And did things change as a result?
By that time, no. The times had changed. And I had been around for all of them! [Laughs] It’s very strange when people ask questions about what it was like back then, because what they don’t get is that, as a society, gay people weren’t out. There was no need unless you were an activist, I mean professionally. There were people who didn’t fake anything privately, you know, like a double life or anything, but your sexuality was not a part of your public profile. And it is all so different from today.

Did you feel pressure as the times changed?
I just assumed everybody knew and it would look a little foolish to make a big deal about it. I mean, how embarrassing, to make a big announcement and have people look at you with that expression that says, “Oh, the poor thing thinks we never knew.” [Laughs]

You’re iconic and never realized it.
I am? Ha! I mean, yes, I am. [Laughs] You’re iconic! No, really, some of my characters are iconic. But me? Edith Ann and Ernestine, there are actually dolls. Now, that’s iconic.

Neither of them ever came out.
I never chose to explore that side of them. [Laughs] That could be Ernestine’s big revival.

Has she gone away?
Never too far. But, you know, the phone company went away and so did much of her power. But she still shows up to comment. You know, she was nominated for an Emmy some years ago.

Did she win?

No, I believe Pavarotti beat her. It was for performing a number from Flashdance on a TV special.

I remember your fairy princess outfit at the Oscars.

Please! It was the Queen of England at a state dinner! Tiara, gloves, a muff. I did that ’cause I went with the Altman crowd [Tomlin was nominated for her first screen appearance, in Robert Altman’s Nashville]. We were having a lot of fun. I didn’t think I would win. Lee Grant won. Had I won, I don’t know what I would have done. I suppose I had a speech. Who knows if I would have been able to do it?

This may be why you’ve never been considered mainstream.

I suppose. Most comic personalities aren’t terribly mainstream, which may be another reason people aren’t all that interested in their private lives. They just want to laugh. They don’t want to fantasize. Isn’t it enough just to laugh? I mean, if the laugh is truthful, it will lead to something else 

Tags: Comedy