Actress, comedian and entertainer Lily Tomlin is coming to the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on Friday, and she’s bringing some friends with her. They’re familiar to many of us: telephone operator Ernestine (“One ringy-dingy . . . two ringy-dingy”), precocious 5-year-old Edith Ann, arbiter of good taste Mrs. Earbore and more. They’re all creations of the star herself, who has made a career — at least in part — out of lampooning the fashions and foibles of broad culture while occasionally dispensing wisdom through her many caricatures.
“I use video in the show to make fun of myself and bring the characters up to date,” says the talented Tomlin, who, at 79 years of age, shows no sign of slowing down as a performer. “There will be 10-12 characters. I hope it has a cohesiveness and will also be surprising. I hope [the audience] won’t have expectations, and I hope it surprises them.”
“I knew all these characters.”
They’re funny and over-the-top, but her characters are both relatable and recognizable. So it’s no surprise to learn that most were drawn at least in part from real life.
“I knew all these characters,” she explains during a phone interview the day after the 2018 Emmy Awards. “I was around all of them and just illustrated their lives.”
Tomlin was born in 1939 to parents that she describes as “blue-collar Southerners,” Southern Baptists from Kentucky who moved to Michigan during the Great Depression in search of work. When the family returned to the South to visit, “I saw that all of my relatives in Kentucky were far behind Detroit. What they did, what they said to black people . . . and I was appalled even as a kid.”
By contrast, Tomlin herself fully embraced her diverse community.
“I grew up in Detroit in a black neighborhood,” Tomlin recalls. “I thought I lived in the greatest neighborhood in the world. There were 40 apartments in our building, and I would visit every one. And I would play the room.”
In these early experiences, one can see both Tomlin the entertainer and Tomlin the character-builder come into her own. Some of the friends she made would find their way onto the stage and screen. One in particular, Mrs. Rupert, looms large. A botanist with a heightened sense of decorum, she saw potential in the young Tomlin, and took a special interest in her. “She invited me to her house. I’d walk her chihuahuas and we’d listen to the radio and read The New York Times. Sometimes we had tea with petit fours.”
Part of the education Mrs. Rupert wanted to impart to Tomlin included teaching her how to be “a lady.” The two would visit Hudson’s department store in downtown Detroit on the weekends, where Mrs. Rupert insisted that her young charge wear a hat and gloves, and carry a pocketbook. “It just delighted me,” Tomlin says. “I thought it was all very funny.”
“If we went outside and it was cold, we’d go into an empty doorway to blow our noses, so we’d have complete composure,” she recalls vividly, chuckling. Is it any wonder that Mrs. Rupert was the model upon which the prudish Mrs. Earbore, “The Tasteful Lady” who could give Miss Manners a run for her money, was based?
Laugh-In and beyond
Many of Tomlin’s best-loved characters — including Mrs. Earbore — stem from her days on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, which she joined in 1969. Her four-year stint on the sketch comedy show made her a star, and in the following decades, she has inhabited a number of roles — on stage, screen and television — that have brought her both critical and popular acclaim.
Tomlin started out strong right out of the gate, with her dramatic turn as gospel singer Linnea in Robert Altman’s Nashville — a role for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. (She has worked with Altman in numerous films since.) In addition, her comedic chops have been put to good use in such movies as The Incredible Shrinking Woman, All of Me (alongside Steve Martin), Big Business (with Bette Midler) and Flirting With Disaster.
But it was her portrayal of office supervisor Violet Newstead in 9 to 5 that helped make Tomlin a film icon.
The 1980 film — which also starred Jane Fonda (who has remained a dear friend) and Dolly Parton — centered on three employees of the fictional Consolidated Companies who exact revenge on their sexually harassing, incompetent boss and take over the company. It was both an homage to and a revenge fantasy for women workers everywhere. Decades later, the movie’s themes continue to resonate, and a reboot is currently in the making.
“It’s being written,” Tomlin confirms. “We’re waiting for the draft. Jane Fonda is an executive producer. I’m not signed on as an executive producer, but I have input. . . . We really are excited to do it.”
When asked if she’s discouraged that a film such as 9 to 5 can still feel relevant today, the actress says, “Nothing ever changes fast enough. And then you come to terms with that. We certainly don’t have equal pay. There have been incremental improvements . . . but there’s still stuff to do.” And reflecting on the #MeToo Movement, she adds that “Who knows what part 9 to 5 played in that.”
While 9 to 5 is in the works, Tomlin is kept busy with her co-starring role as free-spirited artist Frankie Bergstein in the television series Grace and Frankie. She’s been nominated for an Emmy every year since the series debuted in 2015, although she has never won. And she inhabits Frankie so naturally that one can’t help but wonder what parallels there are between the actress and her part. But with a character builder as savvy as Tomlin, it’s best not to make such assumptions.
“I think, whatever you play, some part of you is going to be in there,” Tomlin says. “But really, it’s having a sense of humor, using how you feel about life. I have everything [for Frankie] on the page. That translates through your process and your person. Frankie has a lot going for her: a product of a commune, she lived a free and fanciful life, she’s a painter. . . . I understand who Frankie is, to some degree, but of course [the writers] give me a lot of stuff to work with.”
She may not have won an Emmy with Frankie, but she has six others — mostly for comedy and variety shows, although she did pick up one in 2013 for her narration work on the documentary An Apology to Elephants written by her longtime partner, Jane Wagner. Tomlin met the writer in 1971 and the two have been together ever since.
It’s fascinating to hear Tomlin talk about her relationship with Wagner (whom she married in 2013) during a time when homosexuality was criminal at worst, and considered a sickness at best. Tomlin’s mother, a Southern Baptist to the core, “endured it,” the actress says. But as the older generation of her Kentucky family passed away, she found that her next-generation cousins “were much more tolerant. Some are even embracing us.” In Hollywood, Tomlin and Wagner were “pretty open” about their relationship from the start, but Tomlin never came out in a traditional sense. And the PR machine somehow just . . . glossed over it.
“In public, people never talked about it,” she recalls. “I never made a big secret of it. It’s just how you got along. . . . I never would have lied — it’s just too horrible. . . . But if you had told me in 1970 that the gay community could have the progress [we see today], I would have been flabbergasted.”
While serving as something of a figurehead for lesbians in the entertainment industry, Tomlin has also added her name and fame to other causes as well. Most recently, she has worked with Fonda on One Fair Wage, which seeks to raise the minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers.
“There are 13 million tipped workers in the country,” she says. “70 percent are women — even 80 percent in some states. Many of them are living below the poverty line . . . because they’re living on a minimum wage of $2-3 an hour.”
The elusive EGOT
Wagner and Tomlin have collaborated on other projects besides An Apology to Elephants. The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the one-woman stage show that Wagner wrote and Tomlin performed on Broadway in 1985, earned Tomlin a Tony Award. And having gotten a Grammy in 1972 (for her comedy album This Is a Recording), she’s three out of four for that esteemed EGOT designation, for those who have won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards.
“I think they should include the Peabody — I’ve got two of those!” Tomlin says with a laugh. Just last year she was honored with the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. So EGOT or not, Tomlin can’t deny that her career, which continues to grow and evolve, even as she edges up through to her eighth decade, is one any actor would envy. And with other projects in the works, perhaps that Academy Award will come along after all.
“If you stick around long enough, you’ll get everything eventually,” Tomlin says.
Lily Tomlin performs on Friday, Oct. 12, at 8 p.m. at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. For tickets and more information, call 805-449-2787 or visit www.civicartsplaza.com.