Postcards from Lily

Diverse upbringing helped turn Tomlin into legendary comedienne
By Donnie Snow
February 28, 2003

Historically, comedy’s ranks were about as hospitable for women as collegiate sports, without Title 9.

So what does it take to be one of America’s foremost comediennes?

“It helps that I do work that I get pleasure from,” said Lily Tomlin, calling during a respite from filming new episodes of NBC’s The West Wing. Her role as the President’s assistant won her a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination, another kudo for an actress whose mantel already teeters with trophies including six Emmys, a Tony and a Grammy.

But Tomlin likes to give the impression she’s just like everybody else.

“I don’t think (comediennes) are any happier or any sadder than anyone else,” she said.

Maybe, but in a time when “American Idols” are manufactured before a prime-time audience, being happy that you’re like everybody else seems . . . odd.

Growing up working class, but next to a very rich neighborhood, “I saw that everybody was so much the same and not the same, but they had the same. . . .” she said, trailing off.

“I think it comes with growing up in Detroit. I grew up in basically a black neighborhood. I was just exposed to different kinds of people.”

That dichotomy undoubtedly helped groom Tomlin into the chameleon-like, character-driven humorist and social commentator she’s become.

“I think I feel like they do live in my body,” Tomlin said of characters like the demented telephone operator Ernestine, the macho entertainer Tommy Velour, the super-organized Southern housewife Judith Beasley and sexy soul crooner Purvis Hawkins.

Her characters could have been as famous as Tomlin herself if not for a successful film career opposite the likes of Art Carney, Jack Lemmon, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Steve Martin, Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, Bette Midler, and an extensive list of other A-list actors.

Coincidentally, Tomlin shares star billing alongside Tea with Mussolini-mate Cher on Memphis’s marquees this week.

Telling, Tea is Tomlin’s only major cinematic homosexual role, aside from the lesbian character in her signature one-woman show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by her life-partner, Jane Wagner.

“I’m like Kennedy,” she explained, “I came up in a time when (sexuality) was never discussed.

“I never made any kind of deception about it, (but) for some people, I’ve never been as out as they might have wanted me to be.”

Tomlin’s always supported the cause, most recently with a sizable contribution to the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, as well as a major role in the HBO AIDS-epidemic movie And The Band Played On.

But Tomlin doesn’t bare her sexual orientation in the same spotlight chosen by other famous lesbian comediennes, most notably Ellen DeGeneres.

“I, frankly – I have a lot of funny feelings about movements,” she said. “The rhetoric is too ridiculous, it’s too over-the-top.”

Humility, hard work and a sense of old-school decorum helped Tomlin become one of America’s foremost comediennes, balancing gutbusters with artistic torment.

“Lincoln said, ‘you can be just as happy or sad as you allow yourself to be,'” she said.

Tomlin appears as part of the Orpheum’s 2003 Speaker Series 7 p.m. Monday at the Orpheum. Tickets, available at the box office, Davis-Kidd Booksellers and Ticketmaster, range from $15 to $55. For details call 525-3000 or 743-ARTS or log on or http://www

Copyright 2003, GoMemphis. All Rights Reserved.

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