Comedy legend (and elephant-rights activist) Lily Tomlin returns to
Bass Performance Hall with her distinctive brand of humor
When a 25-year-old friend heard this week that I had just "interviewed Lily," he innocently asked, "Which one?"
For comedy fans of a certain age, this surely smacked of sacrilege.
"Tomlin, of course," came the response.
He knew it was either Tomlin or Allen, he said — "both are a big deal right now."
It must be music to the senior Lily’s ears to hear that someone born in the 1980s still considered Tomlin — whose career has spanned more than 40 years — is still a big deal.
For the rest of us, we always knew it was the case.
Certainly she has been in the public eye lately, especially in North Texas, where she has actively campaigned on behalf of Jenny, an elephant at the Dallas Zoo whom Tomlin strongly feels is being abused by the size of her habitat. And she’ll be back in the area this week with a performance at Bass Hall.
"I play Texas a lot — I have a lot of friends in Texas, especially in Fort Worth, Dallas and Austin," Tomlin says. She used to own property in Austin, where she befriended a then-county commissioner named Ann Richards.
"She was just so great and so darn funny," Tomlin says admiringly.
Her Bass appearance will be more informal than one of her scripted shows, with Tomlin "chatting with the audience about Fort Worth and fooling around. But I still do monologues because it’s the form that’s most organic to me."
And it’s what audiences have come to expect of her. Ever since she burst on the national stage in 1969 with her appearances on the sketch show "Laugh-In," Tomlin has stood out from her contemporaries in the comedy universe. When others were doing bits, she was doing monologues; where others played parts, she created characters.
Until Tracey Ullman, there probably had not been another performer who invented an entire galaxy of personalities as memorable as Tomlin’s, inhabiting each one. And it’s because Tomlin never considered herself just a comedian.
"As an actor it’s the range of people you delight in — kids and old people and men and women," she says. "It’s part of the pleasure of being actor."
Tomlin began her path at a young age, observing an odd assortment of characters living in a Detroit apartment house.
"Even as a kid, I loved characters," Tomlin says by phone, while tooling around in a golf cart on a Key Largo resort. "I grew up on radio where they created whole scenarios with words. I was mad for that form."
She honed her skills in the clubs of New York City in the mid 1960s, creating characters that she performs to this day, including her most-enduring creation: Ernestine the Telephone Operator.
"So many people imitated her, she was like Bette Davis — I was just one of the people who did her," Tomlin chuckles.
Still, it’s Tomlin — alongside her writing/producing and life partner, Jane Wagner — who knows her characters inside and out.
"When you live with these characters long enough, they begin to take on their own personalities — they become real," she says. "I feel like I know some of them."
Many have a lot of back-story. We know, for instance, that Ernestine’s boyfriend is Vito, a lineman and telephone repairman, and her best friend is Felicia.
"I’ve done her at home and in her house — I’ve got some pictures reading the telephone book, like she’s doing it for pleasure. During a phone strike she would go on the picket line and man the boards just so she could get her picture in the paper."
Tomlin even sparked a minor tumult 25 years ago when, while nominated for an Emmy (she’s won four), she showed up at the ceremony totally in the Ernestine character.
"I was so mad at the academy — they kept saying Lily Tomlin was nominated, and I said no, Ernestine was nominated."
Tomlin played it to the hilt: A Bob Mackie beaded dress, two Russian wolfhounds at her side and her own film crew following her around. "I was gonna have someone dress as Vito and have him running ahead with a trumpet signaling my arrival, but I decided that would be too much. I regret that I didn’t — it would have been perfect!"
The television academy didn’t take the joke well.
"Here I am staying in character for literally five hours and they put me in the second row because they didn’t want me to make a scene," Tomlin says. It probably didn’t help that she antagonized the academy’s then-president, actress Diana Muldaur.
"I leaned over to her and said" — Tomlin goes into her perfect Ernestine snort — "’Oh, Miss Muldaur, this is my first Emmys!’ ‘Yes, and it may be your last!’ she said."
Tomlin lost the award, but ended up stealing the show when the camera stayed on her as Ernestine sobbed uncontrollably. The next day, wags speculated that she must have been devastated by the loss, never getting the joke.
Tomlin’s brand of humor was often avant garde, but she has still had to update her characters over the years. Ernestine now works in the healthcare industry "denying coverage to a lot of people," and Mrs. Beasley, Tomlin strongly feels, would have done a PSA in opposition to Prop 8.
"She’s not uptight — she’s a person who believes in some kind of fairness," she says. Back in the 1980s, Tomlin even did a bit on a gay TV show in New York where Mrs. Beasley baked a "Quiche of Peace" to the gay community in response to the book "Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche."
Such is the life of the comedic artist: She can be topical and ahead of her time all at once.
Bass Performance Hall, 525 Commerce St., Fort Worth. Feb. 26 at 8 p.m. $37â€“$60. Basshall.com.
A GALLERY OF HILARITY
Lily Tomlin has never cleaved closely to what the idea of a standup comedian is supposed to be — she’s far more comfortable doing monologues as host of her memorable characters. Among the most iconic: Telephone operator (now health insurance wag) Ernestine, five-and-a-half year old Edith Ann and Trudy the Bag Lady.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 20, 2009.
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