Character study: Lily Tomlin keeps the humor coming

1151788_ca_0113_SNEAKS_lily_tomlin001_LSBy JIM SABATASO

[A version of this story appears in the Thursday, March 5, 2015, editions of the Rutland Herald and Barre Times Argus.]

On the phone, comedian Lily Tomlin is pleasant and disarming. “Call me Lily,” she says, demurring at my use of “Miss Tomlin.” Her cordialness is a far cry from Ernestine, the haughty phone company employee who remains one of Tomlin’s most enduring characters.

After almost 50 years of entertaining audiences with her original characters and humorous, often poignant turns on film and TV, Tomlin still happily discusses her long career with fresh enthusiasm.

Born in Detroit, Tomlin came up in the male-dominated comedy club scene of the 1960s. She landed an appearance on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1965. Four years later, she got her big break on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In,” where her numerous characters found a regular home on network TV launching her to stardom.

From there, she went on to star in classic comedies like “9 to 5” and “All of Me,” as well as working with directors Robert Altman and David O. Russell. On TV, she has kept equally busy with recurring roles on “Murphy Brown,” “The West Wing” and “Desperate Housewives.” Nineties kids will, of course, remember her as the voice of Ms. Frizzle from “The Magic School Bus.”

Along the way, she’s received numerous awards for her work, including the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, two Peabodys, two Tonys, a Grammy, and a host of Emmys — putting her an Oscar shy of an EGOT.

As a comedian, Tomlin is slyly political. She asserts that politics “informs everything” — seeming to speak broadly about the creative process, as well as her particular experience.

Of her stage show, she says, “I want to do a show that’s reaffirming of the species,” adding that she wants to speak to the “commonality” the human experience.

“If you’re laughing, you must be identifying with it,” she says.

Her comedy may not be explicitly political, but there is a current of social commentary running throughout. She says she eschews quick and easy topical jokes for humor that has a “longer shelf life.”

That deeper current is evident even in her early bits. One sketch, which features Mrs. Beasley hawking Gr-r-r-r detergent, starts with a mundane TV commercial premise, but gets derailed as Beasley discovers evidence of her husband’s infidelity in the laundry. It’s a bit we’ve seen scores of times since — the rattled character trying to maintain composure amid personal turmoil — but Tomlin’s barely contained rage simmers until it concludes with an out-of-left-field line that gives her more agency than her meek demeanor suggests.

It’s impossible not to ask Tomlin about her experience as a woman working in comedy, a historically male-dominated world where contributions by women are often diminished. She is buoyant about the success and recognition today’s female comedians enjoy. She cites Amy Schumer, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Melissa McCarthy as particular standouts.

Looking back, however, Tomlin explains the difficulty female comics once had in developing an original voice and being seen as equals to their male counterparts. Where men could push the boundaries, and talk about a wide variety of topics, women were still bound by social mores and felt compelled to appear ladylike while performing. That sexist double standard still exists to some extent today, but it’s thanks to women like Tomlin that such notions are largely dismissed.

She recounts a story of a revue she was a part of in 1966 where a female who was playing the ingénue role expressed her reluctance to be too funny.

“She never had much to do onstage, but in the dressing room she was funny,” Tomlin says.

When Tomlin asked her why she didn’t bring that humor to the show, the woman said she didn’t want to appear unattractive.

Tomlin is too modest to accept the title of trailblazer herself, however, she does name check standup Jean Carroll, a popular comic from the 1950s and 60s whom she cites as a personal inspiration.

Carroll’s humor was rooted deeply in her domestic life — lots of bits about her husband and kids — but, as Tomlin notes, there was “something subversive” going on. On the surface, the jokes play like silly observations about her family, but the subtext is a biting criticism of domesticity and standards of female beauty. By any measure, Carroll was a pro whose material still holds up. She was a whip-smart comic whose clever wordplay and impeccable timing could land even a middling bit.

At 75, Tomlin shows no signs of slowing down. Her stage show will continue to roll on, and this May she’ll star in a new sitcom on Netflix called “Grace and Frankie.” The series, which also stars former “9 to 5” co-star Jane Fonda, Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen, follows the story of two older women and social rivals who are forced to deal with the revelation that their husbands are lovers.

It’s that drive, that spirit of a true entertainer, which has kept Tomlin relevant five decades in, and why she remains such a towering figure in the world of comedy.