A Truly Bonkers Conversation Between Lisa Kudrow and Lily Tomlin
In Netflix’s new big-ticket comedy Space Force, Lisa Kudrow plays the wife of the show’s protagonist, a four-star general (Steve Carrell) who is selected by the president to oversee the establishment of the latest branch of the U.S. military. But don’t expect a two-hander featuring two of the best comic actors of their generation. Kudrow’s character, Maggie Naird, is only seen sporadically throughout the season, and mostly in a prison jumpsuit. But that’s the pleasure of this phase of the 56-year-old actor’s career. Instead of finding her in one place, like, say, the couch in Central Perk, the former Friends star is everywhere. In the last two years alone, Kudrow has lent her daffy charisma to beloved projects such as the NBC sitcom The Good Place, the cult hit Booksmart, and the Seth Rogen– and Charlize Theron–starring rom-com Long Shot. In fact, Space Force isn’t even Kudrow’s first Netflix show of the year. In March, she appeared as a series regular in Feel Good, an intimate dramedy about a recovering addict (Mae Martin) trying to gain back control of her life. Kudrow recently caught up with her friend Lily Tomlin to discuss their starts in show business, getting that Friends money, and working together on Grace and Frankie. (She was in that, too.)
LILY TOMLIN: Hi, darling. How are you doing?
LISA KUDROW: Good. It’s so thrilling to hear your voice.
TOMLIN: Are you staying in and being healthy?
KUDROW: Yes. Have you left the house?
TOMLIN: I go to the mailbox, and I’ve gone twice to pick up food, but I pleaded with the young fellow to come and throw it in the passenger side of my car.
KUDROW: Did he?
TOMLIN: Yeah, he was great. I have a lot of inner conflict about paying people to deliver to me. They do it because they’re young and they want the money, which is good, but the fact is I never know their history. I don’t know if any of them have contracted the disease. Anyway, Jon Lovitz talked you into going into show business. Is that true?
KUDROW: Well, he didn’t exactly talk me into going into show business, but after I graduated, I decided to give it a try. So I let him know, and he said, “Go to Groundlings [an improv and sketch comedy theater].” I called they up, and they said, “No, thank you!” That’s exactly what happened. I was at my dad’s office, and they said, “So when’s the last time you performed?” And I said, “I think junior high school.” And they went, “Uh-huh. Take some improv classes and then come audition.”
TOMLIN: I think I remember seeing you there. I had gone to see Paul Reubens, who was a friend. Did you work there at the same time as him?
KUDROW: No, I was just after him.
TOMLIN: Didn’t you come out and do a thing? I remember a tallish blond, who had on a kind of prom dress, and you were very, very funny.
KUDROW: It wasn’t me.
TOMLIN: [Laughs] It wasn’t?
KUDROW: I wasn’t blonde.
TOMLIN: You dye your hair?
KUDROW: Yes, my hair is your color.
TOMLIN: Oh my goodness! How have you dealt with the lack of someone to dye it? Do you dye your own hair?
KUDROW: I’m wearing a hat.
TOMLIN: I have a couple of streaks of white, they’re just sort of peppered in there, because I don’t color my hair and I don’t have that much gray hair. I always wanted to have white hair like my mother. Her hair turned white in her 40s.
KUDROW: My mom, too, but she colored her hair, so I never saw it.
TOMLIN: Oh, did your mother pass away?
KUDROW: She did pass away at the end of February.
TOMLIN: No! This year?
KUDROW: Yeah, just before the insanity.
TOMLIN: The COVID.
KUDROW: For all I know, that’s what she had.
TOMLIN: Oh my god. Well in February, I got the flu. I’ve never missed a day of work, but I had the flu and I ended up missing three days of work on Grace and Frankie. My assistant was sick about the same time, and he went and had the test, and he had COVID, and he had antibodies. But I don’t have any antibodies. When I got tested, I was negative. But that was a few days ago, so I could easily have gotten it since then. That’s what worries me about testing. You could easily have it the next day and not even know it.
KUDROW: You mean the virus test?
TOMLIN: No, I had the blood test looking for antibodies.
KUDROW: The problem is, those tests aren’t reliable.
TOMLIN: So it may be that I have antibodies, and Paul, my assistant, doesn’t have antibodies.
KUDROW: Or you both do, because you both had it.
TOMLIN: Or the tests got mixed up.
KUDROW: [Laughs] Or you both do and you both had it, but the test wasn’t sensitive enough for you.
TOMLIN: Well, has your father died, too?
KUDROW: No, he’s alive and well.
TOMLIN: Is this where you’re getting this specialized medical information?
KUDROW: No, I’m on the board of a hospital system—UCLA. So I’m listening to updates.
TOMLIN: Well, how great. I’m so glad I found this out. Everybody will be calling you for advice and information.
KUDROW: They’d be smarter not to, because I’m not actually a doctor, and I don’t really know anything. I’m, like, the “celebrity member.” You know everything, too. It’s in the news.
TOMLIN: I don’t know anything. I get a little bit of information from the news, but I have a friend who’s a doctor, and he fills me in on his own theory of things.
KUDROW: Is that how you got the test?
TOMLIN: No, no. I got that because I’m a celebrity.
KUDROW: [Laughs] So you got it a while ago?
TOMLIN: I was sick just at the time everybody started becoming aware of the coronavirus here in the States. And you know how there’s a show business doctor who does your tests before you sign onto a series?
TOMLIN: So I’ve known the woman for a fairly long time, and she’s been very kind to me, so she came over and gave me the test.
KUDROW: That was the blood test looking for antibodies?
TOMLIN: Yeah. They drew my blood.
KUDROW: Because there weren’t tests of the viruses in February.
TOMLIN: No, but this was about two or three weeks ago. That’s how I found out about Paul.
KUDROW: Oh, so you had different tests at different labs, different everything, you and Paul? Okay.
TOMLIN: Yeah, different labs.
KUDROW: You might want to go to the same lab he went to, see what they find.
TOMLIN: [Laughs] Yeah, I will. Maybe I had antibodies. But by now, they’ve probably disappeared from my body. Anyway, this is—
KUDROW: Fascinating! This is what the whole article’s going to be about.
TOMLIN: Oh, I hope not.
KUDROW: Did you have to shut down Grace and Frankie?
TOMLIN: Oh, yeah. We shut down March 12th.
KUDROW: You were in the middle of shooting.
TOMLIN: We completed four-and-a-half episodes. And now we’ve started doing table reads to kind of keep the process of developing the scripts up to speed. It gives the writers something to do.
KUDROW: This is the last season, right?
KUDROW: How do you feel about that? It’s now your interview.
TOMLIN: Jane [Fonda] and I feel okay. They’re just hoping we don’t die before the season can get handled. I don’t feel like I’m ever going to do die. I mean, if you felt like you were really going to die, you’d be more mature than I am.
KUDROW: [Laughs] That’s what they say: “Lily Tomlin? She’s immature.”
TOMLIN: I have to talk about all the shows you’ve done.
KUDROW: No, you don’t. Just the ones you feel like.
TOMLIN: Well, I want to talk about Web Therapy, because I got to do that one with you. I just adored doing that show. If it ever gets resuscitated, I have my costumes. I’m ready to go.
KUDROW: Well, we’re trying to find a streaming home for it right now. And we may have.
TOMLIN: If you do, don’t forget Putsy.
KUDROW: [Laughs] You were unbelievable.
TOMLIN: Here’s how it started out. I was on Laugh-In, and, god knows why, Ernestine [the Telephone Operator] became a huge character. But you, well, you started off on Mad About You as Ursula Buffay—who didn’t have a twin sister until you went to Friends, and played Phoebe Buffay. Then they folded Ursula in as Phoebe’s twin sister, which is the kind of thing I live for.
KUDROW: You live for playing twins?
TOMLIN: Well, I played twins with Bette Midler in a movie. But that’s not the point. The exciting part is that Ursula’s life continued between Mad About You and Friends, and then they folded Ursula into Friends, just like she had been living all that time. I loved that so much. I used to think that Ernestine was like Bette Davis, and I was just one of many, many people who imitated her.
KUDROW: Oh, my god. That’s amazing.
TOMLIN: Phoebe was such a wonderful character.
KUDROW: It was good for me playing someone that optimistic because I’m just a drag of a person.
TOMLIN: You’re draggy?
KUDROW: Don’t you think?
TOMLIN: Does Michel [Stern, Kudrow’s husband] know this?
KUDROW: Yeah. He’s French. I thought that was the attraction. It wasn’t physical. He’s so much better-looking than I am.
TOMLIN: He is awfully good-looking. Well, anyway, you got to play a character who is sort of like a combination of a genius and Gracie Allen, or something like that.
KUDROW: And everyone I worked with was really fun. I mean, you know the difference when you get along with people, and when you don’t.
TOMLIN: Marta Kauffman is our showrunner, too. Maybe she has something to do with that, because we have a very harmonious group. Do you see those other kids very much?
KUDROW: Yeah. We speak, we text. More recently, we were in touch a lot about this Friends special for HBO Max that we had to postpone.
TOMLIN: But the series is on Netflix, too, now, isn’t it?
KUDROW: No, it’s no longer on Netflix. Now it’s on nothing, and then it’s going to be on HBO Max which outbid Netflix for the series.
TOMLIN: Do you get money for the residuals?
KUDROW: Yeah, thank god. Thank you, Friends, forever.
TOMLIN: Just a gift that keeps on giving.
KUDROW: That’s what Warner Brothers said about it. Those exact words: “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.” I think shows where there’s an emotional connection between people, more than just like high concept stuff—I think that’s what is appealing. People like seeing connections and relationships.
TOMLIN: I think that’s what Jane Fonda and I carry on with. People say we have so much chemistry and all that business. I feel like it’s really true. I really love Jane. She’s a wonderful friend.
KUDROW: And it shows. And I think the writers write to that, too, so it feels like a sort of dialogue. Now I sound like an acting teacher.
TOMLIN: And now you’re in Space Force. I’m so astonished that there actually is a space force in the government.
KUDROW: Here’s the embarrassing thing: I didn’t know. I thought they made it up, because I missed that announcement. So I’m shooting it, and then after we wrapped I’m watching the president’s State of the Union, and he mentions Space Force. And I turned to my husband and said, “Wait, that’s real?” And he’s like, “Yeah, of course, it’s real.” So I texted Steve Carrell and Greg Daniels, who created the show, and I’m like, “I’m an idiot. I didn’t know it was real.” They didn’t even answer.
TOMLIN: It does seem like it’s made up, because Steve Carell is so good at playing absurdity and making it seem like it’s real. And you lean into that very well.
KUDROW: I do?
TOMLIN: I always get very delighted when I see you coming on the screen. Before this era of television, you would’ve been in so many movies. You would’ve been like certain characters who show up all the time and play one line.
KUDROW: Yeah, running in saying, “Well, that’s a horse of a different color.”
TOMLIN: [Laughs] Well, TV came in time for both of us.
KUDROW: Thank god.
TOMLIN: I wanted our relationship maybe to flower from this, even though I worked with you on Grace and Frankie. Jane and I reference you from time to time. We always got such a big kick from working with you.
KUDROW: You guys were so welcoming and nice. And I swear to god, my first scene, I think each of you messed up your lines, just so I would feel comfortable.
TOMLIN: Are you kidding?
KUDROW: You don’t do that?
TOMLIN: No, we don’t go out of our way to make ourselves look stupid and incompetent. We’re able to do that very easily without extra effort.
KUDROW: [Laughs] Oh, I thought for sure that’s what you were doing.
TOMLIN: I don’t remember you missing your lines one lick. So anyway, what I want to say is that maybe we could text once in a while.
TOMLIN: But now that I found out that you’re kind of a downer, I’ve already got enough of that in my life.