Together, Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner make up more than half-century of romantic partnership and comedy gold. Their work together — Tomlin, the legendary actress and sketch comedian, and Wagner, the writer who has penned most of Tomlin’s famous characters, comedy albums and television specials — has shaped a specific, irreplicable canon in American social commentary. It’s heralded the kind of comedy that walks the fine line of racial performance in “Juke and Opal” to lay bare the alienations of addiction, race and class, or finds in a 5-year-old Edith Ann’s curiosity the ironies of American life.
“She expresses how I feel, which I have no ability to do,” Tomlin said of Wagner, her wife and longtime partner, on Tuesday. “She can express in words what I feel about the world, about humans, about the struggle that we’re in — and, presumably, not the inevitability of it all, something that I know speaks to other people.”
Wagner and Tomlin appeared together, alongside interviewer and friend Hilton Als, to celebrate this year’s Lambda Literary Awards, which honor achievement in LGBTQ literature. This year, Wagner, who previously earned three Emmy Awards for penning Tomlin’s comedy specials, three Grammys nominations and a Tony nod for the Tomlin-helmed “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” was awarded the 2020 Lambda Literary Visionary prize.
Wagner, conceivably quick to embrace the old showbiz maxim that “It’s the star not the writer,” has kept a modest distance from the limelight, having no interest in the personality that usually accompanies American comedy. Despite writing two highly successful Broadway shows — the one-woman vehicles “Appearing Nitely” and “The Search,” which earned Tomlin a Tony Award — movies like “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” and the Peabody Award-winning PBS after-school special “J.T.,” Wagner has ceded the spotlight to Tomlin, whom she owes her courage as a writer, Wagner said.
“When I got confidence, it was because of Lily, who believed in my work,” Wagner said during the celebration. “We loved similar things, and it was just kind of remarkable that we were on the same page, aesthetically. Her appreciation of my work meant all the difference to me. I saw her motivation. I saw her drive, and her strength taught me something.”
Often written about, Wagner and Tomlin’s creative and romantic partnership began in the early-1970s, when Tomlin saw “J.T.” and reached out to Wagner in hopes that she could write a similar social consciousness into Tomlin’s character of Edith Ann. But, together in their Los Angeles home, Tomlin said she fell in love with Wagner before their collaboration on the comedy album “And That’s the Truth” — seemingly at first sight.
“A friend brought her to my hotel room,” Tomlin narrated, “and I tell you, in two minutes, I fell in love with her. She had on hot pants, stretchy boots that went up to her knee, and a little backpack. I don’t know what it was, but I was in love.” Tomlin said she was so stricken that, after leaving the next day to perform a show in Chicago, she flew immediately back to New York to find Wagner. “I called Jane immediately, and I said, ‘Look, I don’t have much time, but I have to see you.’ She agreed to see me, and we had our first date,” said Tomlin.
“It was an ecstatic time when we found each other,” added Wagner, “aesthetically — and in every other way.”
Imaginably, what Tomlin saw in Wagner was the other half of a comedic sensibility that wrapped radical commentary in a loving embrace of the satirized. Like in Wagner’s Broadway masterpiece “The Search” — a rebellious assault on a generation of social history delivered by a slew of seductive oddballs — Wagner could pair her own ability to compose biting, but ultimately humanistic commentary with Tomlin’s comedic acumen for portraying the varied, hilarious and sometimes tragic predilections of American character. “I wish every writer could have that,” Wagner said Tuesday, enumerating the impact of Tomlin’s embrace of her work, ability to interpret her written word, and partnership off the page. “It’s what we all yearn for,” she continued. “Acceptance and appreciation.”