Lily Tomlin Still Staying in Character(s)

By David J. Spatz
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 22, 2009

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Of the dozens of characters that have sprung from the fertile mind of Lily Tomlin during the past 40 years, her favorite will probably come as a surprise.

It’s not the prim, puckish and sarcastic Ernestine the Operator. Nor is precocious, six-year-old Edith Ann and her rude noises, or Trudy, the homeless, plain-talking bag lady, or Pervis Hawkins, the black soul singer reportedly patterned after Luther Vandross.

The characters closest to Tomlin’s heart are Lud and Marie, parents held comedic prisoners in their own home by a teenager who played punk rock at deafening levels and once referred to herself as “Dracula’s daughter.”

Unlike her fictitious characters, Lud and Marie were based on people Tomlin knew quite well.

“Essentially, they were sort of me writing about my mother and dad who were visited upon by two kids like me and my brother,” Tomlin says with a big laugh. “They basically gave up on us because they couldn’t make us do anything.”

Nothing in Tomlin’s background would portend a career as an iconic figure in American comedy. Her parents were working-class folks who eked out a living while raising two kids in a one-bedroom apartment in inner-city Detroit, where her younger brother, Richard, once sawed their couch into three pieces — so the family could have sectional furniture.

By the time Tomlin and her brother were in their teens, her parents realized there was little they could do to bring them in line. So her dad, a factory worker, and her mom, a nurse’s aid, simply went to bed not knowing what the morning would bring.

“My brother was hilarious,” she recalls, laughing again at the recollections. “He would wear an old smoking jacket he bought at the thrift store, put a fan in the window to blow the sheers, drink water from a martini glass and pretend he was living in a penthouse in New York. And he would do it full out, too. It was like he was creating his own parallel universe.”

Looking back, though, Tomlin realizes her parents really were among her earliest comedy influences, along with a grade school teacher. Her mother was very witty, she says, and her father was just naturally comedic.

Combine that with a teacher who used to send her class off for the weekend by reading dialectic stories with all kinds of voices and you realize the building blocks for Tomlin’s career were there throughout her childhood.

Tomlin, who makes her long-awaited Atlantic City debut Saturday night (Oct. 24) at Borgata, began doing stand-up comedy in the 1960s. She caught her big break when she was cast as part of the comedy ensemble on the trail-blazing NBC variety series Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In.

It was there that she introduced characters like Ernestine and Edith Ann, who remain staples in her standup act and served her well in three Broadway shows that have earned her two Tony Awards to go along with the six Emmys and a Grammy Award she’s received for her broad body of work as a performer and a writer.

Tomlin has kept her characters current and continues to develop new material for her comedy alter-egos. Ernestine, for instance, left the phone company years ago after the breakup of Ma Bell. Ernestine went on to host an Internet chat show, where she talked to former President George Bush and caught former Vice President Dick Cheney “hiding behind the curtains and using the f-word,” Tomlin says with a big laugh as she recalls the bit. So where is Ernestine today?

“She works for a health insurance company denying health care to everyone,” Tomlin explains.

Lud and Marie are now grandparents whose have been blessed with a granddaughter cut from the same punkish cloth as “Dracula’s Daughter.”

Only Edith Ann remains frozen in time. She’s still six-years-old, but she lives in the present, not in the past.

“She programs her mother’s iPod,” Tomlin says.

In most cases, the material Tomlin writes for her characters is cleverly disguised social commentary. “Actually, I consider everything social commentary, even if it’s just commentary about our mundane everyday lives,” Tomlin tells me from her Los Angeles home during a chat that was often interrupted by Tomlin’s warm and rich laugh that sounded wholly genuine and not forced.

Although she enjoyed enormous success with her one-woman stage show The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Tomlin, who recently turned 70, isn’t sure she has another run of the show left in herself.

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