One of the most celebrated comic actors in television and film history, Lily Tomlin has also played a pioneering role in developing the art of the live one-woman show. Her performance in her partner Jane Wagner’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe won her a Tony Award in 1986 for best actress in a play. On Friday, May 8, and Saturday, May 9, Tomlin will reprise some of her classic routines such as Edith Ann (the child in the oversized chair) and Ernestine (the one from the phone company who snorts when she laughs). Wherever she goes, Tomlin brings a rare blend of breezy wit and down-to-earth charm that is hard to resist. I caught up with Tomlin recently on the phone from Southern Illinois, where she was coming off a performance the evening before, and on her way to a famous diner for breakfast.
I hear you have given some of your classic characters updates. Where is Ernestine today? Nothing radical has changed about Ernestine. She’s still the same character. Of course now she’s denying people their healthcare benefits instead of working for the phone company, but the premise remains-she’s not going to give up any advantages she may have over you, and she is going to enjoy herself while she’s doing that. Ernestine still likes her power.
It’s obvious you connect on a very deep level with the characters you play. Is there a formal element to what you do as well? Does each bit have a specific shape or structure? I don’t know if there is a specific shape so much as that every character has a different thrust. You try to build in some way over the course of a bit, because you have to finish somehow. There should come a moment of clarity that everyone shares when they laugh.
Does it make any sense to talk about comedy like yours in terms of its structure? When you are on stage as a comedian, you appear to be crafting something in the moment, and taking a spontaneous slice of time, and : well, it’s easy to say misleading things about it in terms of how it is put together, because it kind of has to just happen. But I think a good bit does also always make a point. The best ones are layered, and the layers are what give them depth and resonance. I don’t do this just for the fun of it. The material is not cheap; it has to have richness and texture.
You have created a lot of great memories for people, many of which they now associate with childhood. Do you look back fondly on your own youth and growing up? Of course I look back fondly on my childhood, and on my life as a young adult. I can get moony-faced about my family, who were and are a bunch of funny Southerners. We moved from Kentucky to Detroit just before I was born, so I grew up in the inner city. It was a black neighborhood where we lived in Detroit for the most part, and my parents were working-class. Growing up in urban Detroit I saw America in the best and the worst possible light. Six or eight blocks away there were mansions, but we were in a run-down apartment house that burned in the 1967 riots. I always go back to my old neighborhoods. My brother and I love tracking down the places we remember and seeing if they are still there.
How does the current situation in Detroit strike you? Do you have any opinions about the state of the auto industry today? You know, Detroit’s problems are not exactly new. The situation there goes back at least 40 years. It’s not like the auto industry was in great shape before. But I love that life for what it was-not perfect. My dad was the same way. He drank, he went to the track, and he was kind of a “street” guy. But he was real, and I loved him. I don’t know if I have shed any light on the auto bailout, but yes, my heart still goes out to Detroit, if that’s what you’re asking.
You’ve played Santa Barbara before. What are you thinking about in anticipation of your upcoming shows here? I love Santa Barbara. I actually almost bought a house there, but that’s a story for another time. I remember that the Lobero is relatively intimate. I do like a small venue. It’s easier to connect with the whole audience.
This event has been cancelled due to the Jesusita Fir. For more information, call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.