In the world of stand-up comedy, there are few who have been around as long as Lily Tomlin, and even fewer who can still boast of enjoying such universal acclaim.
Tomlin, a comedienne, actress, writer and entertainment giant, charmed a crowd of several hundred at the Ferst Center for the Arts on Friday, Nov. 7.
Tomlin, whose career has spanned over four decades, made her mark as a cast member on the sketch-comedy show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a spiritual predecessor to Saturday Night Live, in 1969.
Best known for her award-winning comedy albums and specials in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Tomlin is perhaps most familiar to this generation as the voice of eccentric elementary schoolteacher, Ms. Frizzle, on the animated ‘90s cartoon show The Magic School Bus.
Having recently turned 69 in September, she has shown no sign of slowing down as she continues to make the rounds in film, television and on the comedy circuit.
Her fluid movement on stage that evening hardly offered a hint to her age as she bounced from one subject matter to another as easily as she moved among her laundry list of characters (some dating back to her original appearances on Laugh-In).
The most popular and enduring character, a cynical phone operator named Ernestine, elicited several knowing cheers of recognition from the audience. Ernestine’s indifference to the needs of her customers still managed to resonate with the crowd despite the antiquated concept of phone operators in general.
“We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company,” the ambivalent Ernestine said to a frustrated customer on the other end of the line.
Tomlin’s act also consisted of several semi-autobiographical comedy bits that sketched out a portrait of a precocious young girl whose boundless curiosity about family, schooling and sex often landed her on the wrong side of her parents—Depression-era Southern Baptists who scarcely knew what to do with her.
Tomlin did not shy away from mentioning controversial topics either. Concerning the ban on gay marriage that was recently passed in California, Tomlin salaciously made reference to certain bodily fluids when she warned the audience that if homosexuals were allowed to marry, “it’d be a very slippery slope.” By the by, Tomlin and her partner and closest collaborator Jane Wagner (a writer and playwright) have been together for over 30 years.
On religion, she asked the audience, “Why is it that when we talk to God we’re said to be praying, but when God talks to us we’re schizophrenic?”
Her wit, as often bawdy as it was sophisticated, drew humor from absurd mental conceptions (like drawing on a shaved dog with a magic marker) and references to the struggles of daily life: “Reality is the leading cause of stress among those in touch with it.”
Tomlin also wasn’t afraid to make fun of the entertainment industry. In an inversion of the traditional cliché, she portrayed a highly regarded Broadway star who dreamt of becoming a waitress.
With a dose of faux humility, she lamented to the audience about the “tribulations” of fame: “Sometimes I worry about being a success in a mediocre world.”
Lily Tomlin’s highly distinguished career has not seemed to hinder her ability to relate to an audience one bit. As charismatic and delightful onstage as she has been on television and in film, her experiences in the industry have only served to strengthen her often twisted, sometimes silly but always hilarious comedic perspective.
Her outstanding performance showed that, for some entertainers, both talent and the ability to make an auditorium of people laugh out loud are not qualities that diminish with age.