Lily Tomlin – A Lady of Laughter

As a little girl growing up in Detroit, Lily Tomlin dreamed of one day performing on a proper stage with real curtains. She would fashion a makeshift stage using the family’s bedsheets. When she wasn’t staging neighborhood performances, she took lessons in ballet and tap, pitched on the Police Athletic League’s baseball team and played in the lot near her family’s apartment building, but she always felt that the fun would stop once she grew up. In college, she prepared for a career in medicine. However, after signing up for a theatre class, the curtains called again.
“I was mad for a stage with curtains, but growing up a blue collar kid, it never occurred to me that people could make a living having fun,” Tomlin says. “Not that show business isn’t hard work, but I always thought you had to go out and get a real, demanding job.”
Tomlin has more than met the demands of superstardom, producing a dizzying array of television, stage and film productions, featuring many of her beloved characters, such as Ernestine the Phone Operator and the eternally precocious Edith Ann. They will join Tomlin onstage as part of her one-woman performance Feb. 6 at the Florida Theatre.
“I use a lot of characters, and we get to see what they are up to today. It’s a theater piece, so there is a lot of interaction with the audience, and I interact with the characters and show some more of their lives. I use video, mostly to make fun of myself,” she says. “I talk about some issues if it relates universally, and I just talk about being another human on this planet, all of us.”
Tomlin is eager to introduce audiences to new characters and to reunite them with the classic personas that helped her to carve a niche in the entertainment industry at a time when few female comics had the balls to leave it all out there onstage.
“I remember at 3 am going to the Improv trying to get on stage for 10 minutes. I never liked aggressive comics, but if I did a character piece, I was committed to that piece from beginning to end,” she says. “I was always on my own track and didn’t pay attention when people said I would lose my femininity by doing stand-up.”
Social pressures did take their toll on many would-be female talents of the 60s and 70s. While doing improv at the Upstairs at the Downstairs comedy club, she said there was always a role written for a young ingenue. The dialogue was often flat and the young actresses stood onstage doe-eyed and mostly silent, save for the occasional set-up line for one of the guys to get the laughs at her expense.
Tomlin recalls one such actress who, while backstage, was bawdy and funny unlike her mousy onstage personality. “I was howling with laughter and told her ‘you have to do that stuff onstage’. She said no, she couldn’t because she didn’t want anyone to think she was unattractive.”
Current societal issues from technology to school shootings make their own statements in Tomlin’s show. Edith Ann is still 6-years-old but in present day and facing situations that older generations never experienced. “When I was a kid, I was getting under my desk [to prepare] for an A-bomb attack,” Tomlin says. “Around the time before the Newtown shootings, Edith Ann had the idea to create a bulletproof backpack, and I’ll be damned if someone didn’t actually make it.”
Edith Ann was one of the first characters Tomlin tested on the television audiences of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. There was nothing pretty about this sassy little girl, swinging her stocking feet and blowing raspberries at the end of her comedic commentary. When she pitched the idea to the show’s producers, the skit included the construction of the oversized rocking chair for which she is now famous. Tomlin says the production team refused to build the chair to help create the illusion of Edith Ann’s childlike proportions until they were sure that the character appealed to the audiences.
“When I first introduced Edith Ann, I had to do Edith out of a box like a fort. It had a flap so I just stuck my head out,” recalls Tomlin. “Luckily, she caught on pretty quickly and they built me the rocking chair, which I still have in my living room.”
Tomlin has earned more than her share of tangible monuments celebrating her artistic contributions, including a Grammy award for her comedy album This is a Recording, seven Emmys, A Tony for her one-woman Broadway show Appearing Nitely, a second Tony for Best Actress, a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics’ Circle Award for her performance in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by her partner, Jane Wagner, as well as two Peabody Awards. In 2003, Tomlin was also awarded the prestigious Mark Twain Prize of American Humor presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
While Tomlin has an enviable archive of material spanning the course of her extraordinary career, she only has a brief snippet of film of herself around 10-years-old that was given to her by a family friend. The clip is a silent reminder of a little girl that dared to dream big, and Tomlin hopes to give voice to her past in a documentary or short film with her brother, Richard, whom she credits as her partner in childhood mischief making. She doesn’t need a fancy studio, bright lights or a big-name director to interpret her story on film. To polish away the edges would strip away the truth.
Tomlin remembers when her late mother, Lillie Mae, who would have celebrated her 100th birthday this year, took a ceramics class when Tomlin was just a girl. Always a perfectionist, her mother used a pre-fabricated mold to create her pieces much to the dismay of her young daughter. The final products were realistic, but they lacked the little imperfections that make something truly beautiful.
“I had a friend growing up whose mother wrote a novel. I read that book over and over again, and I loved reading it because I could read her mother in every word,” she says. “I always asked my mother ‘why don’t you make something with just your hands?’ She always said, no. It wouldn’t look perfect. I would give anything to have something with her imprint.”
As an artist and a woman, Tomlin has made an indelible impression. She is never afraid to be exactly who she is, and she is grateful for the opportunity to write her own rules as a performer, whether on the small screen, the silver screen or the stage. It may not always be pretty, but for Tomlin, it’s nothing short of perfect.