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BWW Interviews: Tony-Winning Comedy Legend Lily Tomlin Celebrates Classic Characters for OC Show

My initial introduction to stage and screen comedy legend Lily Tomlin---who will celebrate her myriad of memorable characters in a one-night-only show called An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Saturday, June 22---was through reruns of the variety series Laugh-In, which I found squarely fascinating as an awkward kid barely six or seven years old. Only, at the time when I was seeing these vintage episodes as a young child, I had no concept of what "reruns" were and erroneously thought these shows were currently being shot somewhere in a studio in America (I wasn't living in the U.S. at that point; my parents were no help, either, failing to let me know these shows aired way before I was even born).

Well, just imagine my surprise when I saw a trailer for a "new" film starring Goldie Hawn---and thought, woah, she looks so different on Laugh-In! It was such a shock to my childhood naiveté because, by contrast, Tomlin's characters on the show (she joined Laugh-In in December 1969) felt so timeless and age-defiant. I especially loved her two most infamous personas that recurred on the show: Ernestine, the meddlesome telephone switch-board operator, and Edith Ann, the cheeky six-year-old with the oversized furniture (and, at the time, my age peer).

Since then, I have been such an adoring admirer---enjoying her performances in some of my personal faves such as 9 to 5, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, All of Me and Big Business. I loved her turns on both Murphy Brown and, later, The West Wing. I was especially excited to see her return to series television recently co-starring with country music superstar Reba McEntire on Malibu Country (which, sadly, ABC announced last month will not be returning for a second season).

After a nearly five-decade streak of amazing, award-winning work that traverses television, movies, theater, and other media platforms, Tomlin, at 73, continues to be one of the world's funniest, most highly-influential entertainers---a label that this female pioneer consistently still proves, and was even solidified as a recipient of the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2003. That honor, of course, joins her other numerous career-spanning accolades: six Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album, an Academy Award nomination for her dramatic work in Robert Altman's Nashville, the cover of Time magazine in 1977 as "America's New Queen of Comedy," and, most notably, a 1977 Tony Award for her one-woman Broadway show Appearing Nitely, and a second Tony Award for Best Actress in 1985's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which was written by her long-time collaborator and life partner Jane Wagner.

So it was certainly fitting that my recent lengthy conversation with Tomlin occurred on the very day of this year's Tony Awards, where she spoke about her early influences, her work on the stage, and, naturally, her upcoming return engagement at Orange County's Segerstrom Hall, where Tomlin will be combining her unique, character-based stand-up comedy with a multi-media revisit of her beloved classic personalities. The evening will then conclude with Tomlin taking questions directly from the audience.

"It's my version of stand-up [comedy], I suppose, but I never really did classic stand-up because I always did characters," Tomlin explained. "I'll be using some video where I will be interacting with the screen as I try to satirize myself as a 'celebrity'. But mostly I want to have this free-form [show]."

Born and raised in a mixed, blue-collar neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, Tomlin's preferred type of narrative-driven comedy performances took root very early in her upbringing. Aside from the rich cornucopia of real-life people that surrounded her, she had other sources for inspiration.

"I was very much influenced by, first, a grade-school teacher who used to read dialect poems on Fridays before we'd leave school. With just her voice, she would craft this whole story! And, then, of course, I was also a kid of radio---because I didn't get a TV until I was 10 years old. So I loved all those old characters in those radio shows. I was in love with characters...with people."

Though despite a plethora of overt influences, Tomlin admitted that while growing up she had no inkling she was eventually going into show business, even though there seemed to be plenty of signs.

"I don't think, consciously, I had any thoughts about it at all," she pondered. "No... fundamentally, I didn't know you could do this for a living. I thought you did this just for fun."

The fun certainly didn't initially reveal itself as an unofficial training ground.

"I mean me and my family would go to the movies a lot on Saturdays, and I even went a lot by myself as a kid. But, no, all I did was join classes and camps offered by the local Parks and Recreation department, you know, because it was a tough neighborhood and they offered a lot programs to keep kids off the streets. I had a... [laughs] very full life as a kid!"

At some point, that childhood zest---and, yes, those community programs---sparked young Tomlin to start entertaining with improvised, self-produced shows in her living room.

"I don't know where I got the idea to put on these shows. Maybe it's because I had taken tap and ballet through Parks and Rec, I guess. I was even a Jacks champion at 9 years old in the city! But, it's probably because I saw my ballet teacher, Mrs. Fitzgerald, put on these shows every year. I tried selling tickets [to my shows] at my apartment. I even tried to get other kids to be in the show---but, of course, they wouldn't even come to rehearsals or show up on show day. So I tried doing most of these by myself. I would do magic tricks! I tap-danced! And I would do these one-liners from stuff I'd seen."

For this comedy material, Tomlin turned to the handful of visible female comedy pioneers of the era---a label she too will eventually be bestowed with by people who followed her footsteps.

"There were very few female comedians, and certainly not a lot in stand-up. Jean Carroll was one of the few. She just passed away a few years ago at 98. But I used to watch her on The Ed Sullivan Show and she would do 'husband' jokes---so, just imagine me at 9 or 10 years old doing 'husband' jokes!"

Such groundbreaking-at-the-time material fascinated Tomlin long after these living room concerts, especially since male comics of the era were busy doing "take-my-wife-please" kinds of jokes. Personally, watching Carroll was also a favorite pastime because it was an activity she lovingly shared with her mother.

Besides Carroll, Tomlin was highly-influenced by many of the women who appeared on TV at the time, including Imogene Coca, who did quirky characters on Your Show of Shows, and, of course sitcom stars like Lucille Ball, Joan Davis, and Ann Sothern.

"But probably my biggest influence in terms of being a standard and as a monologue artist was Ruth Draper," Tomlin offered. "I discovered her on record. I was 18 years old working at a coffeehouse in Detroit and an older man came in one night and asked, "Have you ever heard of Ruth Draper?' And I said no, I haven't." Advised to checkout Draper's spoken word recordings at the local library, Tomlin found her to be "fierce."

When I asked Tomlin if her family openly supported or even influenced her childhood homemade showcases, she chuckled.

"Only in the fact that they too were characters!" she replied with a hearty laugh. "All my Southern relatives were outrageously funny and sad and, well, like everybody else. I think that's how I saw the commonality in all human beings. That's probably what gave me a lot of empathy for so many kinds of people."

Keeping in mind that this upcoming Segerstrom Center show's focus is to offer a nostalgic look back at her iconic characters, I asked Tomlin if any of them, including Edith Ann or Ernestine, then, were based on actual people she really knew in her life or were they all figments of her rich imagination.

"Well, Ernestine came about because of this inclination I have to make social commentary," she explained. "Ernestine is [someone that would have existed] back when the infrastructure of the phone company was deteriorating. People couldn't get a phone installed. You couldn't get your phone fixed. Your phone wouldn't ring. Your husband or your wife or your partner would think you were out at four in the morning because they couldn't reach you! [Laughs] With all that wire-tapping and it being a monopoly---it was all right for satire."

"Ernestine, to me, is like this dominatrix," Tomlin continued. "She was going to make you suffer just because she had the power---her little petty, bureaucratic power."

And as for little Edith Ann?

"Well I wanted to [portray] a child just because it's yet another voice---another cultural voice. I mostly improvised but I did use some [material] from my own life as background."

"Everytime I create a character, sometimes it's [solely] for a literal, satiric purpose; other times, it's to make social commentary," she continued. "I'm fascinated by street people---like bag ladies---especially way back in the mid- to late-70's when people began to see more and more women [living] on the streets. It was around that time when they began [releasing] people out of mental facilities. I saw that and I wanted to do something and reflect it somehow."

That something, of course, is a natural gift of comedy, and has made millions laugh ever since. I wondered then, if there was a specific event in Tomlin's life when she finally realized that comedy was what she was meant to do.

"There actually is," Tomlin quickly responded. "I was in Pre-Med in college---by the way, I never would have been a doctor, so that was all a pretension. Anyway, I was in a Micro-biology class with a girl I went to high school with who was voted 'Prettiest Girl,' and she can be very imperious and bitchy like Snow White's stepmother. In fact, I did her in my act one time and she came backstage after and told me that she did recognize herself, which is very unusual. And she said, 'don't ever do me in your act again!' [Laughs] But, anyway, on one particular day [while we were in that class], she told me that she was going to go over to the theater to read for The Madwoman of Chaillot and that I should come along because there were a lot of small parts."

Having never auditioned for anything in her life, Tomlin went in with no expectations. While her pretty friend got one of the main roles, it turned out that they did have a need to fill plenty of smaller roles. Cast as one of the capitalist women in the second act that have been banished to the Madwoman's netherworld, Tomlin was tasked to lead the improvisation down a large staircase at every performance.

"All the drama kids would run out to see what I was going to do [each time] because I would just improvise it and have fun."

While her actor pals were impressed with her concentration and creativity, Tomlin laughed it off.

"I had no idea what they were talking about. It was just fun to do---it was something natural to me."

This eventually led to another production---a variety show to raise scholarship funds---where expectations of her proven improv skills would be in high-demand. Unfortunately for Tomlin, her limited acting experience and the "sophomoric" nature of the material overwhelmed her, particularly when she was given multiple parts to act out. Eventually all her parts were recast, leaving the young comic in a state of despair---that is until the variety show's young producer asked her to create one more vignette from scratch. The piece she created---a parody that poked fun at the obnoxious wealth of affluent Grosse Pointe, a suburb of Detroit---was a sensation.

"Then I said to myself... I'm going to New York!" exclaimed Tomlin, who ended up showcasing this newly-formed character for several other performances, including some appearances on television. "After mid-terms, I moved to New York. But I didn't know what to do."

It was now almost Summer of 1962. After borrowing money from five different people, Tomlin dropped out of Wayne State University flew to New York and stayed with a friend she only slightly knew in college. Suffering from what she calls "Audrey Hepburn damage," Tomlin bought herself a cream-colored trench coat, large sunglasses and a tied scarf with her remaining funds to have her own Breakfast at Tiffany's moment. When she finally arrived at the Big Apple, she thought it would be a good idea to study to become a mime. We, of course, both laughed hysterically at this revelation.

"You won't know this, Michael, but in those days, being an actor is very narcissistic," Tomlin elaborated. "You're surrounded by the hip people. The bohemians. So, I thought, I had to do something pure---and I identified that as mime!"

Thankfully, she instead gained employment as an assistant bookkeeper at a talent agency, but then soon returned home to Detroit and started working at coffeehouses, performing at theater and poetry readings, and even forming a comedy troupe with some friends during her off hours. After receiving a call from a musician friend to be his opening act in NYC, Tomlin decided to try her luck in New York again in 1965.

It was then, Tomlin confirmed, that she was finally getting noticed, eventually gaining a strong following with booked appearances at different clubs including The Improv, Café Au Go Go, and the Upstairs at the Downstairs, where she later opened for the legendary cabaret singer Mabel Mercer in the Downstairs Room.

"[When I started] at that point what I was doing was very unusual. Very esoteric," she added. "During those days, if you did comedy, somebody had to vouch for you. Singers, they can just get up there and do a set if they want to, practically. But I always liken what I did as something that resembles street theater."

Her audacious uniqueness, coupled with the fact that Tomlin was a female comic in a commonly "boys club" industry, expectedly met with some resistance.

"Even when I started doing [regular gigs] at the Improv, doing stand-up characters and stuff, people would actually come up and say to me, literally, if you can believe this---in the mid 60's: 'How can you do stand-up? You're going to lose your femininity'!"

For Tomlin and other up-and-comers like Joan Rivers, being female in the comedy business during the early days is, well, a tough act. She recalled an instance in which she worked on a show with another actress who played a boring, non-descript ingenue, who off-stage was a laugh-riot. Tomlin encouraged her to do some of these hilarious riffs on stage, but the actress, in all seriousness, replied that doing comedy meant risking one's looks.

"She told me 'I wouldn't want anyone to think I was unattractive'," Tomlin explained. "That's where the comedy line was drawn."

That double-standard---or, rather, the outright prejudice against female comedians---was a hard pill to swallow, she shared, forcing funny women to be acceptably funny only by having some kind of flaw.

"They were all supposed to be overweight, homely, or couldn't get a man, or flat-chested... They have to have some kind of social flaw in order for them to be considered funny."

But, of course, it is this very unique Lily Tomlin-esque type of comedy that made her stand out in the first place. After making her TV debut in 1966 on The Garry Moore Show, and then landing a national Vicks Vapo-Rub commercial ("for the first time, I made more money in show business than I ever did waitressing or office temping!"), Tomlin soon made several memorable appearances on The Merv Griffin Show, which later landed her a spot as a regular cast member of Music Scene---which also prompted a move to California. After the series' cancellation, Tomlin later joined the cast of the hit primetime comedy/variety series Laugh-In in December 1969 (in the middle of its third season), and the world truly really fell in love with her.

"I didn't really want to make the move to California at all. I wanted to be a New York actress, you know, and work in the theater. I guess I thought I was going to be at Sardi's every night... [Laughs] That was the life I thought I was going to lead."

Though it's fairly evident that Tomlin has conquered all facets of entertainment, I wanted to know first hand which medium she liked the most, if it was even possible to choose just one.

"Oh, the stage!" she answered without hesitation. "I've always liked being on stage the best. I think it's because I did it as a kid! I've always had a sense of what to do when I'm on stage. In other [mediums], I suppose you learn or you get seasoned and then you understand. But being on stage, it's always so much more immediate and much more personal. This is why I think theater continues to live as it does. I think if you have the experience even once or twice, you continue to crave it because it's such an affirmation of your humanity. What I love the most is what someone said in a review of The Search...: 'In the end, we were on our feet applauding our higher selves'!"

And though it's been a while since Tomlin experienced the thrill of her Tony-winning turn in her partner Jane's play The Search..., she references it as a reason for wanting to be on stage more often than she gets to be. So, can we perhaps see Tomlin back on the boards of Broadway in the near future? Maybe even a musical role?

"Oh, I can never sing a musical, I'm not that experienced," she replied, laughing. "I mean, yeah, I sang on [Altman's final film] Prairie Home Companion, but I studied for three months just so I could hold the harmony, because I had to sing with Meryl [Streep]... and, well, you know, Meryl's a fairly competent singer. Actually, better than competent...she can actually sing. But I would love to sing a role, but I would probably have to start [preparing] now then wait a couple of years to develop anything I might have innately."

"Of course, I'd love a great role and would love to do more theater," Tomlin continued. "I've been on Broadway twice, but I've done so with our shows each time. I want something outrageous to do... something new... something I can be inspired by. If it's [a role] someone else [has done], i'm not to keen on it. I want to originate a part, I guess. Once The Shuberts asked me to take over a role from Maggie Smith in Lettice and Lovage. She was so funny and brilliant in the show, so I would never step into a role that Maggie had created. I think that would be way too challenging!" [Laughs]

But, overall, as many films and TV shows she ends up in, it's always the stage that calls her back for instant artistic fulfillment.

"Even these [live solo comedy] dates that I do, I consider them less stand-up comedy and more as theatrical shows. This is why I love this form [of entertainment]. My dream---my hope---for an audience when they leave is that they've seen more than one person on that stage."

Follow Contributing Editor Michael L. Quintos on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

"A Night of Classic Lily Tomlin" takes place Saturday, June 22 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am).

For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.

Photos of Lily Tomlin Courtesy of Artist Management/SCFTA. From top: Photo by Greg Gorman; Photo by Brett Patterson; Photo by Greg Gorman.



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From This Author - Michael L. Quintos