Thank you, Lily Tomlin (and Jane Wagner)

I’m working at a day camp for the summer, like plenty of college students do. As far as summer jobs go, you can definitely do worse than camp counselor. So I really don’t have much to complain about. 

I’ve worked at a day camp in the past that resulted in me being surrounded by children with picket signs saying “down with the clown,” almost having my arm dislocated as part of closing ceremony, and the unfortunate nickname “Noodlearms.” Needless to say, the camp I’m working at now is… infinitely better. We’re half way through the summer session and the experience has been interesting in a far less ominous way. The first time around I’d run arts and crafts, but this time I’m teaching “environment education”- so, nature. 

Am I, as a theatre major, really qualified or educated to do this? Not at all, and I made sure they knew that in my interview. But I learn quick and can create a mean lesson plan, so I got the job. And it’s been great- I love teaching, and as I make my plans for each lesson I get to learn a little bit myself. Did you know that lemurs are considered pollinators?

The more interesting things that I get to learn, though, are from my students. These are young girls, so I’m not teaching them anything crazily science based. During one particular lesson, I was talking about reading the rings of a tree, and one camper had a whole well of information to add. She can’t have been older than third grade, but it seemed like for each fact I told them she’d have a hand raised and three more facts to contribute to the conversation. 

Pretty dang impressed, I jokingly said to her, “You know more about this than I do! You should be teaching this lesson!” Which, if I’m being honest probably isn’t that far from the truth. Her reply just cracked me up- deadpan, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, she said, “Well, I watch a lot of The Magic Schoolbus, so yeah.”

I laughed a little, and my conversation starter for the rest of the day with coworkers and family members was “shoutout to Lily Tomlin for making my job easier.” Because really, what self respecting kid wouldn’t take Miss Frizzle over a normal science lesson any day?

It was just a little quirky I-love-my-job type thing, but in the weeks since then I’ve noticed Lily Tomlin popping up in almost every conversation I have. A car ride chat that started off about musical theatre quickly made its way to 9 to 5, and from there Lily took center stage for a solid twenty minutes. Post-meal  conversations at family dinner about what’s good on Netflix inevitably lead to Grace and Frankie, and every woman in the room lights up and joins in. 

I saw 9 to 5 for the first time when I was about 12 years old and absolutely loved it, so if you had asked me at any point in the last few years if I was a Lily Tomlin fan my answer would’ve been a casual yes. Since Grace and Frankie first streamed, that answer has changed to an emphatic of course. It’s a fun show to bond over with my mother, and all my friends that make fun of me for acting like an old lady at 19 have a hell of a time comparing me to Frankie. 

In the span of just 13 half-hour long episodes (with the obligatory 36 seconds of singing along to the intro, every single time), Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda just suddenly became a part of my daily life. The show is stomach-cramping funny and unapologetically real in the way it addresses topics. I’ve heard plenty of people call it this decade’s The Golden Girls. 

Who’d have thought the “old ladies with gay husbands and a vibrator business” show could become such a household brand (or, at the very least, make my friends less startled when I launch into lengthy speeches extolling the benefits of masturbation)? 

My senior year of high school and freshman year of college were a huge turning point in being able to figure how much of my personality was actually me (as opposed to my parents and family) and Lily Tomlin just fell into the position of role model. I didn’t (and still barely) know who I was, but a smart, funny, lesbian seemed like it was in the general ballpark of who I wanted to be. When I had the opportunity to create a presentation for a playwright and one of their works, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: Jane Wagner, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. The one woman show starring Lily Tomlin, written by her partner and produced by the aptly named “Tomlin and Wagner Theatricalz.” 

Going into the project, all I really knew was that they were partners and they made this show. As I continued my research on the two of them- because it’s impossible to talk about one in a creative context without at least mentioning the other- I had one of those “I found my people” moments.

I know this has been pretty long winded, but a post I made in the past on another blog really sums up my feelings best: 

As soon as I began my research on Jane Wagner, I realized that you can’t talk about her career without also talking about Lily Tomlin. They are just so deeply interconnected in their work that it speaks to a love beyond description. 

The two of them make me feel proud to be a lesbian. They make me feel like I can create things and make contributions to the world of theatre and beyond. They make me feel like whatever reception my future work gets from the general public, it will find somebody who needs it desperately and for that reason alone it will be a success. 

Reading such a layered, witty, absurd play was a definitively life changing experience. It was an existential comfort. 

Looking at the script in my hands and knowing what I know now about it, that it was a creation of love and concern and care, knowing about the two unstoppable women behind it–it told me that I will be okay. 

They obviously weren’t high school sweethearts. It took them awhile to find each other, but God, once they did… they give me so much hope that my person is out there.

(Original post, in full, here)

So, thank you Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner. I’m saving up to buy a copy of The Queer Cultural Works of Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner because I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface, but they’ve given me a hell of a start. 


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