With so many high-profile comedians these days making their names playing themselves â Louis C.K. with âLouie,â Whitney Cummings with, well, âWhitneyâ â itâs easy to forget that comedy used to be built on characters. At 72, Lily Tomlin continues to set the gold standard for character comedy, playing anyone and anything but herself on screens big and small. For more than 40 years, Tomlinâs career has been populated by a dizzying assortment of personas, including nosy telephone operator Ernestine and precocious 5Â˝-year-old Edith Ann. Ahead of a stand-up show at Strathmore on Sunday packed with some of her best-known bits, Tomlin reflects on a lifetime of getting laughs.
On Women in Comedy: Tomlin has been a pioneer for women in the world of comedy, working as a rare female in stand-up in the 1960s, then joining the cast of âRowan & Martinâs Laugh-Inâ in 1969 and later performing on her own TV specials. Sheâs since been on shows including âMurphy Brownâ and âThe West Wing.â
âA lot of barriers have been knocked over. Not nearly so many women used to do comedy,â she says. When Tomlin started out, women in show business had two choices: be funny or be beautiful. âI was in a revue in the mid-â60s, and the girl that played the ingĂŠnue had nothing to do onstage,â she recalls. âBut in the dressing room, this girl was hilarious! I would be doubled over she was so funny. And Iâd say, âOh, youâve got to do this onstage!â And sheâd fluff up, her hair would just expand on its own, and sheâd look in the mirror and say, âOh, I wouldnât want anyone to think I was unattractive.ââ
On Relationships: Tomlin has been in a decades-long relationship with writer and director Jane Wagner â who also happens to be her most famous collaborator. Among other projects, Wagner wrote and directed Tomlinâs 1991 one-woman stage show âThe Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universeâ; wrote for the 1973 TV special âLilyâ (and won an Emmy for it); and wrote and produced the 1981 TV special âLily: Sold Out.â
âJane is totally the writer,â Tomlin says. âBut I get credit for everything, which I feel really bad about. If you go on the Internet, it looks like Iâm as quotable as Gandhi, but itâs mostly Janeâs writing.â Tomlin says Wagnerâs guidance as a director has always kept her on her toes â such as when they recorded a film version of âSigns of Intelligent Life.â
âWhen she wasnât there, I might alter something if I found it difficult to do,â Tomlin laughs. âI would just shape it differently so it wasnât so demanding. And then sheâd come and catch me at it.â
On “The West Wing”: âWhen it [first] came out, I couldnât believe I wasnât on it. I thought, âThis is the best show!â says Tomlin, who wound up playing President Bartletâs secretary, Debbie Fiderer, for the last four seasons of the series.
âWe didnât have such a good deal going on in the real world [in those years], and sometimes when you were on the show you actually thought Bartlet was our president,â she laughs. âIt felt like all these people were really in control in the White House.â
When the show finally wrapped, reality was tough to accept. âI really cried on the last episode, when I had to hand the Oval Office over to that other woman,â she recalls. âI was crying, big, blubbering, ugly crying.âMusic Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; Sun., 7 p.m., $35-$75; 301-581-5100. (Grosvenor-Strathmore)