Lily Tomlin is hoping that her gig next week at Duke goes down better than the last one in the area--at Raleigh's legendary 1970s jazz cabaret, The Frog and Nightgown. "It was hellacious," she recalls. "I did not go over well. And there was no dressing room. I had to go lie down in the car in the parking lot between shows to get away from the audience."
"But that's how I met Buddy Hackett," she says. "In the parking lot, there."
She pauses for a moment. "I was more of an anomaly then. But I persevered."
True enough. Since her salad days on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, the comedian, social satirist and brilliant character actor has repeatedly scored on stage, screen and television. If a current generation blanks at first on characters she originated in the 1970s (including Ernestine, the obnoxious telephone operator, and precocious, permanent 5-year-old Edith Ann), they might recognize the voice of Miss Frizzle, from The Magic Schoolbus. Or the names Kay Carter-Shepley (from Murphy Brown) or Debbie Fiderer (of The West Wing) might ring a bell. Provided, that is, they didn't catch her opposite Tom Waits in Robert Altman's 1994 film, Short Cuts, or as existential detective Vivian Jaffe in David Russell's I Heart Huckabees last fall.
A generation of solo performers including Whoopi Goldberg and Sara Jones cite Tomlin among their major influences. All told, her work has won for her a Grammy, an Emmy, two Tony awards (for two solo performances: 1977's Appearing Nitely and The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe in 1986), a Peabody Award and the 2003 Mark Twain Award.
We spoke with her by phone last week from her home in California.
Independent: I'm not sure if we should start off here by taking inventory or calling roll: I'd like to go over some of the people you'll be bringing with you to Durham.
Tomlin: This is the most recent show I've put together. I'll bring Ernestine, Edith Ann, Mrs. Beasley, Sister Boogie Woman, Madame Lupe (the world's oldest beauty expert), Lud and Marie, and let me think who else ... The Cheerleader. Trudy, the street person (from Search), because she has so much to say about so many things. I'll do about 10 characters, I'd say.
And I'll also be talking about other kinds of things; what's going on in Durham, and Washington. Just being a person in North Carolina that night.
It's the range of characters we've seen from you that's really interesting. Your people don't tend to hang out in any one part of the culture.
I love the American culture, all those different cultural types. I grew up in an old apartment house in Detroit, filled with different kinds of people. I'm sure I was totally enamored with them from the beginning, from apartment to apartment.
My family is Southern, so I've been thrown together with people. My mother and dad went from Kentucky to Detroit to work, and in the old days there used to be a bus line that went from those industrial cities back to the South. I used to take the Brooks Bus to spend the summers with my aunts and cousins. I'd leave the inner city of Detroit and be on a farm in Kentucky--and saw everything that went with both of those things.
There were all these people in Detroit: very political people, apolitical people, very radical and conservative, educated and uneducated--all in this one old building. And they weren't so different, as different as they were.
People like pensioners were living there who couldn't afford to move--as much as they would have liked to, to get away from some of us. But they were educated. Mrs. Clancey taught in a girls' private school or used to, and Mrs. Rupert was a botanist who was very eccentric. And then a lot of the Southerners came up, basically uneducated, to work in the factories.
I'm still friends with a lot of these people.
I think it shows in your work. With characters like Lud and Marie, an old married couple down on the farm, I think we sense that yes, you do know these people, in a way that gives you license--and probably good material, if you're paying attention--to actually represent them on stage. So many comics take on the Other for the easy joke. You seem to actually know them, and want to.
I hope you're right. I would never think of myself as separate from any of these characters or people. I think, if anything, you want it to be one embrace of ... humans, and the funny, overwrought, sad dilemma we're in. And the delight of certain things, of incredible little moments. I grew up with a lot of people, and they all made me laugh or cry or worry about them.
It's very strange to want to ask, "So what has Ernestine been up to in the last couple of years? How did Sister Boogie Woman handle the last election?" But I guess it is a statement about your abilities as a performer, and someone who draws these vivid characters. They do take on a life of their own.
Sister Boogie Woman's kind of an evangelist for cheap thrills, for full-out sensory experiences for old people. In her magnanimous nature, you would know where she stands on the last election.
It's like at either end of life, where Edith or Sister Boogie Woman is, you're kind of above the fray. So Sister Boogie Woman just flies in the face of anything conventional, of propriety. She knows how foolish it is to be bound up in that.
I assume these are long-term relationships, of a sort, with characters you've known so long. How do they change with time, the world?
On Laugh-In Edith Ann was doing one-liners, basically: "Junior Phillips had the measles and I connected the dots." But with longer forms, you're able to develop history, peers, parents--you try to develop a life for the character. You have more time and space to say something.
That was early in my career. I go back and look at old tapes and think, "My God, I don't know how--in four years, I made a tremendous leap in my own performance."
I think what really kept me afloat was I had such good selectivity, such good taste in material. [Laughs.] I may not have performed it well, but I did interesting things, something that wasn't being done in quite that way at the time.
E-mail Byron Woods at email@example.com.