The Detroit native’s career started in the mid-1960s when she moved to New York City and quickly made her mark in the city’s comedy clubs. She went on to star in numerous movies, television shows, one-woman shows and theater productions, and has won numerous awards for her work including Emmys, Tonys, Drama Desk Awards and too many more to mention.
Tomlin is currently narrating an upcoming the HBO documentary, “An Apology to Elephants,” as well as working on a new television series about several members of a bizarre and troubled family making good. She couldn’t tell us any more about the series than that. She will also soon enter the social-media arena with new game apps based on her most beloved TV characters.
If that isn’t enough, Tomlin will be in the area to perform May 3 at the Keswick Theatre. PGN caught up Tomlin to chat about her career and the world of comedy.
PGN: What is the audience in for when you take the stage in Philadelphia?
LT: I always do a bunch of characters and I talk about the surrounding areas and stuff we all go through together. Sometimes I use clips to satirize myself or a celebrity or show a new dimension of a character, or have the character interact with the film to make it multimedia. It’s pretty informal. It’s not like I’m doing a theater piece. I hope it’s funny. I hope it’s edgy. I hope it’s informative. I hope it’s moving at some point. What are you expecting?
PGN: I’m expecting to laugh heartily.
LT: I think you will.
PGN: Which of your characters gets the biggest audience reaction in your performances?
LT: Television characters are so much bigger than anything else I am or do. They are such a fond memory from so many years ago. I still do Ernestine in the show and Edith too. I don’t think I could get out of the building if I didn’t do them. But they do different things now. For the last few months, Ernestine has been working at a health-care insurance firm.
PGN: You started out when variety shows were really popular and gave television a spontaneous comedic edge. Now comedy on television seems very regimented. Do you think we will ever see television programming like variety shows again?
LT: People say that pendulum always comes back but a lot of it is syndication. The syndicated market got so big for comedy and sitcoms. And because variety shows were so topical, they don’t syndicate well. I don’t think the variety shows were as spontaneous as they should have been either. They can’t afford to do anything too spontaneous on a weekly basis because they have to get the show in the can. I don’t know. Reality shows have taken over where any kind spontaneous television might have existed although, the spontaneity of those shows is questionable. There’s always a little bit of shading and motivation.
PGN: Do you see your influence on any of today’s performers?
LT: I really couldn’t speak to that. Any of us, we all take from each other. I was influenced by a lot of people I saw on television as a kid. I also discovered other kinds of performers. I was influenced by the first standup I ever saw, a woman named Jean Carroll, and I saw her on “Ed Sullivan” when I was a child. As a teen I discovered Ruth Draper on records, who for me was a great monologue artist. I never saw her live. She died in the 1950s. Everything that comes before is part of what we build from, whether we do it consciously or not. I was very influenced by radio. I was very influenced by anything that was sort of gay or wacky, especially anything that was character-driven. There was an old radio show [“The Beulah Show”] that was on when I was a kid. There was politics in the show because she was a black maid who was working for upscale white people. I grew up in a very mixed neighborhood and my parents were Southern and I lived in inner-city Detroit. So I was exposed to a lot of politics very early and a lot of humanity. Beulah, I would always get a kick out of her because she was always muttering her mutiny under her breath about her being taken too much for granted. I thought it was hilariously wonderful that she was fighting back in her own way against the inequities between them. I was aware of all of those women that were funny.
PGN: Why do you think, after all these years and all the strides that women have made in comedy, the attitude still persists among audiences and comedians that women comedians aren’t funny?
LT: It’s cultural and it’s a male attitude over female attitude. I can’t get into a discussion of boys’ humor over girls’ humor. You can see evidence of it in women of this era who are trying to making it in film. Whether it’s conscious or not, they’ve adopted this sensibility that they aren’t going to break through or have an impact unless they play on some part at the boys’ level. Even [Judd] Apatow will say. “A little heart, a little semen.” So now you see in “Bridesmaids” how easy it is to do just a big scatological joke. They need this outlet that it’s OK to shit in the street or shit in a sink. The girls did because they got a hit movie out of it and that means they’ll get to make more movies. I can’t speak to whether their sensibilities are informed that way or if that is what really appeals to them, or if that is what is necessary to get a large audience to play on that field. There’s nothing wrong with it. It depends on how clever it is or how artfully it’s done. I mean, look at the fuss they made about Mel Brooks farting around the campfire [in “Blazing Saddles”]. Women just didn’t do stuff like that. Men belch, fart and do everything else in front of each other. Girls would never do that. It just wasn’t ladylike.
PGN: Being a trailblazer in comedy and having worked with the likes of comedy icons Richard Pryor, do you think comedians are more scrutinized today for the things they say — and, if so, do you think they should be apologizing for the controversial things they say on stage?
LT: No. I think that is their business. That’s what they said and they should just own it. If they have a change in perception, I suppose ... but they should just own it and if it works out, fine. If it doesn’t, they may pay a big price or they may get a big reward for it. The culture is a mixed bag. I don’t think they should have to apologize for it. No. That’s the antipathy of free speech. People are apologizing because they are afraid of losing something. If that’s their real view, then I’m glad I got to see what their real view was. I wouldn’t ask them to apologize. I wouldn’t ask them to do anything. I may not care about them anyway. But if they have real intelligence and real perception, then I’m going to be interested in what they said. Sometimes people do things for the impact or the shock of it or to pander to one faction or another. To me it’s not an instance of brilliance. If you’re saying something that is really perceptive and it really has observation in it, then it is worth anything. But if it’s just bullshit and meant to be shocking, as sometimes it is, and people lash out, you see what in their real interior is going on. All I can say about it is that the hand that is on it can tell you what it means. Everybody is different. If I couldn’t hear you say it and I didn’t see how you were informing it or what your sensibility is, I wouldn’t have any idea of what you were doing. People’s own styles and self inform me. You get to know performers over time and it’s not the whole picture one way or the other. I’m not very judgmental because I grew up around too many people.
Lily Tomlin performs 8 p.m. May 3 at Keswick Theatre, 291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside. For more information on Tomlin, including her entire career in art, text, photos and videos, visit www.lilytomlin.com. For tickets, call 215-572-7650.