Out comedy icon Lily Tomlin brings her classic collection of characters to the Winspear


A GALLERY OF LAUGHS | Lily Tomlin, far right, will play a selection of her iconic characters — including, from left, Edith Ann, Madam Lupe, Ernestine, Tommy Velour, Trudy the Bag Lady — at the Winspear Sunday.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

Hey! It’s Lilian Tomlinson!” is how I answer the phone when Lily Tomlin called for our interview, mimicking a line she made famous as Trudy the Bag Lady. “You must get that a lot,” I add.

Tomlin chuckles; having her lines thrown back at her is one of the extreme joys of being one of America’s best-loved comediennes for nearly half a century.

“It’s great,” she admits. “Not too long ago, a woman [saw me at a store] and shouted to me across the showroom, ‘Thank you for years of merriment.’”

That’s almost an understatement. Since jumping onto the national stage with Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, where her Ernestine the Telephone Operator and precocious Edith Ann became huge icons virtually overnight, Tomlin has stayed at the top of her game, winning Emmys, Tonys, a Peabody, a Grammy and an Oscar nom. She brings that comic genius to the Winspear Feb. 10 with An Evening with Lily Tomlin. So what exactly does that entail?

“The basic thrust is what it’s always been: A lot of characters. But it’s not a book-show,” she says. ”It’s more free-form with interchanges with the audience. I also use video that is meant to be self-deprecating and tell you something about yourself. I’d like to have bungee jumpers appear while I do a costume change,” but that’s not likely to happen, she jokes.

Tomlin’s humor has always been more character-driven than punchline-friendly. Even when she performs more traditional standup, it’s as the character of Lily Tomlin.

“I like character-comedy better — it’s more interesting and richer for me. Anyone who does classic standup becomes that persona — it’s a little larger than life, even Joanie Rivers. When I started out, people who did characters usually did just one character: Hans Conreid, Dody Goodman — they had a persona. It would be as if I appeared as Ernestine all the time.”

She actually has done that in the past. Famously, Tomlin showed up at the 1983 Emmy Awards in character as Ernestine in a Bob Mackie original, pretending as if she, not Tomlin, was the actual nominee.

“I stayed as Ernestine for five hours,” she recalls. “The president of the Academy [then], Diana Muldaur, was sitting in front of me. I leaned forward to her and said” — and here Tomlin affects the pinched nasal whine of her most famous creation — “’Miss Muldaur, this is my first Emmys!’ She said back,

‘It may be your last.’ But to me, that was half the fun of being famous: Giving my audience something they could enjoy. Not everyone got it.”

One person who didn’t “get” Tomlin was Michael Jackson. At Elizabeth Taylor’s 65th birthday party, Tomlin performed in her character of sleazy lounge singer Tommy Velour (perhaps making Tomlin the first drag king). Jackson sat next to Taylor.

“Tommy sang directly to Elizabeth and you could see Michael looking like, ‘Who is this guy?’” She laughs.

Tomlin is a font of many such great stories. It may come from having had a hand in more comic moments from history than you might imagine. With her life partner, writer Jane Wagner, Tomlin was friends with late Texas Gov. Ann Richards; Wagner, in fact, wrote the icon’s famous keynote address about George H.W. Bush being “born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

“That was the one line [of Jane’s] that Ann chose to use,” she says. “There were other lines Jane wrote we thought were much better. But it was an explosion — right that night it was a huge thing.” (An even better line Tomlin never got to use was when George W. Bush was elected president: “It was,

‘The syntax of the father is visited on the son.’ But it’s too late now,” she says.)

At her Winspear appearance, Tomlin will likely perform many of her classic characters, such as concerned housewife Judith Beasley and Madame Lupe.

But Tomlin remains hard at work creating new characters as well: Lisa Kudrow’s mother on the Internet series Web Therapy and Reba McIntire’s pot-smoking ma on ABC’s family hit Malibu Country. But she knows her fans still appreciate her long-standing creations.

“Part of my good fortune  is, you’ll never know where I turn up next. Touring is such a big part of my life and career it doesn’t seem right not to do it. But another reason I’ve been so fortunate is, I created those entities and some of them just stuck — they caught on, probably because they are easy to imitate.”

Maybe. But Lily Tomlin herself is simply inimitable.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 1, 2013.