Although it’s always preferable to interview a celebrity face-to-face, somehow speaking long-distance with Lily Tomlin, whose character Ernestine, the irascible switchboard operator, launched her career, seemed fitting. My telephone conversation with the winner of Emmy, Tony, and Grammy Awards was as intimate and comfortable as catching up with an old friend.

In addition to a slew of other awards, Tomlin was nominated for an Oscar for her role as gospel singer Linnea Reese in the Robert Altman film, Nashville. She can now be seen in the Emmy-nominated role of matriarch of a wealthy New York family in the acclaimed FX series Damages and as Lisa Kudrow’s narcissistic mother on Showtime’s web series Web Therapy, as well as in the CBS hit drama NCIS and the cable series Eastbound and Down.

Tomlin will appear as Ernestine, the devilish 6-year-old Edith Ann, and many of her other classic characters at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20, at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. The multimedia show, which allows her characters to interact with video clips, promises to be the perfectly measured mix of humor, warmth, and stinging commentary that is uniquely Tomlin’s.

Here is what she had to say during our conversation.
Eddie Sarfaty: Many respected actors have claimed that comedy is the hardest thing to do, yet it seems that compared to dramatic acting, comedy is, pardon the expression, not taken seriously.
Lily Tomlin: It’s true. When Marty Short and I were doing Damages last year, people asked us what it’s like to do serious acting. It’s not any different. It’s the same thing. It’s just the style.
ES: I love that in addition to top-notch writing and wonderfully detailed characters, your humor always has such a strong emotional component.
LT: It’s what makes it satisfactory to me. I want to present my characters as authentic humans. As a child, I was exposed to a great variety of people. My father was a factory worker, and my family visited relatives in Kentucky every summer, but I went to school with a lot of rich kids whose parents were professionals. They were perceived as “better,” but as different as they were, they weren’t. Since I saw people at their best and at their worst, I had empathy. I was lucky to have grown up that way.
ES: You’re reported to be a big fan of Lucille Ball. Did you ever get to meet her?
LT: Yes. I was nervous because I knew Lucy wasn’t particularly inclined to me. I had read an article in which, when asked about the new crop of comics, she replied that she “didn’t get” me. But she couldn’t have been kinder, and she was so funny. She told a story about going to New York for the Tony Awards. She had to have a root canal at the last minute, and she didn’t want to take pain pills because she had to be on television. Her dentist told her that whenever she felt some discomfort, she should swish some brandy around in her mouth then spit it out. She did this great routine, right there at the dinner table for about 20 minutes, where she’s on the plane to New York, ensconced in her seat by the window, and she asks the stewardess for some brandy. And she swishes it all around and then realizes that there’s no place to spit it out, so she swallows it. When she got off the plane she was completely looped.
ES: Like Vitameatavegamin!
LT: Exactly!
ES: Do you enjoy being onstage as yourself as much as when you’re doing your characters?
LT: I do myself in between my characters, and I love doing the Q&A with the audience. Other performers have a persona, but for me one isn’t enough. It helps that people are predisposed to laughing at what I say. I mean, I’ve been making them laugh for 40 years. Back in New York, I worked in a small club in the Village, and I was told that if you only do characters, people don’t know who you are. I wanted to be authentic, so I would pull up a chair and stare into people’s eyes. I would fall back and try to get them to catch me. They loved it. And I would say “Thank you. The first-person part of this has kept me in the small money all these years, but now that I’m going on to bigger and better things, I won’t need you anymore.”
ES: Apparently some ridiculous percentage of the American public gets their news from late night shows like Jon Stewart. Do you think that comedy is becoming an indispensable tool in getting the public to participate in our democracy?
LT: Well, I think that’s probably true for a lot of young people. I mean, what little investment they had, things haven’t just changed overnight with Obama. But if they’re looking at the Republican candidates, well, it is a comedy show. There’s a lack of history and science – and worse, they show a lack of heart. We can’t let them get away with that.
ES: You’ve shared the screen with a lot of brilliant actors who could easily make someone feel intimidated. Is that ever an issue for you? How do you deal with finding yourself in a scene with someone like Meryl Streep?
LT: I get asked all the time, how was it working with this or that person. I knew Meryl a little, so she wasn’t a stranger. When people ask about her, I say, “Frankly, she wasn’t my first choice.”
ES: What was it like working with Robert Altman?
LT: Bob was an imposing guy but very hip and benign. We called him the benign patriarch. You’d ask him, “What do you want me to do with this scene?” And he’d say, “I don’t know, surprise me.” You couldn’t fail with him; he was truly collaborative. He gave me a lot of confidence to do film and to do dramatic roles. Bob gave me a chance. Who else would have? To everyone else, I was Ernestine.
ES: I was surprised to read in your bio that you originally went to college to study medicine.
LT: I went into pre-med because I wanted to do something good. But I wasn’t smart enough. I was terrible at anything having to do with math. I could never have computed your thyroid percentage or anything like that.
ES: Have you always performed?
LT: I put on shows as a kid, but I didn’t think much of it. The other kids wouldn’t show up or lose interest, but I’d hang curtains and make costumes and sell tickets to the neighbors. I was like P.T. Barnum.
ES: Was there a eureka moment when you realized that you wanted to make performing a career?
LT: In college, I was in a biology class with this girl who was voted most beautiful in high school. She was very imperious. After class she said, “I’m going to audition for The Madwoman of Chaillot. You should come along; there are lots of small parts.”

In the show, I would lead the improv during an entrance down the stairs where a bunch of us played the capitalists’ wives. Each time we did that scene, the cast and crew would run to see what I was doing. That was the start. Because of that, I was asked to be in the variety show. The kid director told us that the show was too short and asked if anyone had something. They had just blown the cap off of segregation in Grosse Pointe, which is a very wealthy area. I did a society matron from Grosse Pointe that was satirical and topical. It got me a lot of attention. I was asked to perform it all over. At the end of midterms, I went to New York.
ES: Have you felt like you’ve ever been discriminated against because of your sexual orientation?
LT: There was a lot of pressure – even from people in the industry. Someone actually said to me, “I think you and Jane [Wagner, her life partner> should come to work in different cars.”

And a lot of my family is fundamentalist. My mother was afraid I’d be – I don’t know – revealed. Time offered me the cover if I would come out. Of course, it would have been frightening, but I was more offended that they would barter something like that – like I would trade my personal life for the cover of a magazine.

Vito Russo and I did a bit on my [1975"> album Modern Scream where we did a twist on straight actors who distance themselves from their gay characters. I felt like it was my artistic answer to Time. I’d say, “How did it feel to play a heterosexual? I’ve seen those women all my life, I know how they walk, I know how they talk…”
ES: Collaborating artistically is such an intimate process. I often think it’s easier to find a husband or wife than a collaborator. You’ve been very lucky to find both in the same person. You’ve had great success collaborating with your partner Jane Wagner. What’s your work process like?
LT: Jane is really the writer. She originally wanted to be a songwriter. I’m a good editor, but I can’t really create language like she can. Early stuff I did on my own, but then I worked with other people. It’s like Jane has some kind of a satellite dish on the roof. We’re like, “Where did that come from? How did she think of that?” And it works because she’s totally empathetic.
ES: How did the two of you meet?
LS: We had some friends who introduced us. Right from the start, I was mad for her. We’ve been together 41 years. I think, “When did that happen?” I can’t really remember being without her.

ES: Luckily, few of us can remember being without Lily Tomlin.
Tomlin will perform at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20, at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $40-$80 and can be purchased online at www.kauffmancenter.org.

Comedian Eddie Sarfaty has appeared on The Today Show, The Joy Behar Show, Comedy Central’s Premium Blend and LOGO’s Wisecrack. His writing has appeared in The Advocate, Out, Instinct, Metrosource and other publications. Sarfaty teaches comedy writing at New York University and is the author of Mental: Funny in the Head, a collection of comic essays (Kensington Books). Readers can find him online at www.keeplaughing.com.
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