SHE murdered the boss in 9 to 5 (below), she organised the President on The West Wing, she was one of the Desperate Housewives. She was on Will & Grace, Murphy Brown, Damages, The X Files and even The Simpsons. And Lily Tomlin is again breaking ground in screen comedy, this time on the web series Web Therapy which was such a huge hit the Showtime network picked it up and repackaged it for broadcast and now it's on DVD. The whole show is done on Skype, with therapist Lisa Kudrow dispensing wisdom in three-minute in-depth mini-sessions with her clients over the net. For maxi-fee, of course. And, clearly, self-obsessed Fiona (Kudrow) has inherited much from mum Putsey, played by irrepressible Tomlin, who was on the line from her home in Los Angeles.
Putsey and Fiona aren't so much passive-aggressive as just plain aggressive. "Yes! Putsey is very competitive with her daughter Fiona, very squelching. And Fiona is neurotic and narcissistic. She does these three-minute therapy sessions on the internet. On the DVD box they call her a therapist who has no patience. She has absolutely no regard for her clients - she's too interested in herself. And Putsey is a step worse than that. As bad as Fiona is, Putsey's a bit more mad, and self-centred, and vindictive, totally unaware of anyone else."
Did you worry about the limitations of the tiny performance space - just a Skype screen? "I really don't think so. Maybe the monitors had some limitation, the characters had none. The possibilities were so off the wall I didn't think beyond that. I thought like Putsey - just of myself and having fun [laughs]. And it really was fun. Wait till you see the next seasons!"
Comic performers can be marvellous with other people's lines but struggle to come up with their own. You're obviously in your element. Ever worry about ad-libbing? "Well, sure, you never know what's going to happen. But there's lots to develop here. Putsey has a rich persona, there's her conflict with Fiona - who wants her money. She says everything that pops into her head. She's the mother from hell. Fiona doesn't want to have anything to do with her and Putsey doesn't want anything to do with her children - Fiona, played by Lisa Kudrow, and Shevaun, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus [Seinfeld]. In the first season she also thinks she has a Vietnamese son she gave away back when she wasn't married and going to peace protests."
You had set plot points and a back story but if you suddenly had a great idea could you go with it? "Yes. I mean, after the taping you might say 'Is that gonna fit into the story?' And we might have to pick up something to massage it. Or it just might never see the light of day. I mean, they go and edit, too. You don't really know quite what's gonna come out. I lobby, of course! I always lobby."
Lisa Kudrow has gone from getting a million dollars an episode of Friends to these low-budget webisodes on a site sponsored by a car company. What was she like to work with? "She's darling. Just like Phoebe in many ways. I mean, not in her psychological personality but in her physical manner. She's very genuine and she's very smart, so she's quick and she's fun and, you know, part of the fun of doing something like this is cracking each other up. And she's very giving, and responsive and, like most good actors, very generous. Good actors are so involved in what they're doing. They want it to be real, they want it to be successful. I've never met a good actor who was really competitive. You know, you need to make the scene work. You hear all these great stories of grand dames and king-pins in the theatre who are like 'Get rid of that chorusgirl - she's attracting too much attention' or having the director stage something so the ingenue is looking upstage at the lead.
"I've heard stories like that. I've never, or at least I've never consciously experienced it. Maybe they did it to me but I was too thick to see it!"
So there were times you broke up laughing out of character? "Oh, yeah! They put in some of it at the end, bloopers. Even Meryl [Streep, who also co-stars] would crack up and stuff. I didn't have a scene with Meryl but I've seen footage where she would just, you know, give it up. And when I worked with her on Prairie Home Companion that was one of the most fun things to do, I'd always surprise Meryl 'cos she loves to improv and fool around - most actors do. It makes you alive in the moment.
"I love playing Putsey. Mothers are always good value. I played my own mother on one of my specials. She'd come on and wave to everybody and say thank you for coming to Lily's show.
"And she'd turn to me and say 'Don't mention any body parts and don't use any of that vulgar language and you'll have an audience for the rest of your career!' [laughs]. And I'd say 'Of course not, momma' and then do exactly what she'd told me not to." -