Truth is, I've always been selling out. The difference is that in the past I looked like I had integrity because there were no buyers. -- Lily Tomlin
I don't really do topical jokes," says Lily Tomlin, taking a break from filming an episode of The West Wing. "Okay, I do have one George W. Bush joke," she admits devilishly, before letting it fly: "The syntax of the father will be visited on the son." There is a pause as she waits for the inevitable groan such puns, accurate or otherwise, always elicit.
Perhaps topical humor really isn't Mz. Tomlin's strong suit after all, and yet as an actress and as a comedian, she has always been relevant. Tomlin, who became an instant pop-culture icon in the late 1960s with her appearances on the super-groovy variety show Laugh-In, is the rarest of entertainment-industry animals. She has, for going on four decades now, successfully kept one foot planted in commercial culture, the other in the counterculture without ever seeming the least bit conflicted. After all, how many performers could produce and narrate a film like The Celluloid Closet, a documentary about the portrayal of homosexuals in the American media, then turn around and lend her voice to a popular piece of children's programming like The Magic School Bus without creating a noisy controversy in conservative quarters? Not many. A queen of virtually all media, Tomlin is responsible for definitive moments on stage (The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe), on television (Laugh-In), and in the movies (Nashville, Short Cuts, etc.). She is, of course, most famous for her ability to fully transform herself into an infinite number of unique characters who are every bit as grotesque as they are attractive.
"When I first started out, there weren't a whole lot of comedians who did characters," Tomlin says. "It was almost all stand-up, and the comedians would create a persona for themselves based on some cultural type. Like Totie Fields. She would make jokes about being fat and not attractive. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to play a lot of different culture types. Mining one field just wasn't rich enough for me."
Tomlin's parents moved from Paducah, Kentucky, to Detroit in the 1930s. Her dad was a character, a drinker, and a less than successful gambler with a thing for the ponies. He would take his daughter to bars and to the track. He would get her to place his bets for him. The family lived in an apartment building that housed people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. These are the kinds of places that inspired Tomlin to create her famous characters, like the insightful child Edith Ann and the testy switchboard operator Ernestine.
"I went from apartment to apartment," she says of her fascination with the residents in her building. "Whatever they were doing, I wanted to do. Whoever they were, that's who I wanted to be. [I've been doing imitations] since I was 7 or 8. I'd do my dad coming home loaded. I'd do magic: cut a rope in half and restore it. I'd tell 'husband jokes' or dance a ballet."
Tomlin's career grew alongside the growing youth culture of the 1960s, but today she feels like too much of American culture is geared toward the 18-and-under set. "We earned our place in the culture," Tomlin says of her generation. "Now, everything panders to younger and younger groups because they have so much disposable income." Without ever sounding too judgmental, she criticizes the preponderance of scatological humor that exists today. "Everybody talks about 'pushing the envelope,' but what you have to know is that sometimes there is junk mail inside. Brutality, ridicule, rejection that's what all of these reality shows are about. Rejection and humiliation are so much a part of the sensibility, and I can't believe it's not going to affect us watching it night after night, hour after hour. I can't believe that it's not going to affect our national psyche."
When Tomlin comes to The Orpheum on Monday, March 3rd, she will discuss her life and career, and she will also be taking questions from the audience. Though she will be presenting a number of her most famous characters, it will also be a rare opportunity to get to know the woman behind all the funny faces and voices. Just how does a performer, accustomed to being everybody but herself onstage, feel about taking off the mask?
"I used to have this part of my show where I tried to relate to the audience as myself," Tomlin says. "I would be very uncomfortable, and then I would tell the audience, 'It's all this personal stuff that has kept me the small money.'"