Lily Tomlin to sock it to Ann Arbor for June 14 showWritten by Vicki L. Kroll | | email@example.com
It’s not every day that the party to whom you are speaking is Lily Tomlin.
One ringy-dingy and she was on the line.
The comic reminisced about character building, which began when she was growing up in Detroit.
“In the old apartment, there were so many different kinds of people. Some were very educated, and some were totally not educated. Some were really political; some were radical, conservative, apolitical. It’s dazzling when you get to be with and get to see a lot of really disparate humanity,” she said.
“I was mad to get inside every apartment. I used to say I played the room; whatever they were doing, I threw myself right into it so I wouldn’t seem out of place.”
Listening to Tomlin talk is like eating cotton candy — sweetly addictive. That fast-paced patter hints at the speed of her creative mind.
“We all shared the same backyard, so there was a lot of community there, too. And I was forever putting on a show and imitating the neighbors and my family,” she said during a call from her Los Angeles home.
“I’d imitate my father coming home from drinking on the weekend and not be able to hang up his clothes and make them stay on the hanger,” she recalled. “I would add magic to my show. I would dance the ballet. I would tell jokes I saw on television. I would wear my mother’s robe like an evening dress. … It was just a mélange of all that.”
She laughed and added, “Detroit is my touchstone; it’s where I got so much of whatever it is I am.”
What isn’t Tomlin? The comedic legend is known for an array of characters — Ernestine, the snooty, snorting telephone operator; Edith Ann, the precocious 5-year-old in the giant rocking chair; Lucille the rubber freak; Trudy, the bag lady. She’s also a Grammy Award winner for her comedy album, “This Is a Recording,” a two-time Tony Award winner for “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” and a lifetime achievement honor. As an actress she received an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in “Nashville” and starred in “9 to 5,” “The Incredible Shrinking Woman,” “All of Me” and “A Prairie Home Companion.” She’s a six-time Emmy Award recipient whose television work includes “The Magic School Bus,” “Murphy Brown,” “The West Wing” and “Malibu Country.”
Millions met Tomlin in 1969 when she joined the cast of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”
“I didn’t go in until the third season. The show was a huge hit,” she said.
“When I took Ernestine to the show, I had never seen her on tape; I’d only done her in my act, so it was the first time I got to dress her,” Tomlin said.
“I go into the costume room and Ernestine’s outfit was almost hanging there! It was providential,” she said. “First, I see this ’40s blouse with puffy sleeves, a nice simple, white business-like blouse. Then that salmon skirt was there and big black patent-leather belt.”
Ernestine was at the switchboard in October, but the show didn’t air until December, Tomlin said.
“That night [the show] went on the air and I tell you, on Tuesday morning, she was a star. It was phenomenal. … She’s still immensely popular in that age group that’s ever been exposed to ‘Laugh-In.’ ”
Tomlin will bring Ernestine and others to an 8 p.m. June 14 performance at the University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. Tickets range from $35 to $55. The show is part of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, A2SF.org.
“It’s my form of stand-up, like on my back porch except I don’t do magic tricks anymore — although I could,” she joked. “It’s character-driven; it’s very informal. And I use video to sort of satirize myself and to give some comedic history about the character.”
Soon she will revisit the past and team up with “9 to 5” co-star Jane Fonda for a Netflix comedy, “Grace and Frankie,” set for release in 2015.
“The starting date is getting closer and closer, so you get more and more nervous because you have so many choices to make about your character,” Tomlin said. “I start thinking: How am I going to embody Frankie? How can I make her unique? How can I make her just the right melding of stuff?”
Finding the right mix in love hasn’t been a problem since she met writer Jane Wagner in 1971; the two married last year.
The recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor would love to return to Broadway.
“I’ve spent all the years after [‘The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe’] trying to get [Wagner] to write a new play. Some writers are compulsive; they just have to write. Jane doesn’t have that problem,” Tomlin said and laughed.
Tags: 9 to 5, All of Me, Ann Arbor Summer Festival, Emmy-award, Ernestine, Incredible Shrinking Woman, Laugh-In, Lily Tomlin, Magic School Bus, Malibu Country, Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Murphy Brown, Nashville, Prairie Home Companion, University of Michigan Hill Auditoriam, West Wing