It’s nearing the end of my 40-minute chat with Lily Tomlin when she steps off her feminist soapbox and wonders what just happened.
“I can’t wait to see what you make of this conversation,” says the Cass Tech grad, who performs June 14 at Hill Auditorium as part of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. Along with the sexual ambiguity of Ms. Frizzle and the hope she has for her hometown, the 74-year-old comedian is referring to the broad scope of our interview: the Rolling Stones diatribe that provoked someone to attack her with a hairbrush, her favorite “dick painting” as a kid and, naturally, “The Beygency.”
So, Lily, you’re kicking off the Ann Arbor Summer Fest on June 14.
Oh, am I kicking it off?
You and Edith Ann.
Edith Ann – that little bitch.
As a Detroit native, have you been keeping tabs on what’s going on here?
I have, yeah, quite a bit.
What’s your hope for Detroit?
My hope for it is that it’s gonna rise. It can’t get much more beat down, and I think with all the young people and artists moving there, I pray to God something happens, that life comes back to it. I mean, Detroit was – how old are you?
I’m 31. I didn’t experience it like a lot of people did, but my generation is helping to revive it.
Oh, that’s so fabulous! I’ll tell you, it was such a great city. It was really a good-looking city too. It was fun, it was gritty, it was political. I grew up near Clairmount and 12th Street – those are my old haunts. The old apartment house I grew up in was burned in the ’67 riots – that was where I spent my whole early life.
When you return to Michigan, do you drive around your old stomping grounds?
Yeah, I actually do. I usually try to go to the art museum. There’s a painting there – Bruegel’s The Wedding Dance – that hangs low on the wall. It’s really a beautiful painting, and all the townspeople are dancing and the men have codpieces so they look like they have erections. When you’re a grade school kid going there on a field trip, it hangs right at eye level for a 7- or 8-year-old. I found it the most fantastic dick painting I had ever seen. (Laughs) I shouldn’t have done it, but I did steal a snapshot of me in front of the Wedding Dance – with the flash!
A selfie before selfies were a thing?
Well, I had someone else take it. We were covert. Anyways, Detroit was fabulous. Maybe everybody feels that way about their hometown, but I do think Detroit was special. To see what’s happened, it kind of ruins your heart. It just … it holds so many memories for me, so much sensory stuff, that it’s hard for me to get that it’s not the way that it was, even though I know empirically it isn’t – I’ve been there many times. If I come to Detroit, you can turn me on to some places to go by.
Is your wife, Jane Wagner, coming with you?
Most likely she won’t. She’s not from Detroit at all – she’s from Tennessee – but she doesn’t like to travel that much.
Even though you two just got married last year, you’ve been together for 150 years.
How much did taking that step change your relationship? Did it change it at all?
We’ve been together 43 years and it changes in the sense that, “Yeah, we’re married, that’s right.” But what changed most is, we got letters from relatives. Pretty much everybody (in our family) is Christian Fundamentalist, and I grew up in the Baptist church, so I’m acquainted with all that stuff, and we got a lot of letters from our relatives congratulating us. That was pretty surprising.
You never made a big to-do about your sexuality, but have you noticed how much pressure the media puts on celebrities to come out? What are your thoughts on the media’s obsession with outing people?
I just talked to somebody not even two or three days ago and they were saying, “Don’t you think celebrities should come out? All of them!” I said, “No, because I don’t know what their circumstances are.” They can’t be responsible to everybody. As far as making a big declaration about your own sexuality, I’m not gonna be the one to judge what other people do unless they’re doing something really horrible and destructive and ugly. They can still support the gay issues and gay causes and women’s issues and so on, and they can support positive constructive things in the society, but I’m not gonna stand in judgment of another individual.
In the upcoming Netflix series “Grace and Frankie” you’re back together with Jane Fonda, your “9 to 5” co-star. What’s it like working with Jane again?
Jane and I are good friends. I email, talk to her, see her, but we don’t work together formally until August. Right now the writers are all writing. They’ve chosen a director. They’ve chosen Tate (Taylor), who directed “The Help.” We don’t know who the husbands are gonna be yet – we’re still waiting. But everybody’s throwing names in the hopper.
Dolly Parton recently expressed interest in reuniting with her “9 to 5” co-stars on the series, as well.
I think that would be fabulous, glorious – the three of us! You know, we tried forever to get another “9 to 5” script together before we all got older, so yeah, I would love her to be on the show.
Whatever happened to the sequel?
I guess one of us might have agreed and someone didn’t, or they wanted this change or they wanted that change. We shouldn’t have been so fussy. It could’ve been managers. Who in the hell knows. You know, (writer) Colin Higgins died – that put a wrench in the work.
Were you surprised “Malibu Country” didn’t get a second season pickup?
Yeah, I thought it would just because of Reba, if nothing else. The thing is, it was replaced by “Neighbors.”
And “Neighbors” was recently canceled.
“Neighbors” didn’t even do as well as we did in the time slot, but I heard it was (ABC executive) Paul Lee’s favorite show. He chose “Neighbors” over us.
Ah, that’s disappointing.
(Laughs) You said it. I loved Reba as a person. I had so much fun being her mother, because she’s like a 10-year-old when she gets to talking to you. Oh, Jesus – she kills me.
Did you at least get to keep your custom-made grandma wig?
Well, I paid for it, I reckon so.
Then, yeah, you better be keeping it.
I always pay for my own wigs because I don’t wanna give them up.
As a feminist trailblazer, what do you think of modern examples of feminism, like Beyonce and “Girls,” for instance?
Well, how do you represent that? What does that mean to you?
Yeah, well, I guess that’s what I’m asking you.
(Laughs) You mean Beyonce’s total use of her body? Is that what you mean?
Yeah, a lot of people think of Beyonce as a feminist, as somebody who embraces herself as a powerful woman – she’s even called herself a “modern-day feminist” – and I was curious to know your thoughts on that.
Yeah, well, I think that’s great, and what can I say? She is a pretty popular woman and she’s married to a very powerful man, but she’s still selling sex. She’s selling a lot of sex to teeny-boppers. I don’t know. Who are her fans? Everybody?
Everybody loves Beyonce, Lily, and if you don’t there’s “The Beygency,” which is, according to “Saturday Night Live,” a secret government agency who takes down anyone who doesn’t.
Oh, shit. I like her! I don’t dislike her! But I don’t pay any attention to that because – I mean, she’s fantastically beautiful and dances, but, you know, it’s very suggestive. If I was a 10-year-old, I would try to emulate her like most 10-year-olds do.
For me, young girls are too sexually available! I got in trouble with the show “Girls” because I was doing a junket and 80 people come through from different publications or networks or whatever to interview you. So, this girl comes in and she goes, “What do you think of ‘Girls’? I said, “I haven’t really watched it that much.” That was the truth!
So, I shouldn’t even talk about Beyonce because, hard as it is to believe and as much as she is present in the culture, I’m not terribly conversant with Beyonce. If you played her songs, I wouldn’t necessarily recognize them. I’m familiar with her image and how incredibly vivacious and sexual she is to watch, so I just chalk it up to the culture. I don’t pay any attention to it anymore.
The culture is so sexualized with girls and women. I was in a recording studio and a little girl who was about 4 years old was watching TV, and somebody’s dancing on the TV in very elaborate sexually overt dance steps and the little girl goes, “Oh, she’s hot.” I’m thinking, this is a 4-year-old!
She should be thinking about playing with her Barbies – wait, no, even Barbies are sexualized, so never mind.
(Laughs) She should be thinking about penetrating the Barbie or something, or bringing Barbie and Ken – I don’t know what she should be thinking about! But stop it right now! You’re gonna put words in my mouth! The whole Beyonce thing is gonna come after me. They’ll send Solange after me. I’ll be in the elevator and they’ll beat the hell out of me.
Jay-Z and Beyonce are their own thing. I mean, they come swathed in a culture that is wide and deep, and that’s great. They make a lot of money. I don’t know what else they do. I don’t know about them.
Listen, I was one of those people all through the ’60s. Because rock ‘n’ roll was a male-dominated culture, as a feminist, I railed against it. I railed against the fact that girls were used sexually, that they would just follow guys all over the planet. I cannot defend my state of my mind, that’s what I was thinking at the time. Look, when the Rolling Stones had that album “Black and Blue And Lovin’ It” – whatever it was called (editor’s note: it was called “Black and Blue”) – it showed a woman bound, sitting on a chair with her hands behind her back. She’s black and blue, she has bruises all over her. I mean, this was part of marketing!
I got into a big fuss with someone. I had a hairdresser on a movie and she started railing against these teenage girls, the way they went around and behaved. I said, “They’re an effect of the culture. Why do you support a culture?” She threw a hairbrush at me. She got so mad. She was mad at the girls, she was blaming me, the victim, the subject. I said, “How do you like the idea of a little 12-year-old girl down there at Tower Records going through those bins and seeing this cover with this girl bound and black and blue? The Stones, a very powerful group, is extolling this as the ideal feminist image, like, “Yeah, yeah, this is how she should be: black and blue and loving it.”
What’s the ideal feminist image to you?
There is none. I’m totally existential. I have no investment in the society or anything. Anything that could happen – I’m way too beyond that mark to think that I’m gonna change it.
Well, you should know that one of my sheros is Ms. Frizzle of “The Magic School Bus,” who you voiced in the ’90s. There’s an ideal feminist – am I right?
(Laughs) Now you’re talkin’! But we don’t know – does Ms. Frizzle have a BF or a GF? We don’t know.
But you know she could take down Solange in an elevator.
(Laughs) Say I said that. Get a whole thing going where Beyonce’s people are gonna come after me because I said, “Ms. Frizzle could take down Solange in an elevator.”
On it. But seriously: I grew up with Ms. Frizzle and my life motto’s always been, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy.”
Aw, see, that is so worth life.
What an icon she is, though.
Ann Richards, ex-governor in Texas – she’s now dead – had a leadership school called Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. They asked me to speak to the students who are all young girls. They had no idea who I was. Finally I thought, “What’s wrong with you, Lily?” I said, “I do the voice of Ms. Frizzle on ‘The Magic School Bus’!” They all cheered! They were so absolutely excited. I was home-free. Then, the most wonderful thing: This young girl stands up, she had to be 10 or 11 years old, and she goes: “Ms. Tomlin, what do you think you’ve contributed to the world with your work?” I stopped dead. I said, “I hope I’ve caused people to feel more connected.” They thought that was admirable. To them, that was good enough.
People don’t make the connection that you voiced Ms. Frizzle, do they? When you’re a kid, you think Ms. Frizzle voices Ms. Frizzle.
We were at Jane’s sister house a few years ago when her niece and nephew were little, and they’re sitting on the couch with me and Ms. Frizzle was on. They didn’t believe I’m Ms. Frizzle, so Ms. Frizzle would say something and then they’d turn real fast to me and say, “You say it!” I had to audition for Ms. Frizzle. (Laughs)
I had a wonderful time chatting with you, Lily. Always do.
Yes, yes. You were a lot of fun. I’m gonna write you right now. I’ve wanted to do something for Detroit, and I’ve been in touch with all these people but I have never done anything substantial. I’m not holding back here, Chris. Gonna dive in with both feet. You’ll probably be leading the charge of the Beyonce takedown.
I promise you I’m not affiliated with The Beygency.
Right. I’ll think everything’s cool and you’ll lure me to a meeting place and they’ll all be there waiting for me.
If I get you in an elevator, you might wanna run.
“An Evening with Lily Tomlin” is at 8 p.m. June 14 at Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University Ave. For more information, visit http://a2sf.org.