grace and Frankie. And Edina did have a husband who left her because he came out as gay. There’s even the scene when Edina gets upset and shovels ice cream into her mouth. Frankie does the same thing.

It’s funny you caught that reference. One day Jane and I were doing press, and Jane said “We want to do two women of a certain age, when a woman passes 50, and she doesn’t give a fuck anymore. She’s just going to do what she wants to do.” And I said, “Didn’t AbFab do that already?” Maybe the writers saw it and were inspired, I don’t know.

I have a couple of questions that people want me to ask you. My mother is dying to know: Where does Frankie get her clothes?

Oh my gosh, how fabulous! Most of my clothes are from a store here in L.A., called Layered. They also produce a lot of that big chunky jewelry. I am glad to know your mom likes all that stuff. It’s so cool. Maybe I should put out my own line of jewelry.

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN, Lily Tomlin, 1981, © Universal
The Incredible Shrinking Woman

I have several friends who want to know, do you still know the words to the Galaxy Glue song from The Incredible Shrinking Woman?

[Sings] ‘Galaxy Glue, Galaxy Glue…’ [Pauses] I forget the tune.

[Sings] “Galaxy Glue, Galaxy Glue, what would we do without Galaxy Glue…”

It’s funny. Everybody in the damn world who is of that age picks up on that song. They sing it to me in airports. I like having my life played back at me, and just thrown right in my face.

Well, I am of that age, and I hope you appreciate how much courage it took for me to talk to you today, because I was a kid when The Incredible Shrinking Woman came out, and when you fell into the garbage disposalit scared the hell out of me. Pardon my language.

[Laughs] I’m so sorry.

I grew up thinking my mother was going to shrink and turn into a little dot. 

My skin got damaged from all that garbage — the left side of my face — so I paid for it.

IMG_1228How did it get damaged?

‘Cause there were chemicals in that goop, whatever it was made out of. My skin got thinned out.

Permanently?

Yeah. We did the garbage disposal scene for three days. It’s not like I’m disfigured. You wouldn’t overly notice it. But skin people know it. And the left side of my face is a little more dropped than the right.

That’s terrible!

I was one of the producers, so I have only myself to blame.

Well I’m glad that by talking to you, I’ve had the chance to work out my The Incredible Shrinking Woman demons.

I’m glad. And also, you said “pardon my language” when you said “hell,” but I used the F-word.

You did? When?

Just a little while ago. Although I didn’t use it gratuitously. It was appropriate. I’m not a cusser. Unless I get really mad, and then I cuss up a storm, which you’ve probably seen on YouTube. So let that go. Don’t bring that into your life. It’s too much for you to bear.

Watch a clip from Grandma below.