Lily Tomlin brings her flair for the dramatic to Beaver Creek
BEAVER CREEK, Colorado ” In 1966 a young woman named Mary Jean “Lily” Tomlin auditioned for the Garry Moore television show by dancing with taps taped to the bottom of her bare feet. As the story goes, Moore was “charmed by the grotesqueness of it all and hired her.” Her father, after all, had told her to “show out” her flair for the dramatic. And so she did.
Tomlin is the daughter of Southern Baptists, and while she was raised in inner city Detroit, she also spent time with her family in rural Kentucky. She created many of her characters based on the dichotomy of the two groups.
“I wanted to say something with them or show how much fun I thought they were or how affectionately I felt,” Tomlin said during a recent phone interview. ” I grew up with just those types of people. I thought about what was frail and fabulous about all of them. It fostered empathy.”
In 1969 Tomlin joined the comedy show, “Laugh-In” where the world was introduced to some of her unforgettable characters. There was Edith Ann, the bratty five-year-old who sat in an oversized rocking chair, making strange noises and telling stories about her brother and her dog. There was the snobby Tasteful Lady, who lived a life of entitlement. And then there was Ernestine, the saucy, smart-alecky, snorting telephone operator, whose expression, “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” has become part of American lexicon.
“Ernestine came along in the mid ’60s, when everybody hated the phone company,” Tomlin said. “The company was totally deteriorating. They were spending all of their money on corporate data basing and letting their private subscribers erode. And if you called to subscribe or get a repair, it was awful.”
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So, Ernestine would say, ‘Well, will you be home between April and November?’
“I was going to make her just a tough New York operator, but as I worked on her and threatened people and harassed them there was some kind of repressed sexuality behind it. Her body just twisted up and got tight. And her face got tight and when her face got tight, she would snort. I feel when I created Ernestine, I had some kind of divine intervention; somebody visited me. I don’t know how else to explain how organic it was and how it struck a nerve.”
During her long, varied career and, Tomlin has received numerous awards including six Emmys, two Tony Awards, a Grammy and two Peabody Awards, to name a few. In 2003 she was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. She’s appeared in many movies including “9 to 5,” “Short Cuts,” “A Prairie Home Companion,” and most recently, “Pink Panther 2.” Her television credits include rolls on “Murphy Brown,” “The West Wing,” and “Desperate Housewives.”
When Tomlin was growing up, there were very few women doing stand-up comedy. She’d watch Lucille Ball, Imogene Coca, Joan Davis and Gracie Allen, who were in television comedies.
“In terms or women who ‘stood alone,'” said Tomlin, “there was Totie Fields, Phyllis Diller and Jean Carroll, who would go on the Ed Sullivan show in a cocktail dress and fur stole and tell ‘husband jokes.’ That’s the first time I had seen a woman doing that. So all those women imprinted me.”
And, in turn, Tomlin has influenced others. “Whoopie told me that I was an influence on her ‘standing in one,’ and creating characters,” Tomlin said. “And, perhaps, I was an influence on some others like Tracey Ullman and Catherine O’Hare, who might have watched me when they were younger.”
However, it was the Broadway show, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” written by Jane Wagner, her longtime companion and frequent collaborator, that exhibited Tomlin’s eclectic sensibility and huge range of comedy from the absurd to the understated.
“The show is about Trudy, a bag lady, who is the earth contact through her umbrella hat for aliens from outer space who are searching throughout the universe for signs of intelligent life,” Tomlin said. “And Trudy is, sort of, the tour guide through humanity.
“One of my favorite parts is when Trudy becomes a creative consultant to Mr. Nabisco who wants her to come up with snack inspirations to increase sales. ‘Mr. Nabisco, sir,’ she says, ‘you could be the first to sell the concept of munching to the third world. It’s an untapped market. These countries have millions of people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from and the idea of eating between meals has never occurred to them.’ The show is filled with that kind of humor.”
Over the years, Tomlin has made her mark as an inventive comedienne and actor. She prefers the stage, however, as she finds it “so immediate. So live. More personal.” She’s even thinking about revamping her “Search for Signs of Intelligent Life.”
“I might perform the show again, just to prove that I haven’t broken my hip or something,” she said with a laugh and a snort.
What: Lily Tomlin performs her one-woman show
Where: Vilar Performing Arts Center, Beaver Creek
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
More information: Call 970-845-TIXS or visit http://www.vilarpac.org.