Characters (In Order Of Appearance)
Richard Pryor, an actor/comedian
Some Critics: John Wasserman, Lee Israel, Bruce Vilanch, Horace M. Newcomb, an old woman, Peggy Clifford, a CBS executive, W.P. of Detroit, a young woman
Kay Whitlock, an activities coordinator at Southern Colorado State College, Pueblo
Mary Jean Tomlin, a storyteller
Lily Tomlin, another actor/comedian
Toni, a city girl of the Fifties
A Rubber Freak
Edith Ann, a small child
Mrs. Earbore, a Grosse Pointe matron
Mildred, a waitress
Harry, her boss
The Party Lady
Mrs. Fitzgerald, a childhood mentor
Mrs. Judy Beasly, of Calumet City, Illinois
Bernice Mason, a movie mag writer
Wanda V. Wilford, a C&W singer
Janice Lou Reid, one of her fans
Wanda V.’s Manager
Control Room Monitor
If You Can’t Be Direct, Why Be?
(In his room on the 14th floor of the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco, Richard Pryor props his bare feet on top of a table of leftover afternoon breakfast dishes and confesses to a secret passion.)
Richard I love Lily. I have a thing about her, a little crush. She’s so good I get embarrassed, I get in. awe of her. I’d seen her on Laugh-In and shit, and something about her is very sensual, isn’t it. You know, when she works, I’d like to ball her in all them different characters she does sometimes. Wouldn’t you? I mean, have her around the house and have her do all that — be Ernestine one minute.
(He imitates Ernestine, Lily’s telephone operator, his voice nasal and officious, interrupted by snorts.) “Oh (snort, snort) just put it in the proper place. Thank you (snort, snort).”
(Several critics speak up from various locations — newspaper offices, shopping centers, network inner sanctums, street corners, backstage dressing rooms, airports, etc.)
John Wasserman of the, ‘San Francisco Chronicle’ I would venture that Lily Tomlin is the first comedienne in history subject to audience lust.
Ms. Lee Israel in ‘Ms.’ Much of the low-key documentary style of performing she is moving toward can no longer appropriately be called comedy. Increasingly, she is simply lifting pieces from the culture, imposing upon them her overview and her mammoth talent, and then gingerly putting them down again.
Bruce Vilanch of ‘Chicago Today’ She transforms the tiny stage into a gigantic circus of women. She is not just a comic, she’s a comic actress.
Horace M. Newcomb of the ‘Baltimore Sun’ Her ear is as accurate at times as that of Mark Twain.
An Old Woman During a Performance (Shaking her cane and yelling) Go home and put on a brassiere!
Peggy Clifford of the ‘Aspen Times’ Her special was probably the most radical departure from television and comedic conventions we will see on the tube this season.
A CBS Executive Assessing the Special A $360,000 jerk-off.
W.P. of Detroit An hour of Lily Tomlin is 55 minutes too much. Miss Tomlin hit a new low ridiculing the president’s family.
A Young Woman I know this is going to sound crazy. I’m divorced now, but I was married for about three years. And the whole time we were married, honest to God, Lily, I don’t want this to sound neurotic or anything, but the only time, only good time we had to look forward to together, was Monday nights at eight o’clock.
(In the baggage claim area of the Denver airport, Mary Jean is surrounded by several students from Southern Colorado State College at Pueblo. They have come to drive her back to their remote desert town for a college-sponsored performance that night at Woodrow Wilson Memorial Hall. Among the students is Kay Whitlock, a 25-year-old woman with short hair and heavy-rimmed glasses.)
Kay You have no idea how we fought for you.
Mary Jean (Upset) What do you mean?
Kay Well, this guy, Gordon Brown, he wanted to have someone else. He didn’t think . . .
Mary Jean Who’s Gordon Brown?
Kay He’s on Activities. He’s in Business Administration, I think. He didn’t think you’d be able to fill the hall. He said we’d lose money.
Mary Jean (Feigning remorse) Oh, no, it’s going to be awful. We’re not going to sell out. (She pouts, backs against a pillar and sinks to the ground, her elbows on her knees, her hands pressed into her cheeks.) It’s going to be terrible!
Kay (Nervous, aware of the airport spectators eyeing Mary Jean) No, it’s all right. He’s full of shit, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Mary Jean (Whining) What’s Gordon Brown’s grade-point average? What’s the size of his dick?
Kay No, really, it’s going to be great.
Mary Jean The first thing we do when we get to Pueblo, we’re going to Gordon Brown’s house. Do you know where he lives? I’m gonna kick the shit out of him!
(The students, dumbstruck, quickly pick up Mary Jean’s baggage, including a small wooden stool she takes with her everywhere, and hustle her off to their waiting car.
(Scene changes to Malibu, California — the small, beach-front home of Mary Jean’s brother, Richard Tomlin. Mary Jean is sitting on a bed, talking to a pale and skinny Groupie/ Reporter who has a tape recorder. She seems to be thoroughly engrossed in the project, laughing and animated, casting her longlashed eyes to the ceiling as she reminisces, often bolting up and walking about the room, re-creating, with her slender and agile body, scenes from her 35-year past.
(Occasionally the Groupie/Reporter may ask a question or two, but his main function apparently is changing the tapes.)
Mary Jean I remember so many things so incredibly. I just was exposed to a lot of people, you know what I mean? I grew up in Detroit, on Hazelwood, in a neighborhood that Joyce Carol Oates writes about a lot, where Southerners migrate. I mean, first it was upper-middle-class gentiles, and then upper-middle-class Jews started to move in, and the gentiles started running. And behind them would be poor white Southerners, and finally poor blacks would come.
Sociologically I’m sure it was a classic evolution, and as a result I was exposed to an incredible range of people. In our apartment there were professional people and hillbillies and poorer people, people who were really educated and people who were totally uneducated. I was constantly being indoctrinated by Melba Farina’s boyfriend, Boris, who was one of the most prominent Communists in Detroit, right? And in the same building I was spending all my evenings with Mrs. Rupert, who was just so reactionary and so conservative, and she was indoctrinating me.
And when you’re exposed to everybody and live with everybody — um, I may be romanticizing this, I don’t know — I’m sure it all had to be a big influence on me. I just was drawn to all those people; everybody was, like, funny; they all had a funny way about them, or some wonderful — you could just, like, crystallize them, you know?
Like Mrs. Fitzgerald. See, directly across the street from my house was Hutchins playground. It was really called Cod Field, but Hutchins Junior High School, which was the junior high school I went to, was located there. Well, this big ol’ playground was the focus of my life — my formative years, from the time I was about five. ‘Cause there was a recreation leader there, Mrs. Fitzgerald, who taught . . . first of all, in the summertime they had all these athletics on the playground, organized for the kids. I played on a Police Athletic League baseball team.
Groupie What position?
Mary Jean (Confiding, affected) Pitcher, honey. I never wanted to be anything but a star. I just flashed on that. I always had that thing, you know — to me the pitcher was the star. And anyway, I didn’t want to run and have to chase the ball; I just wanted to pitch and hit really solid. And then in the wintertime we’d be in school and we’d take ballet, tap. We’d have plays. I’ve got lots of pictures of me in my, you know, tutus and stuff like that? We’d have variety shows every Friday. I mean, we’d do big productions, like ballets of Sleeping Beauty. I was just one of the little girls in the ensemble, but on these variety shows you could do comedy, you know, we would do takeoffs on stuff. And Mrs. Fitzgerald, she was like the ruler of that domain. She worked for the department of parks and recreation — a big city organization that probably functioned most in underprivileged neighborhoods — and she taught ballet and crafts and everything. She did it for 25 or 30 years.
What I started to say was, when I was first going to be on TV, I called up Mrs. Fitzgerald, you know, ’cause I had a big attachment to her. I spent like ten years with her, day and night almost, summer, winter, everything. And she was one . . . see, I was flashing on this the other day; I was trying to think why I had a different sense of myself, you know, than maybe some of the girls I grew up with; I had this strong sense of independence and self-determination and — I hate to use those words, but you know what I mean? I had this great sense of self. Well, I can’t say that I had it always, ’cause I certainly didn’t. If you read that diary, you know I didn’t. (Mary Jean laughs.) But I began to realize that I did have . . . I had some strong women around me, two or three women who were like the bosses and who had a great sense of dignity.
(Enter A Diary, bound in red leather and dedicated “To Mary Jean: You’re a lot of fun, and boy, I sure hope we have lots more fun at Cass! Sue.”)
A Diary January 1, 1954. Dear Diary, I’ve been so tired today. Sat for Jean last night, got 5 bucks. I was really surprised I got so much. I think about Harry a lot. I guess I still like him, but he’s such a heel, diary. I’d give anything to go steady with him. Diary, I’m so scared. High school starts soon, I hope I’ll make out all right. It’s been dull today. Sue and Nancy stayed over last night. Sue stayed again tonight. Didn’t get to bed until six this morning. Gosh, Dear Diary, a whole new year is ahead. I hope we share some wonderful things. Love, Mary.
Mary Jean When I left childhood and went to adolescence, there was a whole different set of standards and values. And I especially remember it was a big thing if you didn’t have any breasts, you know? As it turned out, I developed a rather extraordinary figure. That’ll make good print, won’t it: “I developed a rather extraordinary figure.” Ha ha.
Groupie In what way?
Mary Jean Well, just, you know, well-formed and, uh, lithe, and well-proportioned. But at that age I was a skinny, emaciated little creature, poking around. And from the outside there was this incredible pressure to come up to some kind of standard. We never used to move our heads because that hair had to be just so? Your neck would be stiff. You’d move from the waist up, else your hair would drag on your shoulder and get out of symmetry.
(Onstage at Woodrow Wilson Memorial Hall, Pueblo, Colorado, Lily, wearing white pants and a loose, flowery top that looks like it was cut from a Forties curtain, is snapping her fingers, strutting like a cheerleader and recalling her problems with high school truancy.)
Lily I’d stay out 12, 13 days if my hair didn’t turn out right.
A Diary January 2, 1954. Dear Diary, I felt terrible all night. And I get skinnier every day. I want to gain a little weight so bad.
Diary, sometimes I feel as though I want to scream. I don’t know why. And I want to dance & be in someone’s arms. I guess mostly Harry’s. Love, Mary.
Groupie What did you look like when you were writing that diary?
Mary Jean Let me think. I was leaving Hutchins Intermediate and starting Cass Tech. I must have been 14 then, and I was scared of high school. Because of the whole thing about — all that pressure in those days. What did I look like, yeah, let me think. I used to set my hair, I had long hair, curled, fuzzy on the ends, you know, curly bangs probably. I don’t remember at that specific juncture. But I had just started to wear sweaters.
When I think back on it, it’s just too awful. That whole insecurity about your body. People were always telling you, “You walk funny.” Your close friends were always giving you tips about what was wrong with you.
A Diary January 3, 1954. Dear Diary, We start back to school tomorrow. (Wearing my gray-checked skirt & red sweater.)
I wonder how Harry will act towards me?
Diary, even if Harry wanted to go with me again, I wouldn’t, he’s done me too dirty. I’ll never forget the names he called me, even though he has been nice lately. Oh well!
It’s almost 10:30. I’ve got to get to bed. See you tomorrow. Love, Mary.
Lily (Standing in front of her wooden stool on the Pueblo stage) Well, I think most of us spent some time in the Fifties. And I especially love the Fifties teenagers; I think they were the last of the really duddy generations. Part of what was tender about us was that we believed in such narrow, unbalanced things. We enforced a double standard very rigidly, which I found exceedingly repugnant.
And the fellas had every elaborate, greasy hairdos — jelly rolls, waterfalls, DAs. From their back pocket always extended a comb; not infrequently was it pink and scuzzy. And they wore their Levis hung very low — shackled, it was called — it was very precarious because there was a slight trace of cleavage in the back.
And when I was 14 I hitchhiked from Detroit to Chicago, in December, in a pair of ballet shoes. And my nylons had black heels with seams; I had an ankle bracelet and my mother was worried sick. And I had on a good-looking red nylon cardigan sweater, tucked in and buttoned up the back, with a lot of heavy pills on the underside of the forearms. In those days we walked like this. (She bobbles around kind of cool and loose, her arms close to her sides and bent up at the elbows.) It was the only way you could keep those cheap sweaters up.
And we had very pointy bosoms because we bought our brassieres at the dime store; they were satin, circular-stitched Loveables. And I padded my hips because I thought that to be acceptable as a person, as a woman, in the culture, I had to have round hips from the front. You can imagine my horror when, as a cheerleader during a pep rally, I looked down to see my hips laying on the floor. And coursing through the auditorium was the mother: “Where did those old nylons and washcloths come from?”
Groupie Did you really do that when you were a cheerleader? Pad your hips?
Mary Jean Sure. All through junior high school up through high — I don’t know how long, but I padded my hips for a long time. I stopped padding them at some point. It’s a matter of learning to love yourself, you know.
Lily And I had a big elastic cinch belt to hold up my skirt, which was a circle felt with about ten crinolines and a big poodle on the side. . . .
So this is a Fifties teenager, and she didn’t go to the roller rink this day, she went to a high-school dance and she’s just hangin’ around:
(Lily adopts the tough, nasal accent of Toni, a city girl who now stands real casual-like at the edge of an imaginary gym. She clutches the elbow of her left arm that hangs down lifelessly at her side. With forced disconcern she checks out the scene, making sharp, gum-popping sounds with her tongue.)
Toni* Jees Margo . . . I don’t think none of the cats is gonna ask us to dance . . . wanna you and I dance? . . . let’s wait for a big beat. . . .
(Excited) Oh kid I almost forgot to tell ya something, swear to God, I went over to Patty’s last night. She bleached her bangs. Looks tough. No, her ol’ lady don’t feature it. But that ain’t the cool part, Margo. I copped a look at Patty’s diary. (Confiding) You know what? . . . She . . . made . . . out . . . with Richie Bonatelli on the first date, no lie. Sure, where d’ya think she got that big hicky?
Plus Margo, that ain’t all Patty, hm hm hm. I seen her bra. It was layin’ on the bed, honest to God there was tissues in it. Yeah, “Flatty Patty.” Yeah, I wonder if Rich would give her his ID bracelet if he knew she was made outa Kleenex.
You know what we should do? (Shakes her hands up and down with glee) Oh, we should, we should! We should tell all the guys to sneeze when they see her. That would be so fab.
A Diary January 9, 1954. Dear Diary, If I had a penny for every time I’ve cried about Harry. . . . I’m keeping his cigarette butt. I’m finished. I’m not caring about him anymore. Now it’s Nina! I never thought it would be her. I’m not sure how he feels about her. I got to thinking about George. I wish he would have been here tonite. Maybe I’m still carrying the torch. I don’t know. I’ve got to be with him again — alone! Diary, what will I wear to the 9A party? Mom’s broke, so is Daddy and me. Maybe I won’t go! Love, Mary.
Toni (She cracks her gum.) Hey Margo, how ’bout Frankie? You didn’t hear? — Margo, where are you? Frankie smashed Mr. Gilman right in the mouth during metal shop. Yeah, they’re kickin’ him outa school for a week. Frankie’s so cool. Naa, he don’t care . . . give him time to soup up his Chevy. Honest to God, Margo? — you should see that car. That car is so cherry. . . .
Oh, kid, I gotta show you the picture he gave me for my wallet. (She studies the photo and confides to her friend.) Don’t he look tough? That cigarette behind his ear? This guy is the most. Look, he’s got his Luckies rolled up in his shirt sleeve? Margo, I swear to God he always dresses real sharp like that. Collar turned up, open to the waist? Look, is that cute? — there, that big green spot. That’s where he usually has his crucifix.
(Somewhat defensive) Yeah, I did, I did. Yeah, I did, I gave him one of my pictures. Let’s see, I said, um, (pauses to recall) “To Frankie . . . good luck in the future you’ll need it . . . just kidding ha ha . . . puddles of purple passion, Toni.” Yeah, I write pretty casual.
A Diary February 26, 1954. I read Nancy’s diary. She doesn’t know it. She says she likes George too. Ohh!
Toni (Frantically, she half whispers to Margo.) Margo, there he is! Margo! Gonna have a heart attack, I swear to God, I’m gonna have a heart attack. (Her voice gradually rises as her words run together.) Promise you won’t leave me I swear to God I’m gonna fall down I’m gonna die Margo! He is so choice! Swear to God I’m gonna have a heart attack promise you won’t leave me check me how does my hair look I swear to God Margo I’m gonna fall down gonna die right here.
(She pauses, turns her back, cracks her gum.) He’s coming right over here. . . .
(Assured) Yeah, he’s coming right over here. . . .
(Less assured) No he ain’t, Margo, what’s he doin’? Come on, I ain’t lookin’, honest to God, what’s he doin’?
(Shaken) Come on, Margo, honest to God, he’s dancin’, ain’t he. He’s dancin’ with Francine Puhley? I’m gonna have a breakdown, Margo. Swear to God, I’m gonna have a breakdown right here. Promise you won’t leave me. Come on, let’s cut to the John. I gotta have a ciggy-butt.
(Contemptuous) Naw, what do I care — that creep? She washes her gym suit every week.
A Diary April 4, 1954. Dear Diary, Had my date with Russ. He came late but called me first. He looked real cute. I wore my brown skirt & white sweater. He had on a gray suit. We went skating & fell once. He taught me to turn. Then we left Fair View at 11:30. We drove to Lake Shore Drive then Belle Isle. We parked on Belle Isle & he kissed me, then put his ring on me. I’m going steady, he said. One nite & I’ve got me a girl. He told me I was pretty & oh is he ever cute. I really like him a lot. He asked me to go out next Saturday. & if I had another date he’d bash his (other guy) head in. & he said we’ve got a contract anyway. I sat in his lap (almost) nearly all the way home. He bought me flowers, red & yellow roses, real pretty. I said I better get home & he said I can’t let you go but I’ll have to. We stopped in front & I kissed him goodnight. He thinks I’m 15 — little does he know. I got in at 1:35. Ma was waiting up, just laughed & we talked, she thinks he’s kind of cute. He’s got a green ’53 Chevy.
It was my first real true date & I’ll always remember it.
Love & I mean it, Mary.
(Sitting on the bed in Malibu. Mary Jean pauses for a moment, searches for an idea.)
Mary Jean I forget where I was. . . .
Groupie I’d like to get back to this phone call you made to Mrs. Fitzgerald.
Mary Jean Yeah, OK — I get off the track. You have to keep track of the line, ’cause I’m just talking and I ramble and everything.
Groupie Well, when was this — the first time you were on TV?
Mary Jean In 1966. I mean, that was the first time I was on network TV — when I called her. The first time I was on local TV was in 1962, in Detroit. I had done a show at Wayne State University. That’s when I got involved in the theater thing. I was in premedicine there and. . . .
Groupie Why premedicine?
Mary Jean I wanted to have some status in the culture; I wanted to have some kind of independence as a woman. Here’s what it was, what I’ve articulated to myself: I never wanted to be middle class. I wanted to be very poor — that’s the romantic one — or very rich. Money was an incredibly big thing to me, ’cause when I was growing up, we were constantly being intimidated and put upon by bill collectors and stuff.
I wanted the status, plus I’d been very good in sciences; I was good in any kind of biological science. Good in dissection. ‘Cause I’m literal; if I could see it literally, I was all right — here’s some liver and here’s the guts, you know? I was very good with slides and making cultures — I think mainly ’cause like in microbiology, I was sort of addicted to xylene, which is a solvent used to clean oil emersion slides. In the lab drawer, see, we used to have a little tiny bottle of xylene which was supposed to last you all semester just to clean your slides, right? And I’d steal the lab keys and I’d dump that xylene, I’d pour it on my clothes, I’d pour it on my books.
‘Cause I really — oh, this gets complicated, this gets convoluted, but — have you ever really experienced a desire to ingest anything that’s inedible? It’s a condition called pica. A form of it is that experienced by pregnant women, a desire to eat starch and clay and mud; it usually comes from some kind of nutritional deficiency. Well, I got very involved with that because I used to have this incredible — I wanted to drink this xylene so bad ’cause it smelled so great. I’m sure it was all sexual, whatever was involved in it. I used to like dream of bathing in a fountain of xylene. If you print this, I’m going to die; I forgot about all this.
Anyway, if anybody tells me about a compulsion they have, you know, about wanting to ingest something or just — I can understand that. It’s fabulous. The Rubber Freak ultimately came out of that. In fact, that’s how I got on Laugh-In, from the Rubber Freak, ’cause I did it on the Griffin show once, and my agent sent them a kinescope, and they made me an offer to go on Laugh-In.
Then later, I was on the Carson show one night, and I wanted to do a longer piece about people’s compulsions. I’d gone to the medical library in Washington; there’s almost no literature on pica, but it was so beautiful, ’cause there was this one case I read about, about this nun who had seen a monk bathing his feet. And she had been overwhelmed by this desire to seize his foot and put it in her mouth. She didn’t just want to, like, suck his foot; she wanted to eat his foot.
So I told this on the Carson show, see, and people sent me so many letters. It was so weird. People told me they liked to eat Christmas ornaments — that’s apparently very common. And some people eat photographs. And they like to lick the finish off of polaroids.
It’s great. A lot of people, of course, like to eat starch and dirt. One woman wrote me how she liked to eat a certain kind of clay you could only get in a certain part of the neighborhood. Fabulous!
(At Woodrow Wilson Memorial Hall, Lily folds her hands and speaks soberly, as if delivering a science lecture.)
Lily I bet there’s not one person here tonight who doesn’t have some secret quirk, some hidden addiction. How about smelling new books? Lots of people get very freaky over the insides of new automobiles. We’ve all heard about that man who ate a ’49 Hudson.
If you have a psychotic fixation and you go to the doctor and you want these two fingers amputated, he will not cut them off. But he will remove your genitals. I have more trouble getting a prescription for Valium than I do having my uterus lowered and made into a penis.
Some people like to chew the sticky off of Scotch tape. Some people like to take a two-ply tissue and lightly touch their moist tongue to the top layer. I had a friend who ate newspaper. She never ate the front page because too many people handled it. And I expect she’s still at it, because we very rarely give up these habits.
(Lily leans back on her stool, drawls in a slow, gravelly, down-and-out, almost inebriated monotone.)
Rubber Freak* My name . . . my name is Lucille W. I’m a rubber freak. ‘Sall right, I can talk about it now. ‘Course there was a time when I couldn’t.
When I look back on it, I think it all started with rubber bands. I wasn’t actually swallowin’ ’em in those days. Just sorta munched on ’em. Sometimes I’d take one and stretch it from one eye tooth to the other — sort of twang it. Told myself I was bein’ creative.
Then one day I sat down to write a lyric for one ‘specially good tune I’d twanged. I must have blacked out. When I came to, I realized I’d eaten an eraser off my pencil. Wasn’t no time at all I’as up to 20 pencils a day. My friends and my relatives, they started sayin’, “Lucille? Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”
I thought I could handle it, I really did. Thought I could quit anytime I wanted. ‘Stead, I became a secret eraser eater. Started to take all my household money and spend it on art gum. I just couldn’t seem to get enough. I’as puttin’ on weight, my marriage was fallin’ apart. One day . . . my husband . . . came home early. I was just finishin’ off a typewriter eraser. He caught me . . . with the brush stickin’ outa my mouth. That was the first lie. I told him I was chewin’ on my eyelashes.
From then on, it was jus’ straight downhill . . . all the way. Went right on the heavy stuff. Things started to disappear around the house. At first I was careful, you know. Doorstops. Backs off the shag rugs. (Tearful) Tip off mother’s cane!
Pretty soon, though, I just didn’t seem to care anymore. The garden hose went. On rainy days I started to hang around grade-school cloakrooms! Then one afternoon I simply went berserk in a Playtex girdle factory.
There was a court psychiatrist, God love him. He saved my life, he really did. Put his arm around me, gave me a little squeeze, looked ’em in the eye, and he said, “This woman is no criminal . . . she’s just twisted.” Fell down on my hands and knees thankin’ that man.
(She pauses, then confides in a self-deprecating growl) I ate his crepe soles.
Well, it hasn’t been easy . . . been a long, hard battle back. But I’m well now. Thanks to medical technology, major breakthroughs in psychiatric care, I’m no longer a woman obsessed with an unnatural craving. Just another normal . . . very socially acceptable . . . alcoholic.
Mary Jean Oh God, I’m telling you stuff, this is incredible; I just flashed on something else, because I used to — this is not important, this is all sexual — we lived in this big apartment house, it was like in a U shape sort of, built around a court? And it was an old, crummy backyard — all dirt, you know? But it was a communal place; all the kids played in that backyard. And there was clothes poles out there, and the women hung their clothes on the clothesline, the mommas and stuff, in those days.
And so I found out . . . the clothes poles were iron, only about this big around, if you’ve ever seen them — like pipes, skinny little iron pipes. And I could hold on. Let’s see now, how old would you have to be to get your hands around them and hold on to them? I must have been around five-ish. Well, I would ride those poles, you know, out in the backyard, when I was a little kid, and I’d reach an orgasm.
I thought it was a great game, you know? And I was telling everybody, I was out proselytizing; I thought it was a great, incredible thing I had discovered. People’d be hanging their laundry, see, and I’d say to the women, “Come and play this game, it’s so terrific!” And I would just do it, unabashedly.
So finally one day I told the wrong person. I told my cousin who lived there, and she must have told my mother. ‘Cause no one else had the courage to deal with me directly; they would just turn away from me. Oh, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna be so humiliated! Naw, what do I care?
Groupie It’s in your past. You don’t still do it, do you?
Mary Jean (Laughs) Ride the clothes poles? No. I should have one put in my backyard. I should go back to my old apartment house, and if any of those poles are still standing, like, buy them and have them shipped back here to California.
Groupie Probably you’d go back there and they’d already have a commemorative plaque on it.
Mary Jean (Shrieks with laughter for eight seconds) Can you say that? That would be great. Anyway, so then I remember my mother talking — I don’t know what she said to me. I couldn’t understand what was so wrong with that. Terrific, you know? And I don’t know how she told me, or if she just said don’t do that outside or whatever. ‘Cause then I stopped doing it outdoors but I started doing it indoors.
Mary Jean On doors. You know, on doors — it was easier, actually ’cause I could hold on to the door knobs — oh this is terrible. Please don’t print this. (Whining) Now I’m horrified, I don’t know what. . . .
Groupie But this is way back . . .
Mary Jean Yeah, but I don’t know what this will come to. Never mind, I think I’ve gone too far. I mean, if it becomes a dominant theme . . .
Groupie Oh, I don’t think it . . .
Mary Jean People are probably gonna now stop me and say things, you know, like, “Wanna ride my pole?” This is gonna be so horrible. I hope my mother does not see this. Let’s hope some of America doesn’t see this.
(Lily scrunches herself into a ball atop her stool at Pueblo, playing with her toes, licking her lips and talking like the impish five-and-a-half-year-old she popularized on ‘Laugh-In.’)
Edith Ann Sometimes when I’m in the bathtub, I like to sit on the drain when the water runs out.
Groupie This thing about compulsions . . . did you have any others? I think you mentioned something about shoplifting.
Mary Jean Yeah. Let’s see. I got caught shoplifting when I was ten. I mean, it was a real crisis in my life, you know?
Groupie You did this with other girls, or. . . ?
Mary Jean Well, just two of us, really — the heavies: me and Nancy Lou. We were both in the sixth grade; she was a year older than me and kind of husky. She kinda was tough, you know what I mean? She kind of bullied me a little bit, and I might have taken to stealing to impress her. But I don’t know whose idea it was.
Anyway, our daily ritual for about a year was: We’d walk home from Crosman Grade School, get to my house about 3:30. I’d put on my Levis — this was the outfit in those days — my western belt with the western buckle, my plaid shirt, loafers with the western buckle on ’em, take our toe shoes ’cause we’d be goin’ to ballet, see.
Groupie This was when you were studying with Mrs. Fitzgerald, the woman you made the phone call to.
Mary Jean Right. So then we’d walk up a block to Bill and Mary’s store, a little grocery store like in the basement of an apartment house? We’d steal it blind. Cupcakes, a lot of Hostess Snowballs, a lot of Fudgesicles, Creamsicles, stuff like that. Then we’d go to the dime store and take few little trinkets for the hell of it, just for the thrill of it. Put ’em in our pockets. Then we’d go to Owl’s drugstore, take a box of dinner mints or something. It was partly just, you know, the bravado of really being cheeky about it, you know what I mean? It was like talkin’ to somebody, and while you’re talkin’ — the riskier you could do it, the greater was the credit.
So one day I’m at Mary and Bill’s and I was stealing cherries, you know those big old bing cherries that cost a fortune? That’s when the ax fell. Mary, she came over and said, “You just get out of here. I don’t want you ever to come back in here again. I know you stole those cherries.”
This makes me sound like such a creep. My mother found out, and I had to act real nice. I think that’s when I got religious. (Laughs) I’m just now thinking, I bet that’s when I did sort of get religious. I got baptized. Temple Baptist Church, went forward, got saved. And in a way I don’t know that it was sincere: I’m not sure I wasn’t, like, trying to bring myself back into good favor. Just like Colson. I can’t say that it had a profound effect on me.
Groupie Well, did you continue shoplifting?
Mary Jean Later I did, yeah. In high school . . . shoplifting clothes and stuff. There was this little girl named Kathy King, a little 14-year-old angel who played the violin in the school orchestra; we’d take her violin case down to J. L. Hudson Company, a department store, fill it full of clothes and make her carry it out of the store. One year we took about 300 bathing suits. Then we’d go to the beach — a whole bunch of us, ’cause we were like a girls gang, you know? — and we’d change bathing suits every half hour or so. We never had the good sense to sell anything and make a profit.
Groupie Did you ever get caught again?
Mary Jean Yeah . . . it must have been about ’64. I was working in a club in Detroit at the time, in a revue. I was at Hudson’s department store again, and I stole a wool suit — well. I didn’t steal it, I knew I was gonna get caught: I just had that compulsion, you know? I mean, I had on a form-fitting coat, and I put the wool jacket on underneath the coat, so it made it very bulky, you know. And I put this great big bulky skirt in this little tiny handbag, and it’s hanging out and dripping over the side. So it was very obvious.
Anyway, I got off. I had to sign a paper admitting my guilt, and they told me not to come back to the store anymore. They said, “We never want to see you in here again.” I said, “OK. but it’s gonna be hard because this is the best department store in Detroit.”
Groupie So, did you ever go back?
Mary Jean Yeah, as a matter of fact, in 1970 or ’71. Now I was famous from Laugh-In and Ernestine, my Ernestine record was a big seller, you know? I was playing in Detroit, and Hudson’s arranged a big autograph party for me. All I could think about was, down in the basement, in the security office, was my name on file. But nobody said nothin’.
Groupie Did you steal anything at that time?
Mary Jean (Warms to the idea) On the way out I passed through the couture department, and I lifted a B. H. Wragge dress. (Laughs) My taste had gone up.
Naw, I don’t shoplift too much anymore, you know, ’cause I don’t want to hit the papers. Once in a while, if I’m at the pharmacy and I get a prescription, like I steal a little box of Tic-Tacs or whatever’s by the register, a TV Guide, or a Flair pen, or a box of Bayer.
Groupie Hmmm . . . well, actually I’d like to get back to Wayne State and . . .
Mary Jean Yeah, I got off there. I don’t know what I was talking about. Wayne State . . . what was it?
Groupie You were in premedicine and somehow got into theater.
Mary Jean Oh, right. I got into a variety show they were doing at Wayne State. I didn’t have any friends in this group, the group was all theater majors, so I was horrified and scared. I had dry mouth, my knees would be shaking. I was so furious to be in this position, to be intimidated and unable to assert myself; I was just in agony over it.
And there was another woman in that show, Sybil, an actress and singer who later became my friend. She was the dominant one in that production, and she was very theatrical. She was very tall, like five foot ten, and wore electric blue tights and had blond hair hanging over one eye. I’ve known her now for years and I could just do numbers on her. She’s a fabulous character, I do love her, but she’s out of touch, basically. When she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she’s the most vulnerable, you know, electric thing you’ve ever seen onstage. But when she gets herself together, as soon as she thinks she’s performing, it’s all gone because she becomes so artificial. She stands around with a lot of charm bracelets — jangle, jangle, jangle — and when she stops, she always stops like this.
(Mary Jean slinks up to a redwood pillar in the bedroom at Malibu, stretches one arm along the pillar toward the ceiling, and poses.)
She’s the kind . . . for instance, if she was at your house, she’d say, (forced sophistication) “I didn’t know you liked plants.” Or, “I didn’t know you read.” She believes so much bullshit that’s gone down, and yet in truth, in so many ways, she’s so right, you know?
(Pause) I got off the track. I don’t know where…
Groupie The variety show, at Wayne State.
Mary Jean Yeah, OK. So I’m in this variety show and I’m intimidated, and the material is real mediocre, really sappy and sophomoric and stupid. I had this one little part; We were doing a takeoff on the Academy Awards, and I was, like, a movie star. I’m at rehearsal, and I’m sort of mumbling, pitiful. And Sybil was leaning on the piano like this (stretches her leg out kind of slinky). And she turned and said, “What did you say?” And I mumbled something, and she said, (looks over her nose and enunciates with great dignity) “If you can’t be direct, why be?”
And it was like my mind just snapped open. When we went out and did the piece, I was brilliant. It was like the final humiliation, you know? And I went out and I was wonderfully funny and did this great little characterization. Suddenly I had enormous confidence, and I volunteered some material. I didn’t really have material, but being in this show made me realize that I used to do characters. I realized that in conversation, in relating a story, to convey a perception I would characterize it.
And one thing I did, one of my biggest things ’cause it was local, was the tasteful lady from Grosse Pointe, a very dominant, rich community in Detroit. I based her mainly on the Fords, Mrs. Ford, because her daughters, Charlotte and Anne, were roughly my age; and when Charlotte made her debut, her debut party cost $250,000.
Anyway my image of Mrs. Earbore, the tasteful lady, was that she was snakelike. (Speaks with a refined, snobbish falsetto, her eyes narrow and vaguely disapproving, her mouth tight and prim) She was totally in control, and she just sort of weaved around, talking in a monotone.
(As if by some miracle of astral projection, Mrs. Earbore suddenly appears in Malibu, weaving around and talking in a monotone.)
Mrs. Earbore* My husband, Dr. Audley Earbore, and I have once again been chosen to co-chair the cotillion ball held annually to mark the very important comings-out of the very few best families. You may recall my own daughter, Carlotta, made her debut, just last year at a very tasteful, quarter-of-a-million-dollar debut party. . . .
And now I would like to take this opportunity to invite your listening audience to join me Wednesday at 3 PM at the Grosse Pointe Civic Auditorium for a very important civic meeting. Of course, this invitation is only extended to those of you who are land-owning residents of our community. And I think we all know what that entails.
So until then I’ll just be bidding you a very tasteful ta ta.
Mary Jean And then she’d stand up, very ungainly (spreads her legs as she rises from the bed) like that, you know? It was so image shattering. I mean, this pretension of being ladylike and pulled together, see, and then she’d get up like that, which actually is a much more natural way to get up. And we’d just get hysterical over it. It was always a very strong pay — which is all you needed in those days, a good pay to go to.
Groupie You mean like a punchline or something?
Mary Jean Yeah, a punchline. So I did the tasteful lady in that variety show. Well, that was my big moment. That made me, that catapulted me to Detroit stardom. Ha ha! I went on the local TV talk shows and did Mrs. Earbore. I only did about three of them, but anyway that was the first time I was ever on TV.
Also, that’s when I went to New York the first time. The summer of ’62.
Groupie So by now you were pretty serious about theater as a career.
Mary Jean Yeah. I said if I could do it, and make a living doing it, it’d be great.
Groupie And you sort of thought you could.
Mary Jean I must have thought I was something special because people must have told me, someone in my group who I respected must have responded to me, you know, real positively.
So I went to New York to study mime, at the American Mime Theatre. I wasn’t going to be an actress, I was going to be pure: I was going to be a mime. Well, that didn’t last. I stayed only about eight or ten weeks, ’cause everybody there was so brilliant, so dedicated. I’m sure it was a good influence and everything, but there I’d done this one variety show and thought I was a star, and now I didn’t know anything.
Anyway, I’d always had this intuitive feeling that nothing was going to happen to me until 1966, so I went back to Detroit. Am I showing out too much? I mean, sometimes I lose perspective and I might be gettin’ off behind myself, you know. Anyway, the coffeehouses had started to open up, and I spent a year and a half in this coffeehouse called the Unstabled. It was a truly beneficial time. We did theater, we did Beckett and Pinter. And I would do improvisations and sketches. So I just began to develop a style and a body of material sort of.
Then one night this lawyer came by, a guy about 50, kinda shy, and he said to me, “Have you ever heard of Ruth Draper?” I said no, and he said, “Well, she’s dead now, but she was a monologist a few years back, and I think she has recordings. You make me think of her. Why don’t you see if you can find her records.”
Sure enough I did find some, and I was just thrilled when I heard her, mostly because she did women and she did them with humanity. She used to do concerts, and people who’d seen her would tell me how she worked with nothing, but when they’d leave, they’d think the stage had been filled, that sets had been there; she created the life so fully. I was doing monologs, you know, and I’m sure she inspired me. Probably what she turned me on to was, like, talking to imaginary people — peopling a sketch. She must have turned me on to creating a scene.
Groupie OK, so what happened after your stint at the Unstabled? Actually, I’m trying to get you back to that phone call to Mrs. Fitzgerald.
Mary Jean Oh, I see, all right. So now it’s getting close to ’65 or something — oh, I went back to New York in ’64, for the summer. And that’s when I picked the name Lily. I was auditioning for a revue or something at the Cafe Au Go Go. My brother Richard was in New York at the time, so I said, “Come and do some material with me, we’ll get in this revue.”
We’re waitin’ in line and heard they were looking for English people. So when we got up to the table to give our names, I said, (stiff British accent) “Lily and Richard Tomlin.”
Groupie Lily sounded more English?
Mary Jean Yeah, plus my mother’s name is Lillie, Lillie Mae, actually, and I was a fan of Bea Lillie’s and all that. Anyway, I didn’t make the revue, but there was a mime there who was doing an off-Broadway mime show, and he gave me a part in his show, and that’s how I got my Equity card and how I took the name Lily.
So anyway, I go back to Detroit . . . I don’t remember what for . . . my life is a blur. And out of the blue — it’s Halloween of ’65, and I know intuitively something’s going to happen to me in ’66, right? — my friend Louis St. Louis, who was the conductor for Grease last year and then put that Andrews Sisters show together, calls me from New York. He’s going to sing at the Cafe Au Go Go for five days, and he got me on the bill as a single. And I put together 30 minutes of my material, the first 30 minutes I ever did. I played those five days, and everybody said I was so unusual. I got so much encouragement.
Now I’m real confident, and I decided to stay in New York and try and hit the big time — ’cause it’s almost ’66. So I got a job at Howard Johnson’s. I’d always been a waitress anyway, that’s how I made money. I used to call up the waitress temps, see. . . .
Groupie You mean like waitress agencies?
Mary Jean Yeah, temporary, ’cause there’s so many coffee shops in Manhattan. I’d call up, and my girlfriend Trixie, who’d been a waitress, would vouch for me. Trixie’s another character. She’s the kind that leaves dirty fingerprints on the Velveeta. You’ll be making a cheese sandwich at the kitchen table . . . Trixie’s so wonderful.
She was a modern dancer about five feet tall, this modern dancer with little arms like about this long and little legs about this long. I’d love to do her sometime but I can’t; I’m so long and lanky, and she’s such a little tiny person, a little, squat, wonderful person, these little tiny fingers about this long.
I just remembered her leaving fingerprints on the cheese. I thought it was so wonderful. You know — little gray fingerprints on the cheese.
So . . . what was I sayin’? Shoot, I don’t remember.
Groupie Trixie would vouch for you. . . .
Mary Jean Right, and I’d get a job at a coffee shop and work a couple of weeks and have a breakdown.
Groupie A breakdown. . . .
Mary Jean Sure, ’cause a Manhattan coffee shop is enough to make a person crazy. ‘Cause it’s so jammed, especially from like 12:00 to 1:30. Like this time I was working at the Governor Clinton Coffee Shop in the Governor Clinton Hotel. I had the counter for breakfast and lunch. Breakfast I could handle, we didn’t have such a big breakfast trade, but we had a huge lunch trade. The counter fills up, and you’ve got to hustle them sandwiches and the cole slaws. The counter empties, you fill it up again. So you’ve got to have stuff. You’ve got to have forks, forks are extremely important, ’cause every sandwich gets cole slaw and everybody wants a fork.
And a counter is all rhythm. Oh, yeah, a counter’s rhythm because everything is so tight. I mean it’s fabulous, you can really turn over fast.
(Mary Jean stands up and starts pivoting in all directions, like a machine dancing, her voice exuberant and songlike.)
I’ve got my fountain over here with my ice creams and sodas. I’ve got my silverware under the counter. I’ve got my iced-tea glasses over here.I’m really fast. And when people come in you got boom boom boom,
Orders orders orders orders,
You got all your orders,
You’re puttin’ all your orders in,
You come back, you’re throwing down all your waters,
You’re doing everything at once,
And you’re swinging like this, see. You’re getting your silver, as far as you can reach, and you can really move with great precision.
So, what the old pros would do to me, ’cause they’d be layin’ back there smokin’ and stuff, countin’ their breakfast tips, they’d come up on the counter like ten to 12:00, when I’m just waiting for my crush. They come up, pretending they were, like, mixing a soda, (saunters sideways, deadpan, gazing into the distance) you know, like that. And I’d see them leaving, and they’d have fork tines sticking out their apron pockets. So suddenly you’re caught unawares. Your fork supply has dwindled to like nothing and you’re in a desperate position.
Anyway, this one day I just freaked. They had stolen so many of my forks and had just cleaned me out before the lunch crush. And I said, (screams hysterically) “Don’t think I don’t know you’re taking my forks!” I was frantic, see, I was disoriented, everything had been ruined.
Then this one guy comes in and sits down; he’s reading a paper, and he starts popping his fingers at me. I went over, took his paper and said, (screams again) “What do you want?”
I go back to the cook, and someone had ordered scrambled eggs for lunch, which is a big problem ’cause at the lunch rush they don’t want to make scrambled eggs ’cause of the grill. So the chef wouldn’t butter the toast.The chef has that melted butter, and he usually just gives it a swipe, right? So he says, “I haven’t got time to butter the toast.”
(Screams) “You don’t have time to butter it? I don’t have time to serve it!”
Ha ha ha ha! I went nuts. I ripped off my apron and said, “Give me my money, I just want my money, I’m leaving!” And I did, I caught the 7th Avenue bus and went home.
(Lily stands in front of the cameras taping her second TV special, the Emmy-winning ‘Lily,’ her hands clasped graciously in front of her as she welcomes the audience. Behind her is a huge neon-script sign that says, simply, “Lily.”)
Lily Well…uh . . . thank you all a lot. Um . . . I suppose standing up here, another flashy television star, her . . . her name in lights, may . . . may seem like a dream come true . . .
(She turns to look at the sign, and notices that now the “i” is suddenly flickering out. She shrugs.)
. . . but I know that there’s more to life than this. Even as a child I knew it. When I was growing up in Detroit, I didn’t always want to be a gifted actress. As early as I can remember, I wanted to be a waitress. Of course, everyone in the family thought it was cute at first. They . . . they’d let me wait on company. When I’d lose a tooth, at night my father would leave a quarter under a plate.
Then when I was ten, for Christmas they got me my first uniform. I wish you could have seen it, it was a copy of the Howard Johnson’s original. It was white cotton, and it had little orange-and-blue-trimmed collar and cuffs. I already had a hairnet and duty shoes. I’m sure a lot of you had Kool-Aid stands after school, that was normal. I had Kool-Aid, I also hadiced tea, root-beer float, tuna salad, grilled cheese. And I was open every night till 9:00.
‘Course, everyone in the neighborhood thought I was gonna outgrow it. But after college, I packed my uniform and set out for New York, determined to make it as a waitress in the big time. I knew it was gonna be rough, and it was. The only work I could get was in the theater. I’d act all night, and by day I’d make the rounds of the coffee shops. It was always the same: “Come back when you’ve got some experience.”I told my agent to get me work as a waitress, but all he could come up with was play after play, musical after musical, hit after hit. But I never gave up hope.
Sometimes after a hard night on Broadway, I’d change into my uniform, drop by Howard Johnson’s and just sit at the counter, waiting to be discovered. Sometimes I’d sit for hours, watching my idol, Mildred. She was the greatest waitress in New York. One night, it was closing time, it was two in the morning, Mildred was changing shoes for the bus ride home — or as she’d say, “Mildred to go.” She turned to me, I’ll never forget it, she said, (New York nasal wisdom) “Kid . . . never give up your dream. Because someday, somewhere, someone’s gonna look into those great big eyes a yours, and say, ‘Miss, what kinda pie ya got?'”
But it was never meant to be. No matter what I did, I had no success. It was my third year on Laugh-In, my name was a household word. I’d given up all hope of ever becoming a waitress; I knew I was gonna have to settle for eternal stardom. And then one day, I was in New York, I’d dropped by Howard Johnson’s just to say hello to Mildred. It was the lunch hour but she recognized me immediately.
Mildred * ‘Ey, kid. I seen ya on Laugh-In (sneers and gestures downward with her thumb). When ya gonna stop foolin’ around and do somethin’ with your life?
Lily And then it happened.
Mildred reached up to get an iced-tea glass off a top shelf . . . and wrenched her back. The boss was frantic.
(Lily pulls an invisible stogy from her mouth and speaks with a husky voice.)
Harry What am I gonna do? It’s my lunch hour, my star waitress is outa commission! Where am I gonna find a replacement?
Lily Despite her discomfort, Mildred spoke up.
Mildred Harry, what about Tomlin?
Harry Who, her?
Mildred Harry, give the kid a break.
Harry All right, I got no choice.
Lily As luck would have it, I was wearing my uniform at the time. He took me in the back.
Harry D’ya know your tables, d’ya know your menus? D’ya think ya can do it?
Lily (Breathless) I’ll try, Harry.
Harry Tomlin, you’re goin’ out there a star, but you’re comin’ back . . . a waitress!
Lily Well, I was so nervous, but somehow I got through it. I worked an entire shift, I must have done well; I don’t remember what happened, but at the end of nine hours I had a dollar ten in tips.
That was a year ago, I’ve been at it ever since. CBS offered me my own series, I said impossible, I’m working nights. And then last week they phoned and offered me this (points to the stage and neon sign). It was something I could really relate to: A special named after me. So welcome to The Lily Tomlin Special.
Mary Jean I’m getting off the track again, see? Talking, talking, talking — it’s meaningless.
Groupie That’s OK. You were in New York, trying to make the big time.
Mary Jean Well, so my big break came like this. Remember, I did those five days at the Cafe Au Go Go. And the last night I’m there, this guy comes in — Caesar Passa-nante was his name. I think he was a (whispers) gangster type. Anyway, Caesar, he was a manager at that time, see, and he just really built me up, he says, “It was a wonderful experience what you did tonight, you know, when you did your set.” He says, “I’m going to give you a piece of advice.”
I was really headstrong, and I said, “I don’t want any managers.” And he said, “What you should do for yourself is you must write yourself a very high-energy piece with a lot of jokes in it to use for auditions, because nobody, no club owner, is going to sit and wait for you to build a mood.” He said, “Just for audition. Once you get the job, you can do what you want.” I said, “OK.”
So that’s when I invented the Party Lady. I invented her first to do at a cocktail party, you know, and she was just outrageous. She went to the cocktail party and she just did all kinds of really awful things.
Groupie The party lady is the one who goes to the funeral?
Mary Jean To the funeral, yeah, but originally she went to a cocktail party. How I invented her was, at the time I had this friend who was a photographer, who was going to cover a gallery opening. And ’cause I had all these antique clothes — I’d bought a lady’s trunk one time and all her clothes were handmade — he asked me to come to the opening and wear one of these antique gowns, so he could shoot around me. And I went and I was completely done out. I had on a flowered Georgette chiffon, really a beautiful suit, a long suit, and I had a fur on from the period and everything — bag, shoes. I went on the subway.
OK, I got there and . . . it’s ’65, and this is like an uptown kind of… everybody was very chic, in little black dresses and suits cut with the nipped waist, and the guys were starting to wear their hair . . . you know what I’m saying — it was a very chic set at this opening.
And here I come in, looking like a poor man’s Barbra Streisand. And immediately they turn, you know, they’re sniggering at me. I’m just mortified, and my friend’s not there.
So I walk through, but I don’t say anything, and start drinking champagne. I just keep myself very pulled together. But finally I get loaded and I start to pretend I’m English and just real vivacious, see. ‘Cause I just got high enough that I started going around the room and showing out; I took on that personality which is just outrageous, and I would say anything.
Suddenly they thought I was real delightful. And, of course, they were asking about the Beatles and stuff, and I said I’d seen them in Liverpool, and just really off-the-wall stuff.
I went over the line a little bit, yeah. It was like I had to get high to have the freedom to be or something, to be something. I mean, I’d been totally intimidated; they truly were looking at me with condescension and smugness. But as soon as I burst out of it, all these people were, like, asking me to come to their house for dinner and stuff. I just saw how that worked.
(On the stage at Pueblo, Lily breaks into a series of shrieking, hysterical cackles, her head and body snapping back and forth in joyful spasms.)
The Party Lady * Haa . . . haa . . . ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. . . .
Haa . . . haa . . . ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
Guess who died?
Ha . . . ha . . . haa . . . haa . . . ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. . . .
You remember Fred? Betty Lou’s Fred? I just read in the paper this mornin’ that he kicked right over, and I’m on my way to the funeral. Shhh . . . now be very quiet ’cause I wanna surprise Betty Lou.
(Shrilly) Surprise! Well, my goodness, this place is like a wake. How are ya, good to see ya. Oh I know, now, put away the hanky. He left owin’ me a bundle; too. Haa! Haa haa ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. . . .
Where is the widow, where is she? (Condoling) Betty Lou. (Kisses her, then spits several times on the stage) Betty Lou, your cheeks are so salty (spits again). And what ever possessed you to wear that black ensemble with that heavy veil? You’re depressing ever’one. Wait a minute, Betty, wait a minute. Where’s Fred’s secretary, where is she? Oh, I see her. (Raises her eyebrows and voice knowingly) Oh-woooooo . . . Betty, I didn’t know she’s that far along. You know, Betty, I tell ya, it’s just a pity you couldn’ta had Fred’s children — ever’body else did.
Where is Fred? Where is that ol’ son of a . . . whoop! Is that Fred, Betty? Well, I’da never recognized him. He looks terrible. Where’s my wrist corsage? Charlotte, bring my make-up kit over here. I’ll fix ya up, Fred. Bring it right on over. Thank you. Let’s see, Fred, you need a little blush on.
(She goes through the motions of applying makeup to the deceased, then admires her handiwork.)
Oh well, now, that’s the ol’ perky Fred I remember. (Looks around, spies something and hoots with inspiration) Ooh! Quick, pass me that yellow wig. Well, just pull it off her head. (Places it on the deceased) Ooh! Haa . . . haa . . . haa . . . ha ha ha ha.
Oh well, Betty Lou . . . now, I’m not gonna tell you again, honey, if you don’t stop this cryin’, I’m gonna have to ask you to leave. Oh, wait a minute, she’s so down in the dumps, I know how to cheer her up. Betty, watch this.
(She props Fred up and appears to maneuver some sort of controls in his back.)
Betty, turn around, honey, I wancha to see this. How d’ya feel, Fred? (Mumbles without moving her lips) “Oh, I’m feelin’ pretty good.” Haa! Haa . . . haa . . . ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. . . .
Aw, Fred, I tell ya, it’s like old times. I’m surely gonna miss you, honey. (Hands him the glass) Here, you better keep it; where you’re going, you’re gonna need it.
Come on, now, I want everybody over here so I can get a snapshot of Fred and the whole gang. Wait a minute, now, Fred’s not lookin’ at the camera. Is ever’body ready? Got it. This is gonna be perfect on the coffee table.
Mary Jean So I’m taking Caesar Passanante’s advice, see. I finally have worked up this new routine which everybody thinks is hilarious; everywhere I go I try it on my friends, this party lady, and everybody’s laughing. It’s a gag a second. And I go to the Improv, the Improvisation, which is kind of a show-biz coffeehouse where people from the business — comics and singers — would go and work out stuff. I saw Richard Pryor work there many times. And I take a couple of my other little pieces and put together about 15 minutes of material, and I ask the owner to schedule me for 11:30.
I’m nervous just thinking about it . . . it was so painful, it was so hard to do that first time, even though you think you’re hot stuff. I put on this beautiful silk velvet halter dress cut on the bias, and I had a great big white fox jacket — it was real ratty in the daytime, but at night it looked real good. And I arrange to have this limousine drive me over there, wait 15 minutes and then pick me up.
Well, I just was a sensation, right? First of all, I was the only new face in town probably in eight years, and I went on, I did this 15 minutes, I swept off, and the people were screaming, just banging chairs and everything. There happened to be someone there from William Morris and someone from Ashley Famous, and on our way out they’re sayin’, “Where can we get in touch with her, where can we get in touch with her?”
I’m having all kinds of good luck. I sign with Ashley Famous, and in the fall of ’66, I go to the old Garry Moore Show. That was my first network TV.
Groupie And that, finally, is when you called Mrs. Fitzgerald.
Mary Jean Right. The show was a nationally famous package, but it was in a lot of trouble. The material was just so low, just cornball shit. So I went up to meet with the writers, and we didn’t hit it off. They were asking me all this dull stuff. They kept saying, “What impressions do you do?” And I said I don’t do any impressions. Finally, as I was leaving, I said — I don’t know why, I never planned to say it — I got to the door and said, “If there’s one thing on TV I could do, it’s my barefoot tap dance.”
So I’m just despondent, ’cause I hate those fuckers. I said I’ll never get a job anyplace. But my agent at Ashley Famous, Rodger Hess, calls me and says, “They want you to do the first show, ’cause they need a runner-up.” They were doing a take-off on a beauty contest, and they’d hired this girl for the season — I’ve never heard of her since, and anybody in their right mind would never have hired her anyway — and this girl was supposed to be the winner and was going to twirl a flaming baton. So they needed a runner-up, and they called me only because I said this thing about a barefoot tap dance. Rodger says, “Is it true? Can you really do a barefoot tap dance?” I says, “Yeah, sure.”
Groupie You’d just thought of it right on the spot.
Mary Jean Yeah, like a silly gag. So What I did, I had a pair of tap shoes, and I took the taps off and took some adhesive tape and looped it and taped the taps to my feet. And my superintendent lived next door to me, Mrs. Jacobs — I used to try out stuff on her, you know? And I went and showed her my barefoot tap dance, and it was great. In fact, I could tap better than with tap shoes; the taps were totally formed to my foot, I could tap great.
Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs — I could tell you so many stories — they were like 60, they had a bunch of kids, and the last child they had was a mongoloid, Scott. He was so sweet . . . and real strapping. He was actually about 18, but he looked about 12 or 14.
And his daddy was real little — Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs were real tiny little chubby people — and Scott would sit on his daddy’s lap . . . he’d laugh and pat his father’s face all the time. And Mrs. Jacobs sat in that window every day, that first-floor window with a pillow on the window sill . . . she knew everything that was going on . . . that was, like, her life . . . it just killed me, it was fantastic, ’cause she’s full of life.
(Mary Jean, sitting in the bed, appears for the moment to be lost in her thoughts.)
Then Mrs. Jacobs had this stroke and was paralyzed, and I couldn’t spent the time with her. And she kind of got hostile to me, you know what I mean? I can’t explain it, but she kind of expected me to come see her every day, and I just couldn’t.
Anyway, she moved away . . . we had this great relationship at one time, a lot of laughing, and then we had no relationship at all. It had totally deteriorated to resentment or something.
Groupie Yeah . . . Ok, so you get this job as a runner-up, and then what — you call Mrs. Fitzgerald?
Mary Jean No, see, what happens . . . I get the job, and they’re going to pay me $750, which was like staggering. And I’m exuding confidence, I’m doin real good, so they dump the main girl. Rodger calls me, he says — he used to do this to me — he says, “Are you sitting down?” He says, “They want you to be the girl on the show!” I said, “I’m not going down with that sinking ship.” Ha ha! He says, “They know what they’re doing, Garry Moore has been in this place many times, he’s saved shows before, heads are rolling right and left.” I said, “Well, Ok.” He says, (breathless) “This is the break of your lifetime!”
So I go the next day to sit at the rehearsal. The script’s exactly the same, only my name is written in instead of hers. Now they have to find a runner-up for me. And they’re sayin’, (shouts) “Call the agent! Tell him to send every whacky person down here they can, every kooky person!” I said, “Hold it!” I run out in the hall and call Jacqueline, Louis’s singing partner. I say, “Jacqueline, get down here as fast as you can, you can make some money. Bring a kazoo, a tambourine, anything foolish — they don’t know from nothing.” She brought the stuff, she put the kazoo in her mouth and beat the tambourine on her head — real corny, you know? Then finally she just broke her head through it.
I mean it was so ridiculous. They’d give me something to do, and I’d take it home and totally rewrite it. I’d say, “This is so terrible, what am I going to do?” I was just in agony. They wanted me to do this piece about a woman who wouldn’t cut down a tree for a highway. And the lines were things like, “Where would we be without trees? What would we name our streets? We’d be living on Chopped Liver Lane, and …” I don’t even remember how duddy it was. Anyway, the guy was finally supposed to say, “We understand they’ve offered you $25,000 for this property.” She says, “$25,000!” and she whips out an axe and cuts the tree down, right?
Well, I definitely couldn’t do it; I didn’t want to look like a fool. So they took the part away from me and gave it to Charlotte Rae, a New York actress, and they had poor Charlotte screaming her guts out for two days: “Where would we be without trees?” They’d say, “Lounder! Bigger!” That’s all they know how to say.
Anyway, they finally dump the piece, see, and the director takes me aside and says, halfway apologetic, “Lily, we’re not going to do the piece after all.”
I don’t take no apologies: (screams) “Of course you’re not going to do the piece, it’s a piece of shit!”
Well, I didn’t last; I got dumped after three shows.
I’m getting way behind.
Groupie I just want to ask . . . before the first show, you called Mrs…
Mary Jean That’s all those guys say: “Have fun.” There’s no comedy directors on TV — I hope they hear this. They say. “Do it faster,” or “Do it bigger,” or “Have more fun.”
Groupie Just before you went on Garry Moore for the first time, you called Mrs. Fitzgerald.
Mary Jean Yeah, that’s when I called Mrs. Fitzgerald; because, like, I’d been with her for ten years, and I figured I was her favorite, you know? I called her from New York, and I said, “Mrs. Fitzgerald. This is Mary Jean Tomlin.”
Mrs. Fitzgerald (Distant, uncomprehending) Yes…?
Mary Jean I used to live on Hazelwood.
Mrs. Fitzgerald Yes…?
Mary Jean I told her I was going to be on TV and everything, and you know, it took her like ten minutes to remember who I was. That was really a killer. She’s old now, probably in her 70s, and she’s very restrained, very softly spoken, but very authoritative. And finally she said:
Mrs. Fitzgerald Ah, yes . . . as I recall, when you were a little girl, you always liked to do funny women.
(Night has fallen on Malibu, and Mary Jean and the Groupie agree to take a break and go out for dinner. On the way they smoke a joint, and in the restaurant parking lot it suddenly occurs to the Groupie that he may be in love. He decides to try an old trick some hippies once taught him, whereby he will inhale from the roach, reverse it in his mouth and blow the smoke back through the roach into the mouth of Mary Jean. It’s his chance to touch the lips of a star. But the prospect unnerves him and he misjudges the length of the roach, which burns his mouth and raises blisters that last for several days.)
(Backstage at Woodrow Wilson Memorial Hall in Pueblo, Kay Whitlock greets Mary Jean at the end of her first act.)
Kay Lily, you were great. I think you’ve made a convert of Gordon Brown.
Mary Jean Oh, fuck Gordon Brown.
Think Of Yourself As A Little Store
A Diary February 16, 1954. Dear Diary, Tonite me & mother are sitting here looking at pictures of me & Dickie when we were little. It was kinda sad. Love, Mary Jean.
(In the bedroom at Malibu, Mary Jean again returns to her childhood.)
Mary Jean Here’s one of my earliest memories as a child. My father, whose name was Guy, worked in a factory, and he would name was Guy, worked in a factory, and he would get up about 5:30 in the morning. We all have these memories of sounds, and room tones, you know? Or just moments in a day or something? And that moment in the morning, early, early in the morning, when my mother and daddy would be up in the kitchen drinking coffee — there was such a sound to it, to just lives in my head. I can hear them both stirring coffee. It was a privileged time.
My father had a fairly skilled job. It’s called a job setter; it’s not a toolmaker, exactly, ’cause he wasn’t educated to read plans or do anything like that. But he was very proud of himself because he could do this without any education. It was a brass factory, brass parts, and the bosses would — he always talked about the bosses; it just kills me when I think about him — the bosses would describe a part they needed made, and he could put it together intuitively; he could set up a machine that would produce that part. Sometimes he would bring a part home and show it to me, and he’d be very proud, especially if it was a real complicated piece that had many sides on it and threads and funny little extrusions. And I knew that it meant something ’cause he’d made it with his. own hands and his own ingenuity.
I see pictures of my daddy when he was a little boy, or when he was a teenager, and he had this… this little kind of, you know, this life or something about him. And then when you see it taken out of somebody, because of the culture — like coming up to the city from the country, from Kentucky, and working in the factories and whatever he went through, going under from drinking and everything. . . . I mean he worked in these horrible conditions. I went to the factory once when I was a teenager, and I just couldn’t believe he’d been there all those years. The noise was so awful, no letup, just the constant sound of this huge machinery going.
My mother was much more positive in a way, much more able to sustain herself; she was never defeated, no mater what. I wish I could characterize her, I wish I could think of the best way to describe her, ’cause I’m just now flashing on, like, my mother, she was victimized in a different way, you know? She really wanted to be respectable and to be well thought of by, the neighbors. And my father, he’d be high a lot, so he surpassed that in a sense. He would say, (gruffly) “Don’t pay any attention to the neighbors. That’s bullshit.”
(Lily and little Edith Ann are traveling along a street in Detroit on their big-selling record album ‘And That’s the Truth.’)
Edith Ann* You know what happened on Wednesday? On Wednesday Momma said to Poppa, she said, “Guy . . . I want you to go to bed early tonight ’cause the girls from the hospital are coming.” And Poppa said, “Not another one of them damned Tupperware parties!”
And then when all the ladies was in the living room, Poppa came down and sat on the rug and drank a bottle of beer in his shorts. He said, “Babe, your old lady is embarrassed.” Everybody played like they didn’t see him.
You know what I can’t stand? When Momma and Poppa yell at each other. But I think I hate it worse when they don’t talk for days. And then when I think they will not talk again, they start to yell. And I know everything will be all right.
Lily Edith, listen, I don’t think you should be telling me these things.
Groupie You seem to observe and remember things so well — which I assume has something to do with your ability to re-create characters realistically. Do you remember as a child ever consciously studying people or listening to them?
Mary Jean As a child? Let me think . . . I know I loved to pore over family photographs. I wanted to know everything about the family, how people acted when they were kids, what my daddy was like, what everyone was like. ‘Cause once I made the connection that every adult around me had been a child once, that my mother had been a child, that Miss Sweeney, my teacher, had been a child, it was a great revelation; it was just very liberating. After that, I never had any problem with authority.
I always liked to be with adults, you know what I mean? I was one of those kids that could sit in a room with adults for hours and listen to them talk. ‘Cause eventually they break down and they tell more truthful stuff, you start hearing things that they would think you shouldn’t hear.
There also was an element in my life of showing off, or whatever it was, ’cause I learned very early that adults responded to a child that was, uh, sophisticated. For instance, Mrs. Spear who lived upstairs from us, would come by — my mother would have supper about five o’clock. Mrs. Spear would come by every night, and she’d say, “Oh, I hate to ring your bell, Mrs. Tomlin, thank you so much for letting me in, but I can’t find my key.” And then she’d say, “Oh, something smells so delicious.” Ha ha ha, it’s like a classic, honest. And my mother, you know, always wanted to please, and she’d say, “Well, won’t you join us for a bite of supper.” “Well . . . all right.”
I mean, really, it was very frequent, three or four times a week. This went on for a while, and my father didn’t like it at all. He wouldn’t speak to her the whole time she was there; every night after she’d leave, he’d cuss about it and say, “Old lady Spear, goddamn it, if she comes down here one more time, I’m gonna tell her off,” you know?
So this one day she rang the bell and I go to the door — I’m very young at the time, about five or six — and I said, “Mrs. Spear, my father said if you eat supper with us one more time, he’s gonna tell you off. My daddy doesn’t like it, and we don’t want you to eat supper here.” She didn’t eat supper with us no more.
Groupie Why did you do that?
Mary Jean Who knows? I don’t know whether I was showing off, or whether I sincerely thought I was doing what was, at last, the intelligent thing to do — I don’t know the truth. But I certainly remember my mother going, (scowls and shakes Groupie’s arm) “Oh, Mary Jean!” — shaking my arm like that, but still being amused by it. They can’t help but be amused. I mean, as adults we’re still amused by other adults who step outside; we secretly have a little affection for them. So I was aware of that.
(Edith Ann recognizes an old woman in the neighborhood.)
Edith Ann* Wait a minute. (Shouts) Hey, Mrs. Spear! (Whispers to Lily) That’s old lady Spear. (Shouts again) Mrs. Spear, Momma said if you do not pay for your Tupperware order, you will not get your supplies from the Tupperware lady! (To Lily) She never did pay for her order, and then Momma has to take her grocery money and pay it . . . we don’t like her.
Groupie Have you ever thought why you wanted to show off, why you wanted to step outside?
Mary Jean Well, I thought about it: What does it really mean? Did I need attention that badly? I don’t know. I think I thought I was powerful — all these people paid attention to me. It must have been pleasurable in some way.
I used to sing at the bar, you know? Paar’s Bar? I hung out there with my daddy, and he’d put me up on the bar. Oh, he liked that, yeah. (Hoarse whisper) “Go on, Babe. Sing ‘Shoefly Pie.'” Ha ha ha!
(There is the sound of jukebox music, and Edith Ann stops walking for a moment to look for her dog Buster.)
Edith Ann Wait a minute, lady, wait for me. I want to see if Buster’s in here. Buster?
Lily Wait, Edith, don’t go in there. That’s a bar.
Edith Ann Buster! (To Lily) It’s just Paar’s Bar. Buster! (To bartender) It’s just me, Ed — Edith, looking for Buster.
(The music fades as Edith Ann walks away from the bar.)
He isn’t in there. Poppa isn’t in there, either. Since Poppa was laid off, he said Jack Daniel’s is his only friend.
Lily Well, I don’t care. I don’t think you should be walking in and out of bars like that.
Edith Ann Every Saturday me and Poppa go to Hastings to get catfish, and then we always go to Paar’s Bar. And every Christmas me and Poppa get an ashtray for a present. Momma said, “Isn’t it pretty, and it only cost $2000.”
(Lily stands in front of the cameras taping her first TV special, ‘The Lily Tomlin Show.’)
Lily When I was first on television, my father was so tickled about it and got such a kick out of it. And I stopped in Indiana to visit him and my mother. And he decided to take us all out to dinner, and he planned a dinner party. And he took me. my mother, my brother . . . and he fixed the lady upstairs — Helen — he fixed her up with a man he worked with at the factory . . . named Ben. And he took us to a place where you could get barbecued chicken, barbecued ribs or a steak sandwich.
So when we got in, my father was a little on the, uh, halfloaded side. He — called the waitress over and he pointed to me and he said, uh, (gruff, confiding) “Who do you think that is?”
And the waitress said, (shrugging) “Well, I…guess that’s your daughter.” He said, “Yeah, you’re damn right that’s my daughter, she’s on television . . . get up and sing a song, Babe.”
I said, (pleading) “Daddy, please, I don’t want to, I’m too embarrassed.” He said, “Babe — come on, get up and sing a song for the people.” I said, (whispers) “Please, Poppa, I can’t. I’m too embarrassed.”
He said, “Bade…you gotta learn how to be . . . popular.”
(In Malibu, the Groupie inserts a fresh cassette into the tape recorder and moves back to New York.)
Groupie Wasn’t it depressing to get dumped from the Garry Moore Show“?
Mary Jean I don’t remember it being overwhelmingly depressing. I was humiliated, I think. I mean ’cause your identity, your acceptability, has to be linked in some way with being very, very good at something or very famous, you know? In fact — I don’t want to take another side trip, but — after the second special, I had to face the fact that my concept of myself had become more and more and more involved in my identity as a performer. I really realized how much I relied on being successful for my worth. It was a devastating realization, it threw me off center for three or four days . . . I didn’t want to talk to anybody, I didn’t want to talk to my agents. But it was good to come to grips with that.
Does this sound too — I don’t want Jo sound too neurotic, I don’t want to sound too pitiful.
Groupie I’m sure you’ll come out of this with dignity.
Mary Jean (Smiles modestly) Yeah, dignity . . . that’s what I’m concerned about. Anyway, after the Garry Moore Show, I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I didn’t understand New York, I didn’t understand TV… but what really pulled me out ‘of it, I go down to the mailbox one day — this is about February of ’67 — I open it, and there’s a big envelope in there from Ashley Famous. It’s a check for $900. Because before I had been on the Garry Moore Show, I had made one commercial — I made a lot of them later — this one Vicks VapoRub commercial. But I had forgotten about it. I filmed it before I even went to the Upstairs, maybe in April.
So now almost a year later it goes on the air, in the cold season. Ultimately I made a lot of money on that commercial, like ten or twelve thousand dollars, you know? But every week or two weeks I’d get like $200. So that’s a certain amount of success — just suddenly a commercial’s on the air, right? and people see you.
So my commercial agent at Ashley Famous starts calling me, and I start going on more commercials. Now I’m making a living, you know? Out of nowhere. And plus it’s corrupting. I mean, you get hundreds of dollars in the mail all the time while you’re layin’ in the bed.
Groupie Did that bother you?
Mary Jean No. I got me a little ledger and started entering it: Doyle Dane, $300 . . . Grey Advertising . . . what are some other ones? I literally did dozens and dozens. I did a Gulf Oil — shut my mouth! — I did some ol’ cough syrup.. I did some radios, I did a Mobil Oil . . . oh God, I can’t remember what all. I did a cigarette commercial once, a BelAir cigarette commercial on a sailboat, and the boat sank. They were supposed to be nutty, a little more offbeat — I wasn’t like the Ultra Brite girl or anything.
There was a series of Kellogg’s Special K that was very bitchy — I made a lot of money off this one. Like I’m at a garden party, and the fat person was like the camera. And I said, (very bitchy) “Oh, Elaine, you look marvelous in that dress. Isn’t it nice they’re finally putting some style into the large sizes?” And they freeze the frame, see, and the guy does this talkover, and they show the Special K. And then I’m walking at the poolside with my boyfriends, and presumably Elaine has slimmed down. And I say, “Oh hi, Elaine, you look marvelous in that suit,” and my boyfriend is, like, drooling at the mouth. And I say, “C’mon, Tom, let’s go . . . To-om!“
I was also the first person who ever did — I don’t know if you ever saw these or not — but All detergent did a series of people agitating in a big aquarium. This one was really complicated; it took four days to shoot it, and it was most uncomfortable. They worked out all the technical problems on me, you know? They had built a big aquarium, a big tank up on stilts, and it was to be filled with 300 gallons of water in three seconds. The water would rush down, these people would pull put the ball stoppers and it would go shshshsh and be up to your neck in a second. But you’re supposed to be talking all that time, and nobody knows you’re in a tank yet,’cause they shoot through the glass.
And I have on a shirt, and I had some dirt on my shirt, see — an artist paints dirt on your shirt with charcoal. I’m talking, talking, talking, then I reach up and this old prop guy hands me this dummy box of All. Everything’s all timed out. I get the soap, I pour it, and by this time the water’s up to my neck. And I say, “With bleach, borax and brighteners.” I put the soap back, and then I agitate, see? (Mary Jean does a little twist.)
Anyway, they stop taping, and the wardrobe lady climbs up the ladder and gives me a new shirt; I take off the dirty shirt and put on the clean shirt, and it’s like the stain dissolves away, right?
Groupie They cheat on it.
Mary Jean They cheat on it, yeah. So I said . . . first of all, I mean, I won’t even go into what I endured doing it. Because, like, the first two days the water would come in and it would just knock me over. I’d have to get out of the tank, my hair would have to be dried and redone, I’d have to do made up, my eyelashes fell off — everything. I had to do this at least 20 times. Finally they made me some big old booties out of cement, and I’d be so girded, you know, I was able to stand up.
Anyway, so I said to them, “Well, isn’t this a little deceptive? I mean, 300 gallons of water — very cold water, I might add — and one-third cup of All, as though this stain was coming out of this very porous material.” And they said, “It’s one of Lever Brothers’ little jokes.” Finally, whoever regulates commercials made ’em take ’em off the air, ’cause they were misleading — they had to insert a real agitator, cut to a real machine agitating.
(‘The Lily Tomlin Show’ pauses for a word from Lily Tomlin. As she enters her kitchen, wearing a red work dress and carrying a basket of dirty laundry, the words ‘Mrs. Judy Beasly, Calumet City, Illinois’ are superimposed on the screen. She sets down the basket and stands stiffly at attention. She gazes slightly to the side of the camera. as if reading a cue card, and speaks awkwardly, as if reading it very badly.)
Mrs. Judy Bleasly* Hi. For years I have had a family problem I could not solve. Dirt, grease and stains in my family wash. I tried, every brand, of detergent, on the market. But nothing seemed to do the job. Then about a month ago, a man, came to the door, and asked me to try, something new, called, GRRR. He said to me, “With GRRR, your problems will be over.” Naturally, I was skeptical. But I tried it anyway. And was I surprised. Everything came out perfect, even the tough things. I was so excited, I just had to come on TV, and tell you about it.
(She picks up box of GRRR.) With GRRR, your problems will be over. GRRR contains a new additive called Carnivore, that seeks out and gobbles up stains like a thousand tiny little piranha fish. To prove it, I have brought some samples from my own, family laundry.
(Stars fishing out clothes from laundry basket.) Ooh. See this diaper? It has been worn six days. Disgusting. And look, at these grass stains, on Billy’s chinos. These are really tough. And here, these lipstick stains, on my husband’s collar.
(She studies the collar more closely, and her face drops. She pauses, looking blankly at the washer. As she continues to speak, her voice becomes more natural, but more rattled.) Well, anyway . . . I am only going to take . . . uh . . . ha — half a cup of, uh . . . of, uh . . . of GRRR. You only need half a cup, be — be — because it’s uh, concentrated, see? You can actually feel it (voice becomes angry) coming on for weeks and weeks now he’s been so indifferent no matter how hard I try to please him. (She tries to regain her composure.) Be — because it’s concentrated, you save money because you use less and less and less time at home all those nights he said he was going bowling I had just been kidding myself along like some kind of fool, well (throws shirt furiously into the washer) the hell with you!
GRRR is not only strong, it’s safe, for even the most delicate washables, like this sheer pink negligee (starts ripping the nightgown apart) he gave me on our eighth anniversary . . . (raises voice) . . . you never cared about me, all you ever wanted was supper on the table and no responsibility! Well, you want to know something’? Billy isn’t yours.
Mary Jean Way back in the first season I was on Laugh-In, the phone company asked me to do commercials with Ernestine, ’cause she was such a sensation, you know, on television. First they came to me with an offer to do — now you understand I get this all from Irene Pinn, my manager, who gets it from my agent — first offer was to do California and two states or something for $80,000. Oh, I was insulted. I said, “Are you kidding?” I think I kind of teared up when they offered it to me. I had thought I was doing this great piece of satire of the phone company, and here they were planning to exploit it and use it for their benefit. And to think I would accept — I was so hurt, I’m such a cornball, honestly. My little soul was so pure at one time.
So they just kept escalating, you know. Finally they got all the different states organized, it would be a national campaign, and the last money I heard was half a million dollars. How unrealistic that I could turn down a half a million dollars, right?
Then Bernice Mason, that woman from one of those fan magazines, had an interview with me. I didn’t tell you about her? . . . oh, she’s so beautiful. I’m waiting for her at the restaurant, and she pulls up in this beautiful ’57 Chevy, I mean just immaculate. And she jumps out, a little, middle-aged lady in a cloth coat with a mink collar and a little, perky hat, you know, and a little, perm and a green handbag and shoes to match.
And I said, “Bernice, your car is beautiful!” She said: (Mary Jean assumes a confident swagger and speaks with crusty authority.)
Bernice You know, Lily, I’m proud of that car. Hippies jump out at the light and offer me twice what it’s worth. But I’m not sellin’.
Mary Jean And she patted that old car, you know? So we go in the restaurant and she says:
Bernice Young lady, before you start, I want you to listen to me. What is this I hear about you turning down all this money to do these phone commercials?
Lily, Lily, let me talk to you. I have been in this town for years. I’ve seen ’em come and I’ve seen ’em go. And Lily, the only thing that talks is (whispers) money. Money. You’ve got to catch it while you can. You don’t know if this Ernestine’s going to last for a long time.
Lily, listen to me. Now, you look like a strong girl. You’re tall, you’ve got stature. You’ve got a strong face. But every time you open your mouth, I see a little elf jump out.
Now, Lily, I want you to think of yourself as a little store. And in that store you’re selling the Ernestine doll. And all the children in the neighborhood just love it. And they play with Ernestine and they enjoy it.
And then a man from the big city comes in. And he says, “I like the looks of that Ernestine doll and I want to manufacture it and put it all over the world, sell it to the kids all over the world.” Are you going to sit there and tell me that you’re only going to let the neighborhood children play with that doll?
Mary Jean I said, “Bernice, you’ve persuaded me. I’m going to get up now and go call my agent and accept that offer.” (Mary Jean gets up now.) I stood up like this, and I said, “And when I get back, Bernice, the first thing I’m going to do is buy that Chevy.”
And she said, real sincere, it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life, she said:
Bernice Oh, no, Lily, I’m not selling.
Mary Jean Isn’t that great? . . . honestly: “Think of yourself as a little store….” Anyway, I got off the track, but Bernice was really cute.
Groupie How did you get on Laugh-In?
Mary Jean I came out to California to do another show, Music Scene, in August of ’69, the day after Sharon Tate was killed. I didn’t really want to come out, but there was just no TV in New York. I had appeared on a number of Griffin shows, but other than that… I couldn’t get a part on Broadway, couldn’t even hardly get an audition. I’d spent the last two years at places like the Upstairs and the Downstairs and the Living Room.
So I got an offer to go on Music Scene, a 45-minute show on ABC which was supposed to be like a contemporary Hit Parade — they had a tie-in with Billboard. David Steinberg was on it, and Larry Henkin, and a fellow named Chris Ross who used to be with The Committee and who’s no longer living. Of course, the show didn’t do anything because everybody forgot how awful it was in the old Hit Parade days when a song like “Sugar, Sugar” would stay Number One for 20 weeks and you’d have to find a way to do “Sugar, Sugar” each time, you know?
But in the meantime I had done the Rubber Freak on Griffin, and a kinescope was sent over to George Schlatter, the producer of Laugh-In. So Laugh-In made me an offer. But I didn’t know George and I was scared of him. And I didn’t want to go on Laugh-In because I was worried about all those people, all those people who were already stars. This was Laugh-In‘s third season. And I didn’t think I was that good on TV; I just couldn’t deal with it, I wanted to go back to New York and go back to my old life. Irene, my manager, had to really persuade me to go meet with George Schlatter.
So I did, and George was so terrific. I mean, where no one else had ever responded to me or my characters, he just totally responded: “We’ll put that on, we’ll put that on, that’s great, I know just how we’ll do it, here’s how we’ll do it.”
So that was about October, late October of ’69, and I knew something was supposed to happen to me in late ’69, like I knew something would happen in ’66, right? And immediately I was famous — overnight, you know? — almost solely because of Ernestine, the phone operator. I mean, I couldn’t figure it out; I thought, gee, this is amazing — hundreds of phone calls and people wanting interviews and stuff.
That first year, in February of ’70, I went on the road with Dan and Dick. We played in the round and stuff, and the first place we stayed was in Phoenix. And when Dan introduced me . . . (Mary Jean yells) “YYEEEEEAAAAY!!!” I mean big screaming, this roar would come up from the crowd. It was embarrassing, it was unbelievable — I mean, compared to what I’d ever received at the Downstairs or the Living Room.
Groupie Well, wait a minute. What made you think that things were going to happen in ’66 and ’69?
Mary Jean I don’t know, I just sensed it, that’s all. And that I’ll probably peak in ’75. Now, some of this has been corroborated. For instance, after I’d been on Laugh-In a few weeks, I went to this astrologist. And this woman, I don’t think she recognized me; I mean, I’m more recognizable now, but in the beginning, no one recognized me, basically. And I used my real name.
Anyway, this astrologist, she’s a real character. She’s somewhere between 50 and 80, I would guess, and her voice is real scratchy — a quality like Marjorie Main’s voice, you know? (Old and hoarse) “Well, Mary” — only I can’t do it. Like you go to her for great cosmic guidance and she says things like, “Aw, you Virgos are fraidy-cats.”
And, see, a lot of fans do my horoscope and send me wonderful, uplifting, stuff saying I have great potential for spiritual evolvement, or whatever you call it. So I tell her that.
This Astrologist (Hoarsely, down to earth) Well, Mary, I hope this won’t offend you, but you’re a very self-centered person . . . and you’re not going to do anything that isn’t in your interest.
Mary Jean So I say, “Oh . . . OK,” you know, and I’m completely deflated. And, um . . .
Groupie And did she mention these dates?
Mary Jean Um, right… I figured I was talking about this for some reason . . . so the first time I go to her, she says:
This Astrologist Well, Mary, you should have gotten some recognition here in 1966, but things didn’t work out right. Then late here in ’69, things must have changed for you. Did they?
Groupie And she said that you would peak in ’75?
Mary Jean Yeah. Well, she didn’t say ’75, but she told me the peak of my chart is from June of ’74 to March of ’76. (Mary Jean laughs.) This all seems so pitiful.
Groupie So what does it mean? What will you be doing in the next year or so? What are you doing now?
Mary Jean Let’s see . . . I’ve done a third special, which will air on ABC in early November. And ABC seems real excited about it, so that might lead to something. And Richard Pryor and I are working on this special for Flip Wilson. And I just got through with a part in Altman’s film, Nashville. And then Maiden will probably get done unless something terrible happens.
Mary Jean Well, Maiden is the name of the book, by Cynthia Buchanan, it may not be the name of the movie. We bought the movie rights to it in 1971. At that time I was looking for movie parts, and no one would give me any; the movie department at CMA didn’t know I existed. So one of my agents sent me the Maiden manuscript to keep me quiet. It had already been turned down by Barbra Streisand, Natalie Wood, you name ’em — I’m making this up, but it had to have been; because every script goes immediately to Barbra Streisand first, then the next one, and I was probably like 34th on the list. And if you look at any female client list from the agencies, there’s only about 36 women on it.
Anyway, I loved it, I loved the character. And the film will be Joan Tewkesbury’s first as a director — she was one of the writers of Thieves Like Us. Jane Wagner wrote the screenplay, and it’s her first screenplay. And it was going to be my first movie until I got a part in Nashville.
Groupie What kind of story is it?
Mary Jean It’s about a woman who comes to California and lives in a singles complex. She’s trying to pursue happiness; she’s looking for someone to endorse her, a man to endorse her, to give her identity. And she’s totally believing — just a wonderful, comic character, and very human. She still believes that you can make it on your own terms, you know, if you have personality and stuff like that. It’s just those little people who shake their fists at the heavens.
Groupie So . . . do you have any plans beyond Maiden?
Mary Jean (Smiles and starts to get silly) Here’s what I plan to do: Have a real successful series, see, and you know how Dick Van Dyke did his in Arizona? And Jackie Gleason went to Florida? I thought I would go to, like, Paris and do my series in Paris or London or Nepal or someplace.
Groupie Well, actually, weren’t your first two specials supposed to be pilots for a series?
Mary Jean Oh, sure. They were both pilots. But even before the first show went on the air, in March of ’73 . . .
Groupie You were off Laugh-In by now?
Mary Jean Yeah, Laugh-In was in reruns and I went off the air technically in January of ’73; I had sued to get off ’cause the show was getting lower and lower . . . in the ratings — and in taste, in my opinion . . . but even before the first special went on the air, I was in terrible straits with CBS. They didn’t like that one — they didn’t like either of them — although the first one was much more conventional.
Groupie Do you think if you’d been more compromising that you would have gotten the series?
Mary Jean I don’t know. You can’t second-guess any of that.
Groupie Well, isn’t it unusual for them to ask for a second pilot, especially when the first one got such high ratings?
Mary Jean Yes, it is unusual. I don’t know the real story. I’ll never know.
Groupie What sort of things did they object to on the first one?
Mary Jean They didn’t like Bobbi Jeanine, the cocktail organist — “People don’t know what this is . . . people don’t understand . . . what is this, is this funny?” And the elevator scene Richard Pryor and I did, between the wino and the tasteful lady — they wanted that out of the show immediately. Mainly because he was black and I was white and there were sexual references: (She imitates Pryor’s wino.) “You ever kiss a black man?” Ha ha! I mean, they hated that piece.
Groupie But it stayed in.
Mary Jean Not all of it. They took out some lines, like, uh, “You better get off of here before you get pregnant.” And he steals a little kiss from her, and they took that out. The CBS people were terrified. They even came to me while we were taping the end of the show and told me not to kiss Richard good night. It’s astounding, you can’t believe it!
Groupie Wow . . . who came to you?
Mary Jean Some CBS executives — I won’t name them, they were just getting orders from somebody else.
And, of course, they killed “war games.”
Groupie “War games” — that’s the last part of your Judy Beasly soap commercial when you do it onstage.
Mary Jean Right. They just thought it was too twisted: “It’s offensive, people are going to turn it off, you just can’t talk about a kid losing his leg.”
(Onstage at Pueblo, Mrs. Judy Beasly, dressed as Lily Tomlin and displaying an invisible nightgown, finishes an unexpurgated word from her sponsor.)
Mrs. Judy Beasly * . . . most delicate washables, like this sheer pink negligee (starts ripping the nightgown apart) he gave me on our eighth anniversary . . . (raises voice) . . . you never cared about me, all you ever wanted was supper on the table and no responsibility! Well, you want to know somethin’? Billy isn’t yours.
(Steps forward to what is apparently the front porch and starts shouting) Billy? Billy Beasly. I’m not gonna call you again, son. I want you to come to supper, now, wash your hands and face.
(Makes a noise like an explosion, points to the ground and asks with controlled anger) Who put this here? (Raises voice) I said, now, who put this land mine near the porch? Now this game’s got to stop, supper’s on the table, Billy?
Billy Beasly — (Something buzzes her face.) — chigachiga-chigachiga-chigachiga — I saw that — Tommy Wilson, don’t you run. Young man, don’t — don’t hang your head. Put down that gun. Is, is that blood on your clothes? Who are these children, anyway? You, you go on home, now, your mother’s gonna be worried.
Billy? Bi — oh, Evelyn! Have you seen my Billy? Evelyn, I don’t think any of these are yours. If, if you see my Billy, tell him supper’s on the table.
(Catches her breath, then shouts) BILLY BEASLY! (Looks down and says in a stunned voice) Oh my God. (Starts to cry) Oh my God! . . . who ran over my roses? (Angry) Look at these tank tracks! You’re gonna get your bottom tanned, young man.
(Face is buzzed again) Chigchiga – chigachiga – chigachiga — I saw that, Herbie Duncan, I got your plane number!
(To Billy) Get in this house. I have been screaming for — put down that gun. Have you seen my yard, young man? — wh-wh-where, where is your leg? Well, you just go find it. I guess you think legs grow on trees. Believe me, young man, this time, you have messed up, your whole body.
Well, come on . . . leg or no leg, supper’s on the table.
Mary Jean And then on the second special, which aired in November of ’73, CBS wanted to cut Juke and Opal, the scene in the should food cafe. It may have been that during the taping, Juke and Opal got a little more serious than they had seen it in rehearsal. In fact, during the taping, they came down to the studio and told us to stop taping it. Apparently there was a big blow up; I didn’t know about it because it was happening in the hallway. I was standing on the Juke and Opal set, waiting for another take, and pretty soon everybody was gone. I go out into the hall, and everyone is standing around in a huddle; they had just got the word to “stop taping this. We don’t want this on the air.”
We certainly finished taping it, and it went on the air finally, but they got real panicked. They made me re-order the show. Originally, Juke and Opal was in the middle of the show, which made it much lighter and much more telling and disarming. They put Juke and Opal last because they wanted to get a rating; if Juke and Opal was in the middle, and people turned it off, we dropped down in the rating, see? But it threw the whole shape of the show off. It made Juke and Opal seem like some sort of Big Message, which is not what I intended.
Groupie What were you intending, with pieces like Juke and Opal or Wanda V. Wilford, the country & western singer?
Mary Jean Well, I thought I was trying a new for