“Laughter is the whole scheme of life,” she says. “It renews people.” And it’s been renewing her for nearly five decades, from her start during the late ’60s in comedy clubs and on TV’s Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In through Broadway and Hollywood, indie films and streaming television. In her work, she took on topics such as cougars and marijuana before they were fashionable or even acceptable. Whether she’s on the screen or stage—she’ll be making a rare appearance at The Smith Center on September 16—Tomlin continues to prove that to be funny is also to be fearless.
Tomlin’s current project is the Netflix hit Grace and Frankie, in which she reteams with her friend and 9 to 5 costar Jane Fonda. It’s the tale of two very different women—free-spirited artist Frankie (Tomlin) and high-strung businesswoman Grace—whose husbands leave them for each other and who become unlikely pals because of it. “This is exactly what we wanted to do in terms of a comedy: Play women like ourselves,” Tomlin says. “The dismissal of women our age, we’re shunted aside. And we won’t have any of it. We’re going to be assertive and be who we are.”
Grace and Frankie proves that sex, drugs and start-up companies aren’t just for millennials: the pair down whiskey flights and duck sliders in a faux–dive bar and go into the vibrator business. “Grace is a businesswoman. I’m an artist, so I do the box, the painting of the vagina,” explains Tomlin. “My boyfriend, Jacob, he [grew] yams for my yam lubricant.”
But it isn’t just a sitcom. Grace and Frankie explores not just the women’s friendship, but how their husbands’ relationship evolves from down-low affair to marriage, as well as their adult children’s struggles with relationships, recovery and their roles in their parents’ new lives—all rendered with a graceful mix of bawdy wit and genuine sensitivity that has drawn a wide-ranging audience. “Most people watch it and see it as funny. But it’s also very moving, it’s sort of a drama. … We’re on the last quarter of our lives, and everything that happens is more significant in many ways,” Tomlin says. “It’s also about how you can start over—you can reinvent yourself.”
“I think most people say, ‘You know, the show gives me hope,’ or ‘The show makes me laugh at myself.’ It makes people feel like they’re not isolated.” — Lily Tomlin on ‘Grace and Frankie’
While many shows take their own characters for granted, Grace and Frankie avoids sitcom shorthand, finding plot points where others would go for the laugh track. Part of the show’s power comes from the chemistry between Tomlin and Fonda—the pair even recently gave a TED Talk on female friendship. The two met back in the ’70s and eventually starred in 9 to 5, a movie that became a TV show and a Broadway musical, which Tomlin credits to the film’s continuing relevance: “It’s about oppression and a boss who has his way with office workers. All this stuff about equal pay … childcare.” Will the third member of the movie’s trio appear on Grace and Frankie? It’s possible. “We’re hoping and praying. We’re praying and hoping. We love Dolly [Parton] so much we want to have her on the show,” she says. “We’ll kind of work on a schedule.”
Tomlin has been nominated for three Emmy Awards for Grace and Frankie—and a win would bring another to join the seven Tomlin already has, in addition to her two Tony Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award she collected earlier this year and countless other honors. “Some of them are in the office,” she says. “Any more recent awards are sitting around someplace, I don’t know where. And there are just numerous terrible awards. Especially when you get to be my age, they think you’re on your way out.” However, acceptance speeches do provide a golden opportunity for a raconteur like Tomlin. “If you give me an award, I’ll hook you up with some anecdote,” she says, laughing.
One of those Emmys was for her 1981 special Lily: Sold Out, in which she spoofed playing Vegas by flying on wires à la Peter Pan and singing “I Gotta Be Me” in a sequin gown before backflipping into a water tank. Can we expect another big, spangly splash at The Smith Center? “Oh, dammit, I wish I could,” she laughs. “That was special.” Instead, she’ll be unleashing the barrage of quips, observations, satire and “I do a lot of characters”—perhaps we’ll see Ernestine, the telephone operator with the nasal laugh, or Edith Ann, the wise child in the big chair, or Suzie Sorority, who was Becky before there was Becky, yet another example of Tomlin’s ahead-of-her-time insight.
Whether it’s a one-woman show, an ensemble part in a Robert Altman film or being part of Grace and Frankie’s dynamic duo, Tomlin sees comedy as part of humanity. “I think most people say, ‘You know, the show gives me hope,’ or ‘The show makes me laugh at myself,’” she says. “It makes people feel like they’re not isolated. That’s the most we can do for each other—lighten the load.”
An Afternoon of Classic Lily Tomlin
September 16, 2 p.m., $29–$85, The Smith Center, thesmithcenter.com