Lily Tomlin on Being "the World's First Performance Artist"

Categories: Comedy

Lily_Tomlin_by_Greg_Gorman.jpg
Greg Gorman

Lily Tomlin is a bonafide comedy legend. While her face is immediately recognizable to everyone with their eyes open, pinpointing your standout Tomlin moment can take some consideration. And that has everything to do with the fact that her comedy career started all the way back in 1970. Since then, she has ruled every level of funny. Your mom might love her for Nine to Five but your tanked-out little bro will know Tomlin as Kenny Powers' mom on Eastbound and Down.

But where Tomlin truly shines isn't on the screen, it's on the stage. Her one-woman shows give Tomlin the platform she needs to tickle every funny bone she can find. This is not your basic standup gig or simple storytelling. Tomlin kicks ass at playing different characters, even two at the same time. The 74-year-old, lifelong comedian always had a clear path that led her directly to making people laugh. Before she stops by the Kravis Center with her latest review next week, Tomlin took the time to chat with us. She shared her thoughts on the changing landscape of women in comedy with the detail that only someone with decades in the biz could. It's a special treat, and it's after the jump.

See Also: Steve Martin's Top Five Musical Moments; Soon to Bring His Bluegrass to Kravis with Edie Brickell

New Times: You have been in comedy for so long. What do you think has been one of the most impactful changes in the landscape of comedy in the last couple decades?
Lily Tomlin: Well more young women have gone into comedy. One time way back in the 1960s, Madeline Kahn, Dixie Carter, and I were the girls in this review in New York. Then a couple years later, I did another show, there with another cast. There was always a leading lady, a character woman and an ingenue. And this new show, the ingenue was really boring on stage, as most ingenues are. But in the dressing room, she would make me scream. She was so funny, I would literally be double over and say, "You just have to do that on stage!" because everything she did on stage was a really bland and girly. She puffed herself up and she was very pretty and she had long hair. And she looked in the mirror an said, "I wouldn't want anyone to think I was unattractive."

And a lot of women had that view. Even when I started out, people would say to me, "How can you do standup? You are going to loose your femininity." and a lot of crazy stuff which is just absolutely dead to the past. And so many many more young women want to be funny and want to have their own point of view and want to talk about the stuff they think is funny and create satire around the subjects that interest them.

So I think the answer might be the women's movement. We have more young women who have their own sense of existence and point of view and nothing was closed to them and they certainly weren't there to be arm candy or to please what a man thought. They had plenty to say.

I picked up All of Me recently, purely because you and Steve Martin are on the cover. Steve has made a conscious decision to do more music. Does music interest you in that way?
As a performer, no because I don't play any instruments. A lot of times, I fantasize that I could have been a singer if I had done any kind of work at all but of course everything I did I thought of comedy. I was never drawn to singing or playing an instrument. I tried to play the violin when I was 8-years-old and that didn't work out. I didn't take to it nor it to me.

I was always putting on shows and the shows were always involved with representing something to the audience that I thought was funny or wonderful or serious or exciting and I used to say I was the world's first performance artist because I would do everything; I would tap dance, I would wear my mothers slip as an evening dress, I would tell jokes.

I had a very diverse upbringing. My parents were Southern but I grew up in Detroit and I lived in a black neighborhood. Then I would go to rural Kentucky in the summers. I was more exposed to humanity and this incredible range of human beings and their behavior. And some of them tickled me and some of them scared me and some of them made me cry and some of them made me scream but they were all of those things at one time or another. Nobody was just one thing. They were all funny, sad, noble, crumby, cool, kind, adorable, stupid. They all took turns being those things. So it made me have a another kind of affection for how people are.

Would you consider your upcoming show at the Kravis more one-woman show or more standup?
Well not one woman show in the sense of the couple of shows I have done on Broadway. That's much more of a vehicle that was created with a real arch and a beginning middle and end. But it is a kind of one only because I used a lot of characters and I do video but I also talk and do some more classic standup; I do one liners or observations and then I will break into a sketch with a character talking or maybe two or three characters talking.

What's your favorite kind of sandwich?
I have several favorites, I don't know if I can single out one but I will try. I can think of a half of dozen sandwiches depending on what taste I want. But I had a good sandwich yesterday. I had a piece of turkey meatloaf with very thinly sliced onions, this could also be liverwurst, with a little but of ketchup and mustard maybe on a very chewy rye bread.

On Sesame Street years ago, Edith, the kid character I do, made a sandwich. But hers was peanut butter and sprinkles and sweet pickles. Just a tremendous range of nauseating items.

Lily Tomlin. 8 p.m., Wednesday, April 2, at the Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Tickets start at $25. Visit kravis.org, or call 561-832-7469.

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Location Info

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Kravis Center for the Performing Arts

701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach, FL

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