LOS ANGELES — Allow Lily Tomlin to digress.
The actor and comedian, still preternaturally youthful at 75, is telling one of her all-time favorite stories. It’s about a college friend who, affecting the hauteur that only 20-year-old theater majors can summon, once admonished the mumbling Tomlin to speak up. “If you can’t be direct,” the diva intoned, “why be?”
Tomlin’s famously expressive face breaks into a delighted grin. “I was just flattened,” she recalls happily before launching into yet another story about another one of her college-era “grande dames.” Which leads to the time she and a group of friends in Detroit jumped into a ’58 Cadillac convertible for an impromptu trip to New York. Which reminds her of the apartment she shared with the girlfriend of Barbara Boxer’s husband’s brother. That was around the same time she opened for the jazz pianist Mabel Mercer, who became a good friend. “Mabel was so dear, she was so fabulous,” Tomlin says with an affectionate sigh. “Oh, I have so many stories about her I could just croak.”
Welcome to Lily’s world, populated with the characters she’s known, communed with and channeled for 50 years, still immediately accessible through any number of stories, quips, dog-legs and then-what-happeneds that form the narrative wormholes connecting a vast and lively universe.
“I remember life in anecdotes,” Tomlin explains. “Very often I would build pieces on them.” She’s sitting in the cozy conference room of her office, a converted ground-floor apartment in Studio City, just off the main drag. Tomlin has been trying to give up sugar for the past two weeks and warily eyes the assortment of tea cookies and Halloween candy her assistant, Paul, has laid out. She’s surrounded by the fruits of a long, far-reaching career: The walls are covered with magazine covers from which Tomlin beams in various ages and stages; amidst several Emmys, a Grammy sits on a shelf, the horn of its Victrola teetering precariously. “My Grammy’s broken,” she says apologetically, her eyes roaming over the collection. She and her wife and frequent co-writer, Jane Wagner, have two prestigious Peabody awards each, she notes, “but we don’t know where the fourth one is.”
When you earn as many accolades as Tomlin has, it’s understandable if you lose a few. And now, she can add one more: On Sunday, she’ll receive a Kennedy Center Honor, a little over a decade after being feted with the center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. She couldn’t quite believe she had been selected for the Honors, she says, allowing herself to wonder aloud what her segment will involve. “What I’d like to see is a big stream of gay drag artists come out as Ernestine.”
In drag or not, it’s likely that Ernestine — the supercilious phone operator Tomlin created in the 1960s — and Edith Ann, the 5-year-old wise child from the same era, will be invoked. So, surely, will the cast of characters from Tomlin’s stand-up concerts, albums and film roles, which span from her Oscar-nominated debut in Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” to the classic comedy “9 to 5” and the early work of David O. Russell.
A truth that the Honors will definitely acknowledge is that, whether it’s in a Broadway play, a feature film, a TV show or just casual conversation, Lily Tomlin contains multitudes.
That gift was evident early on, when Tomlin was growing up on the west side of Detroit, where her father worked in a brass parts factory. Mary Jean Tomlin — she took the stage name Lily in homage to her mother, Lillie Mae — was a straight-A student who was also a tomboy, throwing gravel at cars and taking the names off the mailboxes of her neighbors in the apartment house where her family lived. “I was all over the map,” she says. “I was doing magic tricks and putting on shows and everything else. . . . I had my hand in the pies, every finger.” This inspires yet another story, about a visit to Santa Claus with her little brother, Richard. “I believed in Santa Claus until I was about 9.”
That willingness to entertain a fantasy long after most mortals would snap out of it might explain why, as a pre-med student at Wayne State University, she gravitated toward the artsy set — the students who said things like, “If you can’t be direct, why be?” or another favorite verity from the era: “I just abhor mindless vandalism.” The grande dame of that withering pronouncement was the one who told Tomlin about a campus theater production she might be right for. “She said, ‘I’m going over to read for ‘The Madwoman of Chaillot,’ ” Tomlin recalls, affecting a condescendingly superior tone. “ ‘You should come along, there are a lot of small parts.’ ” Tomlin did and wound up earning laughs. She’d done short sketches and impressions since she was little but never thought show business was a viable option — but that night, the calculus began to change.
An exploratory sojourn in New York followed in 1962; chastened by the big city, she returned to Detroit to sharpen her performance skills in local clubs and coffeehouses. In 1965, she moved back to New York, working as an assistant bookkeeper for the talent agent Marvin Josephson and refining an act that included such early and indelible characters as Madame Lupe, the world’s oldest living beauty expert; Lucille, the rubber freak; the cocktail organist Bobbie Jeanine; Ernestine; and Edith Ann. (It seems unbelievable that a woman who gave voice to so many fully realized characters decided to study mime when she first arrived in Manhattan; suffice it to say, speechlessness was not her forte.)
Most of her inventions were inspired either by her family back in Detroit — transplanted Southerners who joined the Appalachian migration north for industrial jobs — or former neighbors and acquaintances in her mostly African American neighborhood. And nearly all of them were political: Ernestine was Tomlin’s way of skewering AT&T’s abuses of monopolistic power; her female characters were informed by a feminism that had taken root years earlier, when she noticed that even her blue-collar father had more freedom and autonomy than her homemaker mother.
Louis St. Louis, who later became a Grammy-winning composer and arranger for the “Grease” musicals, had befriended Tomlin back in Detroit, then shared an apartment with her in New York on East Fifth Street. “She actually bought the first piano I ever had to play on in New York, for $50,” St. Louis recalls. He also remembers her admiration for the performer Ruth Draper, whose characterizations inspired Tomlin to try something new in a comedy world still dominated by shtick and punch line-driven jokes.
“She was more of a monologist than what we would consider a stand-up comic,” he says. “The payoffs took a minute to get to.” Even back in Detroit, where he spent a great deal of time with Tomlin and her family, she could send him into gales of laughter — he remembers the real-life roots of one of her most hilarious routines, involving a teenager screaming at her parents, “Would you please stop talking about that cake?!” In New York, he took her to Cafe au Go Go, where he told proprietor Howard Solomon, “You’ve really gotta look at this girl.” Solomon did, and “that was one of the first places she ever played.” When St. Louis became the house pianist at the West Side comedy club the Improv, she began performing there.
Tomlin had been working the New York club circuit for just a few years when she was invited to join the cast of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” a prime-time sketch comedy show that made her, almost literally, an overnight sensation: Once America met Ernestine (“one ringy-dingy”) and Edith Ann (“And that’s the truthhhhh”), her place as a national treasure was secured. A string of TV specials, concerts, albums and, inevitably, movies followed in remarkably consistent order, a few inevitable clunkers notwithstanding. (The critical drubbing of Wagner’s 1978 directorial debut “Moment by Moment” still stings.)
Jane Fonda first saw Tomlin in her Broadway show “Appearing Nitely” in 1977 and immediately “fell in love with her.” Fonda was preparing to produce “9 to 5,” a comedy about three secretaries who hatch a plot to wreak revenge on their sexist boss. The film, Fonda says, “was kind of a dark comedy — not a broad comedy, but a serious comedy about female office workers. When I saw [Lily] in that show, I thought, ‘I’m not going to make a movie about secretaries that she’s not in, because she’s channeling something that is cosmic.’ And that was amplified even more, of course, when she did ‘Search.’ ”
“Search,” in this case, refers to what was arguably the creative high point of Tomlin’s career: “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” a one-woman show that Tomlin first performed in 1985. A tour de force of Tomlin’s physically expressive gifts, as well as her ability to channel people at their most vulnerable and essentially human, “Search” allowed her to create a grand unified narrative that knit together several of her most well-known characters, as well as their aspirations, defeats, foibles and shared dignity. The play, which Tomlin revived in 2000, was the apotheosis of Tomlin’s aesthetic and philosophical practice: an approach to humor that consistently eschewed cruelty for compassion, ridicule for tenderness and facile irony for genuine, hard-won wisdom.
The play was written by Wagner, whose 1969 script for a TV movie called “J.T.” first led Tomlin to ask her to write material for Edith Ann. When they met, it was love at first sight (“for me it was” Tomlin says), and they’ve been together ever since: They were wed last New Year’s Eve at a friend’s home, even after Tomlin insisted for years that she would never marry.
“We upped and did it,” Tomlin says, explaining, “we thought we should get married because we can.” Although she had been pressured over the years to publicly acknowledge her sexual orientation — in 1975 Time magazine offered her the cover if she’d come out — Tomlin always demurred. “I never did not come out,” she explains now. “I wanted to be acknowledged for my work. I didn’t want to be that gay person who does comedy.”
Tomlin still wants Wagner to write a follow-up to “Search,” if only to let fans know what became of Agnus Angst, the teenage punk performance artist; Chrissy, the unemployed aerobicizer; the bemused grandparents Lud and Marie; and Trudy, the intergalactically attuned homeless woman. Then there’s our own confounding modern era — with its attendant anxieties, confusions and perplexities — which makes “Search’s” existential questions seem even more urgent: Who are we? What are we becoming? And at what cost?
“I want Jane to tell me,” Tomlin says longingly. “We always make jokes about it, that she’s got her own satellite dish on the roof. She’s tuning in somewhere the rest of us don’t tune in. I say: ‘Come on, Jane. Let’s have our last hurrah.’ But she has to be inspired. She’ll get inspired and start writing, and it’s magical. So I’m just waiting around, holding my breath.”
Well, not exactly waiting and not exactly holding: Tomlin still performs dozens of concerts every year, and lately she’s become a go-to name for some of the hippest shows on television, including “The West Wing,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Damages,” “Web Therapy” and “Eastbound & Down.” This fall, she worked with Fonda in “Grace and Frankie,” a Netflix series due out next year about two frenemies whose husbands have fallen in love. “Two old broads, we got a job at Netflix!” Tomlin says with a laugh.She adds that recently Fonda — who calls herself “Jane 2,” in deference to Wagner — received a text from their “9 to 5” co-star Dolly Parton saying that she’d love to work with them again. “If we get a second season, we’ll definitely have Dolly on,” Tomlin says.
“I can’t imagine doing it with anyone but Lily, she’s just a joy,” says Fonda, who over the years has concluded that the source of Tomlin’s genius lies less in her skills as a performer than in her instincts as a humanist. “Maybe it’s true of all of us, but it appears to be more true of her life, that it’s been peopled with very unusual characters that have lodged in her memory bank. And usually they’re people who have great integrity in their center. She’s very attracted to and can spot integrity in a human being.”
Tomlin provides a case in point, in yet another rambling but revealing sidetrack, about the origins of her bag-lady character.
She was still unknown but had been invited to appear on a daytime talk show hosted by Joan Rivers; the program filmed early in the morning and enticed audience members with free coffee and doughnuts. “I had a really high opinion of myself,” Tomlin recalls. “I had been doing the World’s Oldest Living Beauty Expert at Upstairs at the Downstairs, and I thought it was just a great piece of material — very physical, terribly funny and yet it had content.
“So Joan brought me on and had me do it. And as I’m leaving, thinking I’m God’s gift to something, I went to the elevator and there was a bag lady there who’d been at the show. It was freezing cold outside, her legs were ulcerated, and she said, ‘Oh, lady, you were funny. You gave me such a laugh, and I really needed it.’ It was so genuine and unaffected, and it came at the moment when I really needed it, because I was feeling so full of myself. So when I got my first special, I pitched that story to the writers. I said: ‘That’s what I want the material to do. I want you to have that moment where it takes your breath away, if it’s possible.’ ”
Let the record reflect that it is possible. And let us rejoice that Lily Tomlin is still here to show how it’s done.