An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin

Article Published: Feb. 18, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin

An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin

Lily Tomlin loves the stage.

The award-winning comedienne has been on television, the silver screen and beyond, gleefully skipping along the line between comedy and drama, handling both with a finesse and grace that can only be described as pure Lily.

It's fun work, and she enjoys her job. But despite an ever-growing number of appearances in nearly all media the 21st century has to offer, Tomlin leaps at an opportunity to work on stage.
This Saturday, Feb. 20, is case in point, when she returns to Appalachian State University's Farthing Auditorium for "An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin."

"I always loved the stage best," Tomlin said in a phone interview. "I always just had a sense of theater, in a theatrical sense, even as a kid."

Born in Detroit, Mich., she established her love for the stage at a rather young age, in kindergarten, while spending the summer in rural Kentucky on the family farm.

"There were goats copulating in a certain field ... and we'd run to that field to watch," she said. "I'd come back to kindergarten and paint what I'd see on the farm, because I knew it was exciting and titillating to the adults, as it is to a child in a certain extent. Yet I knew it had effect."
Tomlin, now at 70, recently came to the realization that she's had a comedy act since the age of 10, when she'd produce shows on the back porch.

"I was forever putting on a show, trying to cast other kids in it, and they wouldn't show up or leave in the middle," Tomlin said. "My older brother, I started working with him at one point when we were older teenagers. And he's really funny, naturally comedic, but he'd say, 'This is embarrassing,' and just walk off. So, literally, that's how I started working by myself."

Tomlin found that she could single-handedly perform everything she'd already started, adapting multiple-part acts to one-woman shows. "I could do it tirelessly - I knew it was something," she said.

Nonetheless, in college she found herself pursuing an entirely different line of work. While attending Wayne State University in Detroit, Tomlin studied pre-med before coming to focus on the funny bone.

"How did I come to focus on the scalpel, I don't know," she said. "Since I was (performing) as a little kid, it never occurred to me that people made a living doing it. I thought you had to have a real job, had to do something that gave to society. I was sort of good at biological studies, terrible at advanced mathematics. If you had me try to compute your thyroid dosage, you'd be in a lot of trouble."

Though she excelled in her biology studies, even microbiology, Tomlin is glad she didn't proceed any further. She has theater to thank for that.

"I got in one of the university theater pieces, and I had to improv," she said. "It was The Mad Woman of Chaillot, and I was one of the capitalist women, a walk-on. I had to improvise and lead the other capitalist women into the madwoman's cellar, which would banish them to the underworld. I would just have fun every time I came down the staircase, and the drama kids would come out to see what I was going to do.

"They would say things like, 'Do you know what kind of concentration you have?' And to me, it was just play. I felt so comfortable on the stage, I said, 'Oh, I wish I could do a living on this.'"
Her dream came true, as Tomlin left college to perform stand-up in various Detroit night-clubs and coffeehouses, leading to a move to New York City in 1965, playing at well-established clubs, like The Improvisation, Cafe Au Go Go, and the Upstairs at the Downstairs.

Though the stage was where she wanted to be, Tomlin would sometimes face less than enthusiastic crowds.

"I remember one night, I was playing Denver at a place called Marvelous Marv's, a place everyone would play - Steve Martin, Cheech and Chong, whoever was around at that time, (George) Carlin probably played there. I was literally playing to a vibrant silence."

The club provided performers an apartment in the same building, and they'd often gather there after the show. It was there Tomlin met actress Jan Sterling (The High and the Mighty, 1984).

"I'd do five or six performances that were less than raucous in response, and after a while you start to really wear down a bit. (Sterling) said, 'Don't stop, don't be afraid of what we're doing. The audience isn't used to seeing this kind of thing in a club,' and they're probably not, because it's more theatrical," Tomlin said. "I don't know what happened, but I did OK. She pumped me up, and I remember her specifically."

In 1966, Tomlin made her television debut as a regular on The Garry Moore Show, a variety program with such noted alumni as Carol Burnett, Jonathan Winters, Don Adams and Don Knotts.
In 1969, she joined the cast of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, where the world was introduced to her celebrated alter-egos - telephone operator Edith Ann and 6-year-old Ernestine.

She left the show in 1973 to co-write, with life partner Jane Wagner, six televised comedy specials - The Lily Tomlin Show (1973), Lily (1973), Lily (1974), Lily Tomlin (1975), Lily: SoldOut (1981) and Lily for President? (1982), earning Tomlin three Emmy awards and a Writers Guild of America Award. Her 1972 comedy album, This is a Recording, won Tomlin a Grammy Award. This was followed by a special Tony Award in 1977, while she was performing her one-woman Broadway show, Appearing Nitely, after which Time magazine dubbed her "America's New Queen of Comedy."

"It was a bit threatening, especially with Lucy (Ball) alive," Tomlin said. "I was entirely comfortable, but it's only as good as last week's magazine. It was off the doctor's reading table."
She's since appeared in numerous films, including Carl Reiner's All of Me (1984) with Steve Martin, Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog (1991) and more recently, Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, where she and Meryl Streep played the singing Johnson sisters.

"I never studied singing, and I'm not a natural singer," Tomlin admitted. "With Prairie, I studied for three months, almost every day, just so I could hold a harmony, because Meryl's a good singer, having sung many times. But Garrison (Keillor, creator of A Prairie Home Companion) did say to me ... "You know, you have a perfect, classic alto. You would've sung a cappella in the church in old times."

Tomlin has appeared in numerous television series, including Murphy Brown as Kay Carter-Shepley, Murphy's boss, and The West Wing, as presidential secretary Deborah Fiderer, along with notable guest appearances on The Simpsons, The X-Files, Will and Grace, and Desperate Housewives.

She's now appearing with Martin Short and Campbell Scott on the FX drama Damages, starring Glenn Close.

"There are lots of shows I'd like to be on," Tomlin said. "I'd mostly like to be on dramas, because I don't get to do that very much, but I'd like to have a regular part on one of the forensic shows ... I'd like to be there in the lab, with some of my medical background coming into play."
But she'd rather be on the stage.

"I'd love nothing more than to have a theater, go there every night, do a play, and live that life as a working actor in a good vehicle," she said.

Her last Broadway play was The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe in 2000, written by Jane Wagner, in which Tomlin plays multiple roles, with one particular character attempting to explain humanity in the 1980s to curious extraterrestrials. It's a role - or roles - that Tomlin has found particularly rewarding.

"I come out of the stage door from The Search, and there would be some yuppie couple who are just drop-dead gorgeous ... two girlfriends just visiting with pocketbooks, and the goth kids all punked out," she said. "And they'd all be in a little gaggle, just talking, talking, talking, because the play was so validating, so affirming on the species, and it was such a high. I loved it so much. It's really wonderful to do a play that makes people unify in some way."

On Saturday at Farthing, Tomlin plans to reunite the audience with some of her most popular characters, including Ernestine and Edith Ann, among 10 or so others.

"It's pretty informal, pretty interactive with the audience," she said. "I'd like it to be an entertainment roller-coaster ride, I'd like to take it to any place I can take it and as fast as I can take it, like film cuts. If I want to be this character or that character, if I can make you believe it, just flip to it."

Tomlin said she'll talk about Boone, Appalachian State University, and what it means to be a human in today's world, which happens to involve change. For instance, Ernestine is no longer a telephone operator, but rather works for a health-care insurance corporation.

"So, the characters live in the culture," she said. "The performances evolved in that I'm much more easygoing about it. I have much more fun because I see much more. Rather than really perfect, having to be a certain way, it doesn't have to be that way anymore. I have more fun with the audience. I'm less trying to be an excellent artist and more of maybe just an entertainer."

People can see for themselves Saturday, Feb. 20, at Farthing Auditorium, located on Rivers Street on the ASU campus. For tickets and more information, call the Farthing box office at (828) 262-4046 or (800) 841-ARTS, or visit

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