Lily Tomlin. Magical, musical name. But, my God — what can be said that hasn’t been already? And where to begin?
With her first inspired bit on national television, taps attached to her bare feet, tripping the light fantastic on a portable wooden floor? Or perhaps those indelible, utterly original characterizations — the endearingly acerbic yet somehow oddly sensual Ernestine Tomlin, Ma Bell’s favorite enforcer; the bratty, precocious, and utterly sane Edith Ann, dispensing fractured wisdom from her oversized rocker; and Audrey Earbore, the indefatigably proper “Tasteful Lady” — that both shot her to stardom and made the otherwise spotty “Laugh-In” the television comedy to watch in 1970?
Should we begin with the sublime Judith Beasley, that heartbreakingly sincere Calumet hausfrau with a backbone made of tungsten? Or with Tomlin’s astonishing movie debut in Robert Altman and Joan Tewkesbury’s superb 1975 mosaic Nashville, resplendent and moving as the Gospel-singing wife and mother who leaves perpetual satyr Keith Carradine dazed and confused after what he assumed would be just one more in an endless series of one-night stands? Or maybe with her loopy yet resilient Margo, first confounding, then becoming indispensable to tattered private detective Art Carney in Robert Benton’s charming take on modern L.A. criminology The Late Show (1977)?
But, stay — that doesn’t dent the surface, omitting as it does Tomlin’s exasperated corporate secretary Violet in ersatz Snow White costume, cheerfully ladling rat poison into her hated boss’s coffee cup, to the approval of her animated forest pals, in Nine to Five (1980). And what about her imperious, lonely Edwina Cutwater in All of Me (1984), challenging Steve Martin not to love her and creating an indispensable comic portrait out of little more than voice-overs and the occasional glimpse into a mirror?
And I haven’t even mentioned her sui generis multilayered (and densely populated) one-woman collaborations with her partner, that quiet genius of subversive wit Jane Wagner: the landmark “Modern Scream” LP, arguably the single most creatively brilliant and incisive comedy album of the 1970s; their superb initial journey to Broadway, Appearing Nitely (1977); their charming (if environmentally alarming) 1981 comic remake The Incredible Shrinking Woman; and — supremely — the transcendent The Search for Signs of Inteligent [sic] Life in the Universe (1986), the nearest thing to a Zen extravaganza Broadway has ever seen.
The foregoing may seem an exhaustive list, but I don’t think it touches the breadth and accomplishment of this most chameleon-like and protean of all solo performers. To call Lily Tomlin a stand-up comedian would be a bit like referring to Mark Twain as a humorist. It’s all too easy, and it doesn’t come close.
The Sept. 15th Duke Performances-sponsored An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin was something of a regression for this American original, a sort of “Greatest Hits” tour taking in selections — some excerpted, others fully realized — from her disparate projects. Whereas it was surprising to see Tomlin redux, rather than charting new horizons, the more important thing was just seeing Tomlin.
This was the irrepressible Lily in full: at the improbable age of 66, her inimitable voice deepened to husky smoke, her particular genius honed to glorious perfection. Present too those crisp, double-take-inducing cosmic one-liners (“Why is it when we talk to God we’re said to be praying — but when God talks to us, we’re said to be schizophrenic?” “The most valuable survival skill we have is the ability to delude ourselves”) that, taken with the wistful smile, constitute the Tao of Tomlin (or is it Jane?) Here was Lily Tomlin, all of them: that gallery of strikingly sane eccentrics, from Trudy the Bag Lady to Sister Boogie Woman, that constitutes one of the living greatest ensemble companies in American entertainment. Tomlin is a little bit like illustrated radio: it’s all laid out for us, if we can only hear it. Perhaps only Richard Pryor (with whom she occasionally worked in the 1970s) shares Tomlin’s unbound ability to slip into and out of personas at will, locating their centers of comic gravity with unerring precision.
Re-locating material now outmoded by the speed of technology is a risky business, but may be imperative. What would today’s young people make of Ernestine’s telephone switchboard? (And when Lucille the Rubber Freak talks of eating a typewriter eraser, do they even know what she’s talking about?) We can take heart that Ernestine herself may be bowed as well as bloodied (“I gave the best years of my life to Ma Bell and what did it get me? When she went to pieces, so did I”) but not down and defiantly not out (“No matter how nasty I become, I’m still holding back”). Or that Judy Beasley, having given herself over to a more personal technology (the “Good Vibrations” sexual aid) has become “a semi-orgasmic woman”: “‘But does it kill romance?’ you say. And I say, ‘What doesn’t?’”
In the universe as seen by Lily Tomlin, you could almost swear she’s cloned herself; as Lud and Marie argue anew over that piece of cake that drives daughter Lily to paroxysms of hysteria, the merest gesture of hand miraculously convinces us that a conversation may be conducted by a single person, or that the carefully emolliated face of Madame Lupe, the World’s Oldest Living Beauty Expert (who once advised Somerset Maugham to “live by candlelight”) can be undone by a sneeze.
And when Tomlin waxes political (“I worry that we have the technology and the Administration to finally make Fascism work”), we can — after shuddering — only concur with Trudy, that survival of the fittest should be re-thought: If the continuity of life really was dependent on “survival of the wittiest,” Lily Tomlin (and Jane Wagner) would outlive us all.
Duke Performances: http://www.duke.edu/web/dukeperfs/. Lily Tomlin: http://www.lilytomlin.com/.
Award-winning actress, comedienne, writer, director, and producer Lily Tomlin will bring her latest one-woman show, An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin, to Duke University’s Page Auditorium Thursday night as part of the Duke Performances series. Born Mary Jean Tomlin in Detroit, Michigan on Sept. 1, 1939 — the day Nazi Germany invaded Poland, precipitating World War II — Tomlin has appeared on Broadway three times, once in Appearing Nightly (in 1977) and twice in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (in 1985-6 and 2000-1). She won a Special 1977 Tony Award® and the 1986 Tony for Best Actress in a Play for Search. She was also nominated for a 2001 Tony for Best Revival of a Play for Search and a 1976 Academy Awards® for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance as a Loretta-Lynn-like country singer in Nashville.
Tomlin, who first started tickling the nation’s funny bone during her appearances on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” television comedy series (1970-3), parlayed her pixilated performances as six-year-old Edith Ann and prune-faced telephone operator Ernestine into a lengthy stage, screen, and television career. She most recently appeared as executive secretary Deborah Fiderer in NBC’s award-winning TV series “The West Wing.”
Edith Ann, Ernestine, and other unforgettable characters — such as Mrs. Beasley, Sister Boogie Woman, and Trudy — from Tomlin’s television and stage career will make appearances in An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin, which Duke Performances says is almost sold out.
In reviewing a previous performance of one of Tomlin’s one-woman shows, the New York Daily News raved, “With astounding skill and energy, Tomlin zaps through the channels like a human remote control. Using a fantastic range of voices, gestures and movements, she conjures up the cast of characters with all the apparent ease of a magician pulling a whole menagerie of animals from a single hat.”
Some classic Lily Tomlin observations (from her official web site and Internet Movie database) include:
“I’ve always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should’ve been more specific.”
“Truth is, I’ve always been selling out. The difference is that in the past, I looked like I had integrity because there were no buyers.”
“The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”
“Reality is nothing but a collective hunch…. [It] is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it…. Reality is a crutch for people who can’t cope with drugs.”
It’s my belief we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain.”
“If the formula for water is H2O, is the formula for an ice cube H2O squared?”
“There will be sex after death — we just won’t be able to feel it.”
“I’ve been around a long time, and I interviewed with a lot of the same people over and over. I was always direct and open about my life. I would always reference [my partner] Jane [Wagner] and everything, but they never choose to write about it that way — just like they never wrote about Jack Kennedy and the women in the swimming pool. It was the times, but the media culture has changed.”
“Why is it when we talk to God we’re said to be praying — but when God talks to us, we’re said to be schizophrenic?”
Note: There will be a question-and-answer session following the performance.
Duke Performances presents An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin Thursday, Sept. 15, at 8 p.m. in Page Auditorium on Duke University’s West Campus in Durham, North Carolina. $25-$45 ($5 Duke students). 919/684-4444 or http://www.tickets.duke.edu/. Duke Performances: http://www.duke.edu/web/dukeperfs/. Lily Tomlin: http://www.lilytomlin.com/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=7337. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0005499/.