In the new dramedy Admission, Lily Tomlin is Tina Fey's scene-stealing mother — a faded Gloria Steinem–era radical feminist who allegedly conceived her daughter to prove a political point. Tomlin, a comedy legend, is no stranger to feminist thought, and she was happy to share some of her own with Vulture, weighing in on the eternal "Can women be funny?" debate, high heels, and Girls.
Did Admission make you think about the days you were trying to get into college?
Yeah, but I never went to that kind of big Ivy League college; I went to a big-city university in Detroit, a more blue-collar kind of college. As long as you could pay your tuition, you just went! It's more democratic. And I never graduated. I got on to the fact that kids were in theater, and I didn't know that was something you could do for a living. I got a walk-on in The Madwoman of Chaillot, and I thought, God, this is really fun. I wish I could make a living doing this. But I had been putting on shows ever since I was 5 or 6 years old. When I was 9 or 10, I had a ten-cent business: I would walk your dog for a dime, go to the store for a dime, empty your garbage for a dime — and then I could use the money to buy tricks at the magic store.
Can you still do magic tricks?
I could cut a rope in two and restore it. Did you ever see that? I could float an egg under a silk. I would do everything. I would tap dance; I would do ballet; I would wear my mother's slip as an evening dress; I would imitate Bea Lillie, I saw her on Ed Sullivan — I would lift up my skirt and roller-skate off. I began to write stuff for the neighbor kids to do, and then I would dance, and that's how I would create stuff as a vehicle for me. People would always say, "When did this tour start?" I would say, "Sixty years ago," because I never stopped.
What was it like developing a mother-daughter bond with Tina Fey?
I admire Tina a lot, from 30 Rock to SNL. It's a boys club, and it's very hard to break through on that. Tina's a real force, without exhibiting the force. She just is.
Tina included you in her 30 Rock proof that women are funny. Why is that even still a debate?
If the sensibility in the culture is hammered, hammered, hammered ... I grew up in a time when women didn't really do comedy. You had to be homely, overweight, an old maid, all that. You had to play a stereotype, because very attractive women were not supposed to be funny — because it's powerful, it's a threat. It takes a long time to change that. I was in a revue, and the ingenue was totally boring onstage, but in the dressing room, this girl was hilarious! I would just scream, "You've got to do that onstage!" And she would pull herself up, and she'd say, "I wouldn't want anyone to think I was unattractive." It was just that simple.
Were you excited to meet actress Susan Kohner, Paul Weitz's mom, on set? [Weitz directed Admission.]
I had been deeply imprinted by The Imitation of Life [in which Kohner stars], so when Paul told me his mother was Susan Kohner, I was able to tell him about going to go see it with my mother when I was probably 8. Susan played a girl of mixed race who denies her black mother and tries to pass, and then her mother dies and she has to face the fact that she rejected her mother, and she's running after the hearse screaming, "Mama! Mama!" I was just sobbing! How perfect, to be able to recount that story to Paul and his mom. I thought she was about five foot ten in the movie, but she was so delicate. Not big at all. People think I'm really tall, and I'm five foot five and a half. I'd like to be five foot nine or five foot ten, statuesque.
I'm five foot nine, but I don't feel statuesque.
Do you wear high heels? I've got some on right now, but they're only two inches. I never wear more than two inches. I can't tolerate it. I want to get out of the building if it catches on fire! You probably didn't have to live at a time when you'd have on the big old skirt with the crinoline, high heels, and then you'd have to walk on the streets of New York and all the construction guys would wag their tongue at you as you passed. I used to flip them the bird.
You used to go to showrunners and ask to guest-star on their programs: The X Files, The West Wing, Damages. Is there anything you'd like to be on today?
A lot of jobs I got like that. I got on Damages because I was mad for it, and The West Wing because I was bereft that I wasn't on it. I went up to Chris Carter and I said, "I want to be on it!" when The X Files first came on. "Anything?" I'm sorry to say I like all the crime shows, but I have a heavy reaction if there's too many dead females in the plot. I've turned down some decent roles, because you have to jump from twenty stories and go through the roof of a bus, and you're all mangled. So I always hate those. And I don't want to hold up people who have no virtue whatsoever as role models, because we fall in love with those people! It's like Tony Soprano, he's a real brute. Throws some girl over the desk and fucks her from behind, and then he'd go to the psychiatrist and we empathize with him. For adults, we should be able to absorb that and come out the other side in a wholesome way, but it's hard. Tell me some shows you like, and I'll tell you if I want to be on them.
You know, Girls, I don't like young, young girls to watch shows where their sexual activity is the main ingredient. I don't want those girls influenced. Enough young girls feel obligated to give as many boys as are available a blow job. I think they should be more selective. I know if I had a 12- or 14-year-old daughter, I wouldn't want her out performing oral sex on a lot of guys at school.
I don't think that's necessarily what they do on the show, although the sex is a part people glom on to ...
They glom on to it because Lena [Dunham] is so uninhibited with her body, and that's refreshing to see, a girl who's not idealized who's very sexually active or very sexual, period, and okay with herself. I think all that's valuable and good, but it's how much regard they have for themselves in as positive a way as is reasonable. But there's no role for me on Girls. What am I going to play?
I could be Allison's mother.
Rita Wilson was Allison's mother.
[Laughs.] Oh no! Who else?
You could be Shoshanna's mother or Adam's mother. We haven't met them yet.
See, now I want to be someone's mother. [Laughs.] But I think I'm a better mother for boys anyway.