Still Searching for Signs 

Lily Tomlin’s old show, in a new world

Thursday, May 15 2003
Phot by Larry Hirshowitz

Lily Tomlin rose to prominence in the 1960s on NBC’s Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In as the belligerent, snorting telephone operator, Ernestine, and a precocious girl named Edith Ann — who both became pop icons. We were living in a different world in 1986, when Tomlin won a Tony Award for her solo performance in Jane Wagner’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe on Broadway. Intelligent Life features a bag lady named Trudy who channels an array of comically searing and poignant characters. And though the play is not overtly political, it comes with a softcore feminist slant, which made it something of a hit with college-age women in 1985. September 11 struck just as Tomlin was performing the play in San Francisco, and the sudden changes in the country since then are very much on Tomlin’s mind, though she and playwright Wagner have not adjusted the show to incorporate them.

“It hasn’t been updated in that sense,” Tomlin says, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup in an upstairs office at the Mark Taper Forum Annex. (The show, currently in previews, opens next week at the Ahmanson.) It’s a revival, she insists, meaning that if it’s a different play at all, it’s only because of the filter provided by a new era. What may make Intelligent Signs so enduring is its underlying attitudes rather than any literal pertinence to modern times.

“I’ve never done topical humor per se,” Tomlin explains, “because it has such a short shelf life. I was doing a piece, before the bombing in Iraq started, with Ernestine doing a conference call with Bush and Saddam . . .

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“She’d say, ‘Oh, you two are like oil and water — oil and water, now don’t get excited,’ and then [before switching lines for an incoming call] she’d say to Bush, ‘Don’t go to war until I get back.’

“Later, she says to Bush, ‘You’ve always been a people person and the people want more proof. They think Hans deserves more time to look for arms. Oh, that’s funny — Hans looking for arms [snort, snort].’

“Then we actually started bombing, so it all had to be revised,” Tomlin adds wistfully. “I’d rather do a piece from 30 years ago: During the Vietnam War, a woman named Mrs. Beasley looks in her garden to find kids playing at war, and actually starting one, a real war. It wasn’t about Vietnam. It was about the horror of war, and it’s still powerful.”


Trying to employ universal rather than partisan humor has caused Tomlin some bruises, especially since the contradictions and ironies of universal humor invite it to be misunderstood.

“I remember after some TV show I was on, my Aunt Pearl said I gave that women’s lib a good going over, and I said, wait a minute, I was trying to stand up for women’s lib. Either I’m very ineffectual as a spokesperson — or maybe my humor washes out messages.”

Then there’s the dilemma of a Jane Wagner joke: It’s hard to be socially conscious and upwardly mobile at the same time.

“We used to say you could do well by doing good. I was up at the Big Sur festival in ’71 or something, it was all counterculture, Joan Baez — it was her festival, I was one of the few mainstream artists, and I remember they wrote something about me in the Free Press. All the S’s were dollar signs.”

But Tomlin admits to being no angel.

“When I was on Laugh-In — I was forever doing something really stupid and combative. I would not take my picture with John Wayne — big fucking deal — and I wasn’t going to have anything to do with Martha Mitchell [John Mitchell’s wife] either, and she turned out to be an extraordinary figure. In her autobiography, she wrote how deeply hurt she’d been because I’d snubbed her on Laugh-In, and I thought, what a dumb shit I was. It’s so small to keep galvanizing and polarizing, and that’s what our administration has done.”

After admitting she’s less idealistic than when she first performed the play, she backs away from the comment, staring at a wall for a moment before taking a sip of coffee.

“Maybe not less idealistic . . . I did a benefit for the Women’s Law Center, and the people who give a lot of time for policy for women and girls, and they seem really dedicated, and I’m amazed at people who hang in there decade after decade in a really committed way. And then I think of lines that I’ve said — ‘Once you’ve tried to change the world, you find it’s easier to change your mind,’ or one of Jane’s most famous lines, ‘No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up’ — lines like that are hard to say in the face of people who have real idealism.”

Still, Tomlin’s gravely concerned about the absence of any significant range of political discussion in this country, and the move by Colin Powell’s son, FCC chief Michael Powell, to completely deregulate the airwaves, further stifling the few remaining independent voices.

“It has to swing back the other way, please God, otherwise it’s so narrow.”

Tomlin was among the Hollywood 100 who signed the “Win Without War” petition, but she denies she’s been harassed by anybody. “I don’t want to make myself so affectionately regarded,” she says with a sly smile.

“I don’t think you can ask any movement to be the end-all of anything,” she adds. “Movements are always flawed and naive and righteously minded — even in the feminist movement, as I was active in college. I had lots of friends who were Marxist. I could never understand how they could be so married to one doctrine. But it’s the young — the thing about being so righteous — that allows them to do spectacular things.”

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is currently playing at the Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; with matinees Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets and added performances, call (213) 628-2772.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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