An Evening of Classic Lily

Tomlin relives more than a dozen of her memorable characters

Lily Tomlin is a master of characters. The actress is known for her versatility on various late-’70s variety shows, where she developed a vault of characters, from Ernestine, the short-tempered telephone operator, to the devilish six-year-old Edith Ann. Tomlin will visit Jones Hall today for An Evening of Classic Lily to journey back through more than a dozen of her comedic alter-egos. Tomlin was known mostly to an older generation from her days on programs such as The Merv Griffin Show and Laugh-In, but her recent appearance in movies such as I (Heart) Huckabees and Orange County and on TV’s The West Wing as Deborah Fiderer has gotten her the attention of a younger generation — one which Tomlin says currently holds the most power in the business.

“In the old — I don’t want to say the old days — you had to earn your place in the culture. Teenagers were not pandered to,” she says. “Things are just absolutely made for them [today]; their sensibility is honored.” Tomlin believes this developed from kids’ abilities to challenge authority and demand recognition. “This generation sees through so much — look, when you can start tape recording your teachers when you’re like eight years old and report them to the authorities you lose a good deal of intimidation,” she says, remembering her own, similar experience. “I was about eight years old or so, and I read [in the newspaper] ‘Mother jailed for negligence,’” she said. Tomlin asked her mother what it meant and learned sometimes parents are locked up for not treating their children well. “And that was like an epiphany — any time my mother went to raise her hand to me, I was like, ‘Go ahead, hit me! Hit me!’” She’d do the same thing if her dad strapped her on the leg with his belt. “We lived in an apartment house, and I went to every apartment to show them that my father had struck me and left a mark on my body. So, you can imagine, flash forward 50 years, what kids have absorbed and been socialized with.”

Tomlin says this kind of self-realization spills over into their creativity, which is why characters today are so off-beat. “[Kids] see how really, absolutely most everybody is a misfit, except the most uninteresting people, and I guess they’re interesting just because they’re uninteresting,” Tomlin says, then realizes she just had another epiphany. “That was profound — be sure to get that down word for word.”
Sat., Oct. 6, 8 p.m., 2007

 
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