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Reed Writes About Tomlin, Wagner

Published: November 30, 2012

Jennifer Reed of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies has been thinking about the place of Lily Tomlin and her partner, Jane Wagner, in the larger culture for more than 20 years. It is all coming together with the near-completion of her new book Productive Partnerships: The Queer Cultural Work of Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner. Tomlin, the performer in the prize-winning comedy team, recently appeared at CSULB’s Carpenter Center in her “Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin.”

“There has been little scholarly work done on their careers,” said Reed, who joined the university in 2006. “There certainly hasn’t been the level of research done on Richard Pryor, yet Tomlin is every bit the pioneer that the late Phyllis Diller was.”

Tomlin is a Tony award-winner for best actress in a play in 1986’s for “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” which returned to Broadway in 2001. She won a Grammy for best comedy album, several Emmys and an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress for the 1975 film “Nashville.” Wagner is the author of “The Search” and has won the Peabody Award, three Emmys, a Writer’s Guild of America Award, a Special Award from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle and a New York Drama Desk Award. They have created their work and lives together for more than 40 years.

Tomlin is not only a cultural touchstone to Reed but a personal example as well. “One of Tomlin’s great gifts to me was as a role model,” she recalled. “Lily Tomlin was her own woman doing her own thing. She was smart and funny and kind. She said all this truth through humor. She was an example of the kind of woman I wanted to be. She gave that to a lot of women of my generation.”

Reed understands Tomlin’s refusal to be a social icon for her relationship with Wagner. “Part of this book is meant to be a cultural documentation about the enormously productive relationship that existed ‘under the radar’ because such things were not discussed 40 years ago. It wasn’t a secret. No one was hiding anything. But she didn’t have a press conference about it, either,” she said. “That was a very productive way to go back then because it allowed her mainstream access. She has often claimed she has no desire to be a poster child for anything.”

Reed believes one part of the comic team’s survival is their mutual respect. “They both have huge creative contributions to make yet they both support the other,” she said. “What I learned from interviewing them about their partnership is that they don’t seem to have a formulated process for their success. They note that their personalities complement each other. Wagner has the reputation of being so reserved that it is said there are fans of ‘Search’ that have seen the play more often than the author has. It is Tomlin who is the extrovert. If they have a process, it is seamless. I think it’s totally amazing.”

In their biggest hit, “The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe,” Trudy the bag lady tries to explain modern American material society to an interstellar committee concluding with a hymn to the creative spirit. “Their theme of connection gave me a goose bump experience the first time I saw it,” she recalled. “What their work does is to deliver a sense of connection through difference, not in spite of it. It is through our differences that we connect.”

Lily Tomlin and Jennifer Reed
Lily Tomlin (l) with Jennifer Reed.

Trudy’s madness punctuated by such observations as, “What is reality anyway? Nothing but a collective hunch,” is defined by her society. “Rather than set up a play in opposition, it encourages us to look within, to examine ourselves,” Reed said. “I see that as potentially transformational. Tomlin and Wagner ask us to question the social assumptions we are fed since birth. If we question the assumptions that define who we are, that’s transformation. That is how humor works. We learn so much by laughing. Our hearts and minds are open.”

Tomlin and Wagner impress Reed as much by what they don’t say as by what they do. “You never get the feeling they are hitting you over the head with a particular point of view,” she said. “But they do invite us to look at the contradictions within ourselves. They want us to look at the places where the seams meet. It isn’t just gay people who have seams. If we begin with the argument that sexuality is a mysterious and strong force in human life, then the sexuality in all our lives need to be explained. That is what speaks to so many audiences about their work.”

Reed feels their humor mines the contradictions within all of us. “Much of today’s humor is about laughing at something,” she observes. “In fact, there are those who argue there is no such thing as feminist humor because all the jokes seem to be at men’s expense. Men making jokes about women after women make jokes about men isn’t very productive. What Tomlin and Wagner have done so consistently is to avoid completely the trap of laughing at someone else. They operate in the in-between spaces of human identity. Tomlin’s characters are humane. There is always a lot of compassion and respect. At the same time, there is laughter at the absurdity of the flaws we all share.”

Reed thinks one reason for Tomlin’s and Wagner’s recognition with Emmys and Peabodys is their consistency. “On every level, their work is top notch,” she said. “Lily Tomlin is a performer without peer. Jane Wagner’s writing is brilliant. Tomlin has made the point several times that her audience is composed of many different kinds of people. She has pointed out that there are members of her audience who ‘usually wouldn’t be caught dead together in the same room.’ High praise indeed.”