Lily Tomlin Discusses Character Creation and Women in Comedy
We catch up with the comedic legend before her shows at 5th Avenue Theater.
Infectious, slightly manic comedic energy has been Lily Tomlin’s calling card since her star-making turn on Laugh-In in 1969, where she crafted lively personalites like snarky telephone operator Ernestine and the precociuos child Edith Ann. More than four decades later, the Tony, Emmy, and Grammy winner still commands the stage with pointed observations from her arsenal of eccentric characters. She brings the full cavalcade to town this week for two shows at 5th Avenue Theatre (June 6 & 7).
We thankfully did not have to go through Ernestine in order to get Tomlin on the phone to talk about creating characters, her influences, and the current crop of comedic women that she admires.
What’s your process when creating new comedic characters?
It depends on what you’re creating them for. When I created the kinds of characters I’m identified with—when I was creating my own vehicle for that—they were more essenced, they have to be drawn fairly strongly. The material has to be essenced, because you’re trying to convey a culture type in three or four minutes that’s familiar, recognizable, relevant, and has something to say about the culture. And they might take all kinds of incarnations. Some might be broader than others. There’s no pattern for it. Just in terms of television specials, concerts, and Broadway shows, I probably created 30 or 40 characters; I never really counted them. And they’re all gradations on a continuum of performance from broad to naturalistic. I don’t know what makes it what it is; the audience decides, I guess. It would come to life in some form that pleased me, or made sense to me, or communicated what I thought that character had to communicate.
When performing live, do you have to do any sort of warm up or cool down to get in and out of the different character mindsets?
No. In a show like I’ll do in Seattle, I might do twelve characters in an evening, so I don’t have time to rev one up and decompress another one. It’s just they kind of live in your body.
How has performing live changed for you over the years? Do you get the same kind of rush now as when you first started?
It’s more of a rush now, in a sense, only because I know the audience. I mean, they’ve been with me for so long. I just have more fun with it really. I was far more serious when I was young, far more stringent. I had to do everything just perfectly and I don’t have to do that anymore. I was just harder on myself. This made up idea of what’s perfect, it’s just not a true story; nothing’s perfect. Whatever that idea was of something that I was trying to make happen or create, that meant I wanted people to laugh in the places I thought it was funny and not laugh when I didn’t. (Laughs) I just wanted them to be so in harmony with me, and that was asking a whole lot of any audience. So I’m much easier on myself—and them—and have much more fun. I totally enjoy it.
Since when you were a kid there weren’t as many women in comedy, so who were the people that you looked up to as inspiration for character work?
Well there was a woman named Ruth Draper. She died in the ‘50s, so I never actually saw her in person, but I discovered her on spoken word, and she was a great, great monologue artist. People have become more conscious of her in recent years. She was more of a concert monologue artist, and her pieces are just witty, literate, and wonderful. And she also tended to do culture types. She was a very big influence on me. When I first discovered her I was about 18, and she was really the watermark for me, even though I’m probably nothing very much like her except maybe when I’m doing a theater piece.
And then all the people that were on television from Lucy (Ball) to Gracie Allen to Imogene Coca to Joan Davis. I loved Bea Lillie. I would see her on Ed Sullivan when I was a little kid, and she was like no one I had ever seen. And Jean Carroll was strictly a standup, and the first woman I ever saw do standup.
I often hear the current crop of comedic women like Sarah Silverman gushing about your influence on them. Are there any young performers that you really admire?
I think Sarah’s one of the most brilliant. It’s even hard to quite figure out how her mind works. But there’s lots of people that I really enjoy. Of course, I like character people. Kristen Wiig. As soon as she came on SNL, I was a fan. There’re certain people who are so good in their persona. Melissa McCarthy’s so good; I like her physical comedy in all the movies she’s in. I was always fond of Wanda Sykes from the minute she came on the scene. But there’ve been so many people over the years and so many more women doing comedy than used to. A lot of stuff Amy Schumer does I think is really smart. I think she really plays both sides of the street. That’s kind of her style. There’s another young woman on SNL, her last name is McKinnon, I think.
Yeah. I saw that Justin Bieber she did, I thought that was great.
Yeah, she’s one of my favorites on the show right now too.
I’m very attracted to people who do characters. I loved Catherine O’Hara when she came on the scene. I still do. There’s just people who have whatever it is that makes them fly.
There are of great people working, and more women, I’m thankful to say. And women who speak out of their own intelligence, their own point of view. They didn’t used to do that, they used to ridicule themselves. I mean, inadvertently, indirectly they’d make commentary, but they were usually the object of the humor, because that was more acceptable in the culture. People didn’t want to see women too attractive, too confident—this was the story, psychologically. I never bought it, but so many people subscribed to it that it probably became a living thing in the culture. If you make people laugh, you’re disarming them. They’re vulnerable in that moment that they laugh.
I tell this story all the time, but it’s so perfectly descriptive: I was in a review back in ‘68 At the Upstairs At the Downstairs just a year before I went on Laugh In. In a traditional cabernet review, there’s always a character woman, a leading lady, and an ingénue, and then the male counterparts. So I was probably always the character woman, but never even understood that. Thought I could be anything that was thrown at me. So the girl who was an ingénue was very boring on stage as most ingénue are. They don’t have anything to say, they don’t think, they don’t have an opinion, they’re just a girl, the objective girl who’s there and the juvenile boy falls in love with her. But in the dressing room this girl was hilarious, I mean, I would double over, screaming, laughing, and I would say you’ve just got to do that on stage and she’d say, “I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m unattractive.” So, for me, that told the story at that time.
Before I was on Laugh In, I was on a show called The Music Scene that was on ABC. It was a very hip show because it had a tie in with Billboard. We would do sketches and introduce songs. We had concerts with everybody from Jimi Hendrix to Janis Joplin, and parents just were up in arms because they saw all these long-haired dopers in primetime. But they wouldn’t let me do characters. If I had a monologue to do they would make me do it as myself because they’d say, “Oh, people won’t understand who you are.” So for a while in my standup I’d say, “It’s this first person part that’s kept me in the small money all these years! (Laughs) When I get to do a character, you’ll see that’s what I’m really good at.” If I had an idea to communicate something about the culture, it was just stronger rather than doing half a dozen one-liners; I wanted to create a whole person. Old-time comics would say, “Take my mother-in-law, please! Take my wife, please!” or whatever. I’d say I want to do the wife, I want to hear her point of view, or I want to do the mother-in-law, I want to hear her point of view.
June 6 & 7, 5th Avenue Theatre, $35–$103