She might be nearly 70, but no one who's seen Lily Tomlin perform her latest stand-up routine would know it. She bounces with the enthusiasm of a high school cheerleader, and her mind never stops moving, the jokes flying faster and packing more heat than bullets at a shooting range. Her laughter is rich and familiar, and comes frequently throughout the 35 minutes we spent talking to her before she embarks on a cross-country tour.
City Paper: Are there certain characters you've known who've stayed really close to your heart over the years?
Lily Tomlin: God, yes, most everything. Characters are like people to me. They're people who have these idiosyncrasies and I know them. They're like relatives.
CP: You've worked with a lot of really funny people. Are there people you haven't had a chance to work with yet that you hope to in the future?
LT: Almost anybody who's good I want to work with. I would like to work with any number of people who it wouldn't seem like I would fit in to their work, like Martin Scorsese or someone like that. I'd want to do something that nobody would expect me to do, but after a while you sort of get pigeon-holed. Like, it was a very big deal to go from Laugh In to a movie like Nashville with Bob Altman. Most would never even have seen that possibility.
CP: I was going to ask you about working with him. What was that relationship like?
LT: A Prairie Home Companion was just a great shoot, and Bob was getting chemotherapy every day and he was still Bob.
He was fantastic. And people would say, "What's it been like working with Bob? Is he different now?" And I'd say the only difference is he doesn't ride the crane like he used to. Bob was planning his next movie days before he died. Meryl [Streep] was going to be in it and I was going to be in it. It was called Hands on a Hard Body, where people compete to win a truck by keeping their hands on it.
CP: What made you decide to get out on the road now and do stand-up?
LT: I never stopped doing stand-up, one-nighters, or two-nighters. From the time I got on Laugh In, I had an act, and it was the only thing that kept me off The Match Game [a popular '70s game show that featured a regular lineup of comedians/actors]. If you had an act, you didn't have to take a regular job on one of these shows — not that there's anything wrong with that, but it sort of slots you in there. And because I had an act, I could go out and earn a living. I didn't have to take a job on a show where you had to be on every day. I always had my act and did 40-50 dates a year. I just always did that, and I'd work that around whatever else I was doing.
CP: A lot of people were really excited about Obama getting elected. Are you still feeling that sensation of hope and change?
LT: We're praying for it. I mean, even the whole Rick Warren thing, I can sort of buy Obama's justification about different points of view and so on. When I was on Laugh In, way back in the beginning, we were so political about the Vietnam War, those of us against the war. John Wayne was on the show and I wouldn't even be photographed with him. And then later Martha Mitchell came on, who was married to John Mitchell, and she was more of a victim of that administration, and I sort of snubbed her too. Later I read in her autobiography that she was so hurt by the way I treated her, and in retrospect as a mature person I regret those times. I wish I'd been more outgoing with them and found out what they think and why they think it.
CP: What changes are you hoping to see for America and the world in 2009?
LT: I'm hoping we can make some sort of connection with the rest of the world. How can you repair what the Bush administration has done? I just don't know. I'm hoping Obama's going to re-implement the Clean Air Act, and all kinds of things like that. They've sold off our national parks! They've done everything. There's no end to what Bush has done. And it's harder to undo than to do. I was so grateful just to have someone like Obama elected, because you hope that's a message to the rest of the world.