Lily Tomlin bows funny. She implodes as the applause swells, kneeling down deep with her hands clasped above her head, looking as though she's trying to toll a bell and sit on a mushroom at the same time.
"I don't know when I started doing that," says Tomlin in her cozy-cluttered dressing room backstage at the Biltmore Theater. "There was a long period when I was doing all these sort of Tai-chi movements, and I had never even studied Tai-chi. My body just wanted to do it. For months I would have these energy bursts and do these things."
She jumps up from the couch and into poses resembling floor lamps and potted plants.
"I just couldn't stop, except that I finally got so excessive in it that I spent it. So excessive that it went away."
She may be erratic but she is nobody's kook. Vulnerable, yes, but weak, no. Madcap and zany are just not the words for her. Lily Tomlin is unlike any other funny woman - any other funny person. In her dazzling, cheered and repeatedly extended one-woman Broadway revue, "Appearing Nitely," she presents a gallery of true-to-life characters with a mixture of humor and pathos that would make Chaplin envious. She is actress, artist, observer - and acrobat.
She usually takes her very last bow standing on her head.
"Generally, yes. The only time I miss is when I don't gauge the bows well. Sometimes you think people are rising from their seats and they're just trying to make it up the aisle. I like to save my headsstand for last. I like to end it standing on my head. Oh yes I like that. I don't know, I just like that. When I miss it, I feel incomplete."
Her Broadway run ended last night with a benefit for New york mayoral hopeful Bella Abzug. Tomlin will take a brief rest and then hit the road, with a couple of weeks of "Appearing Nitely" in Philadelphia and then, starting July 25, two weeks at the National Theater in Washington. Tickets won't go on sale until the last week of June, but some people are claiming to have bought them already.
Tomlin is a sensation - this year perhaps, more than ever: The covers of Time and Rolling Stone. "The Late Show." The standing-room-only at the Biltmore. And a recently acquired special Tony Award. Tomlin, 38, is a level-headed enough not to be overwhelmed.
"I haven't even seem my Tony yet," she says, back on the couch. "They gave me a fake one to hold up at the end of the show for photographers. They do that on all the awards shows, until they get them engraved. I suppose they'll notify me to pick it up at the post office: 'Your Tony is waiting at Ansonia Station.'" She laughs and taps you so you'll laugh, too.
"We were going to take a picture for me with all these awards for the Playbill. I was going to be dusting them. We thought it would be funny. I have about eight of these little comedy awards, you know, the finger with the egg on it that Alan King gives out. Litterally eight. Let's see, what was I? 'Funniest Woman of the Year,' or something. And then what have I got? Oh, a Grammy and a 'Rising Star of The Year.' I don't have an Oscar, of course." She was nominated for "Nashville" but didn't win.
"But anyway we never took the picture. I don't even have a mantel to put the awards on. I wish I did. You know, kind of an Ozzie Nelson mantel."
All that the Playbill does say about Tomlin is, "Lily Tomlin was probably the best white cheerleader Detroit over saw. Unfortunately her career ended when she graduated." Tomlin says, "I still have my cheer letter. I'm going to have it made into a gown someday."
Tomlin also has three Emmys for her specials on ABC and CBS. "The globe fell off one of them, though. It's a winged figure, kind of holding the world (she poses) only one of the globes needs soldering back on." She thinks. She smiles. "I supposed I could take it to a trophy and say, 'Here.'"
She was so anxious to conquer Broadway that she dropped out of a movie, Neil Simons' "The Cheap Detective," to do it. Opening night was worth it, though. "The whole thing of going to Sardi's and reading reviews - we all shared it, all of us here who put on the show, and there was something real hot about that opening night. It was real exciting.
"But it passes very quickly."
When Tomlin talks of pleasures, she smiles horizontally and rolls her eyes almost like the old Friskies Dog Food puppy.It's total elation. But a moment later she will sneak in a little self-depreciation to bring herself down Tomlin is a medley of people even when off the stage, and one of those people keeps telling her to keep her feet on the ground.
Yet she still gets a teen-ager's thrill when certain big stars come to see her. "Yeah, Jackie Onassis came one night. I found out at intermission. I said, 'Oh, I hope she comes backstage,' but dammit, she didn't. I do have Claudette Colbert's autograph up there, though." She points to a page ripped from a scrapbook and tacked to the bathroom door. "Oh this isn't the only page we have," she boasts. "We have MANY pages."
"The first four weeks I played here, I was too shy to ask for autographs. Then I though, 'I'd better get a scrapbook,' but I'd always get somebody else to ask for the autograph for me. I mean, I just could not ask Lauren Bacall for her autograph. But when Claudette Colbert came back, I asked her personally, myself. She said, 'My real name is Lily, and the first time my name went up in lights was at the Biltmore Theater in 1927.' She was so wonderful."
When Tomlin made "The Late Show," playing the loony chatterbox with the lost cat, she met Art Carney for the first time.
"I thought to myself, 'I'm so glad to meet "Norton,"' you know, Art Carney. It's like a thrill. So I say, "Look, here I am, Lily Tomlin now, and that makes it possible for me to sit here with Art Carney and fool around.' So I'm pleased. I mean, it's true about stars and people like that, you have love for them, on whatever level you have that love.
"Those stars are the ones that give you the rush."
What makes Tomlin's comedy especially pungent and remarkable is that she won't compromise her characters, most of whom are based on people Tomlin has really known. "Appearing Nitely" includes such familiar faces as Ernestine the onipomtent operator ("We don't have to car, we're the phone company"), Edith Ann the malevolent almost-6-year-old, and Judith Beasley of Calumet City, Ill., who only believes what she sees in the commercials.
But there are also such fairly young creations as Rick, a suddenly single bar-cruiser hoping to get lucky and forget about his ex-wife and kid, and Crystal, a 35-year-old hang-gliding quadriplegic knwon to peel out in her air-powered wheelchair. Even at their oddest, these people seem true to life.
Tomlin is pretty rigid about compromising herself, as well. She was a feminist before everybody was a feminist.
"People saw a feminist consciousness in my early work only because I respected myself and I respected the people I did," she says very seriously. "That's really the basis of feminism to me, the very best part of what there is about feminism. I'm not afraid to be identified as a feminist - I mean it's limiting as an artist to be 'identified,' period - but I do believe in the humanism of feminism."
Though she doesn't see herself as particularly political, she did refuse, during her tenure on the late "Laugh-In," to appear in scenes with guest star John Wayne on week. It was in the midst of the Vietnam War. "It seems foolish now. But at that time everything seemed so insidious; they would take these people who were so potentially mean and insidious and make them seem harmless, which is what the effect of television is.
"I did do a phone call as Ernestine with Martha Mitchell once. I actually loved Martha Mitchell, and when she was abducted, and everyone was saying, 'Menopause, menopause,' it was loathsome." Tomlin squints to express her loathing. "Because she was the only woman who had, uh . . ." Not finding the right word, pounds on her chest to make the point.
Tomlin was asked by producer George Schlatter to host the first revived "Laugh-In" on NBC this fall, but she declined. "I'm rather business like when it comes to my career, and I felt it wasn't in my best interest, even though I hated to turn George down. I'm bound to show up there eventually, though."
She also opted out of this year's Carter inaugural gala at the Kennedy Center. "I was going to perform in that initially, before they decided it would be televised. It was supposed to show the administration's support for the arts, I thought, but then when they turned it into a TV show, and it looked more like the artists' support for the administration, I withdrew.
"Nobody's heart was broken."
Tomlin will be doing a CBS special in the fall or winter, has completed a PBS special called "Earthwatch," on which her real parents play the roles of her parents, and wants to make a movie with John Travolta, though that is unofficial. She doesn't know exactly what her next movie will be but "I know in the metaphysical sense that I have a 'next movie.'"
There is one other special thing about Lily Tomlin. That is that she is frightening. Not frightening like you fear she'll swoon or go bananas in front of you. Just that she'll do something completely unpredictable to keep people from being to comfortable or getting lazy around her, onstage or off. She's been known to drop lines from her show and she felt people were ready for them ahead of time. She is mischievous bordering on dangerous.
A woman whose purse matched her shoes and who drove a spotless '57 Chevy once told Lily Tomlin, "Lily, you're a tall girl, and you've got a lot of stature, but every time you open your mouth, I see a little elf jump out."
It was meant as a compliment.
It was taken as one.