Lily Tomlin is enjoying a nice career resurgence. Last year, the seventy-six-year-old comedy icon starred as a lesbian poet who takes her granddaughter on a road trip to get money for an abortion in the indie film Grandma. The role earned her praise and best actress nods at the Golden Globes and Critics' Choice Awards. At the latter, Amy Schumer, who won for Trainwreck, said in her acceptance speech not only that Tomlin should have won, but that Schumer "would love to go down" on her.
Tomlin has also jumped on the streaming bandwagon alongside her 9 to 5 costar Jane Fonda in the Netflix dramedy Grace and Frankie, where two senior citizens lean on each other when their significant others become a couple. Tomlin may be in her golden years, but judging from the fact that she's returning to the Carolina Theatre this week, she still has a lot more to say.
The same goes for Margaret Cho, a younger comedian who benefitted from Tomlin's trailblazing but was freer to express her personal life. Cho appears at Goodnights Comedy Club for three nights this week.
Even though Tomlin has been getting much love lately, we shouldn't forget that she had to reimagine the "one-man show"—as a woman. Some of you may shudder upon hearing that term; folks usually imagine such an evening being nothing but dull, pretentious, self-indulgent spectacle. But when Tomlin took center stage, it was less about her than the trademark characters—busybody telephone operater Ernestine, precocious five-year-old Edith Ann, housewife Judith Beasley—she introduced as a cast member on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.
Tomlin memorably took her arsenal of personas, both male and female, to Broadway on two occasions: Lily Tomlin: Appearing Nitely in 1977 and the Tony-winning The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe in 1985. Along with her collaborator and life partner Jane Wagner, Tomlin rounded up monologues where her characters riffed on life, society and the human condition.
These shows weren't created just to display her exceptional skills as a comedic actor. They were also full of socially conscious observations and existential quandaries. It might not hit you until afterward that she had dropped a lot of heavy, thought-provoking shit.
Although she has been an LGBT supporter from way back, Tomlin's sexuality has never been a focal point of her comedy or her public life—she didn't officially come out until later in life, eventually marrying Wagner in 2013. But a generation later, fellow queer-comedy heroine Margaret Cho had no qualms bringing up bisexuality in her one-person shows. Hell, in 2002's Notorious C.H.O., she revealed her preferences in a woman ("I want a woman who looks like John Goodman!") as well as her views on cunnilingus ("You really need a wet-nap if you're gonna eat that").
Unlike Tomlin, the forty-seven-year-old Cho doesn't do much character work in her stand-up. She has always been aggressively personal, especially after ABC tried to make her an inoffensive sitcom princess when the network gave Cho her own vehicle, All-American Girl, in the mid-nineties. Since then, she has created several frank, unfiltered solo shows, including Notorious, I'm the One That I Want and Margaret Cho: Revolution, where she riffed on what it's like being an Asian-American—and a sexually adventurous one, at that—in contemporary society.
While they both have distinctive approaches to stand-up, it's apparent that Tomlin and Cho have always prided themselves on exhibiting a bold, independent femininity, an impulsive yen for social commentary, and, of course, an unapologetic feminist edge whenever they hit the stage. And both of them are far from done.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Well Enough Alone"