Favourite phone interview: Lily Tomlin

Who doesn’t love Lily Tomlin? She’s one of my favourite phone interviews, always warm and friendly and in the moment, so unlike her famous Laugh-In alter-ego Ernestine. There’s always a gracious good afternoon with Lily, no, “One-ringadingy, two ringadingy…”
Caught up with her last week to get the details on her live appearance Friday north of Toronto at Casino Rama as well as her guest starring role tonight on NCIS (CBS, 8 p.m.; it aired Monday night on Global). You can find more on all of that at this profile I filed on Tomlin for The Canadian Press.
Tomlin, who broke into Laugh-In in 1969, plays McGee’s grandmother on NCIS. “It was a very good part for me, I enjoyed it,” says the spry 72-year-old, calling the actor who plays McGee, Sean Murray, “so delightful and so dear. I wish he was my grandson.”
We got talking about her visits to many cities on her one woman show. She raved about Chicago and then we got to her hometown of Detroit. Tomlin is proud of her Hockeytown roots: “I grew up in an old apartment house in Detroit, very working class, very ethnically mixed,” she says. “I was exposed to so many different kinds of people as a kid. Hung out in the bars and at the track with my dad, and went to church with my mother on Sundays. We’d go to Kentucky in the summers, which is where my parents were born. So I’d be in rural Kentucky in summer and inner city Detroit the rest of the time. It was a rich life, Bill.”
I mentioned to her that I have dozens of cousins in Detroit and that my parents took me there in the summer of ’67 or ’68 for a reunion picnic and I was never so scared in all my life. Racial tensions had erupted in Detroit and I still remember being in a hotel with the black and white TV on and it seemed on the news that Detroit was on fire. The sirens wailing outside the hotel window didn’t help.
Tomlin had moved on from Detroit by then but hears stories from her brother about driving through smoke and sniper fire. “Detroit should never have gone down as it has,” she says. “It’s going to take a long time but I do believe it’s turned a corner. There’s lot of energy and youth and artists in the city. They can get housing and live fairly inexpensively–that’s always a first leg up when that kind of energy comes to a city.”
She plans to swing down to Detroit after her Rama gig to check up on her aunt.
We got talking about comedy then and comedy now. I suggested The Daily Show goes so much further than what Tomlin and the others used to try and get away with politically on Laugh-In.
She agreed that things had to be snuck in more back then. She mentioned how she used to do a character “who was addicted to eating rubber objects. That was acceptable—wasn’t against the law.”
Now she laughs to see a woman on YouTube who eats foam. “She literally loves to eat foam and has eaten two couches and three chairs,” says Tomlin. “She likes the yellow foam better than the white foam!”
When I started an old joke about a guy who ate a car, it reminded her of a time she was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and told a story about a “rubber freak” who ate tires. “All these people wrote me later about what they wished to ingest,” she says. One woman wrote to say she loved to smell her dog’s paws “because they smelled like popcorn,” says Tomlin. “You wait, you’re going to get mail now too.”
Tomlin had her own forbidden food fetish. “I would be in micro biology class and would love the smell of the little bottles of xylene used to clean slides,” she says. “I probably have a liver with holes in it. The xylene smelled so great I wanted to drink it but I knew I couldn’t so I’d sprinkle it on my books. I was just mad for xylene.”
There you have it. Lily Tomlin, Xylene Addict. Top that, Enquirer.
I told Tomlin the car joke. A guy sits down and consumes an entire four cylinder Honda Civic. After he was done he belches and says, “I could have had a V8!”
I made Lily Tomlin laugh. Mission accomplished.
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