Lily Tomlin rose to prominence in the 1960s on NBCs Rowan & Martins 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 Wagners 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 Tomlins mind, though she and playwright Wagner have not adjusted the show to incorporate them.
It hasnt 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.) Its a revival, she insists, meaning that if its a different play at all, its 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.
Ive 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 . . .
Shed say, Oh, you two are like oil and water oil and water, now dont get excited, and then [before switching lines for an incoming call] shed say to Bush, Dont go to war until I get back.
Later, she says to Bush, Youve always been a people person and the people want more proof. They think Hans deserves more time to look for arms. Oh, thats funny Hans looking for arms [snort, snort].
Then we actually started bombing, so it all had to be revised, Tomlin adds wistfully. Id 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 wasnt about Vietnam. It was about the horror of war, and its 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 womens lib a good going over, and I said, wait a minute, I was trying to stand up for womens lib. Either Im very ineffectual as a spokesperson or maybe my humor washes out messages.
Then theres the dilemma of a Jane Wagner joke: Its 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 Ss 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 wasnt going to have anything to do with Martha Mitchell [John Mitchells wife] either, and she turned out to be an extraordinary figure. In her autobiography, she wrote how deeply hurt shed been because Id snubbed her on Laugh-In, and I thought, what a dumb shit I was. Its so small to keep galvanizing and polarizing, and thats what our administration has done.
After admitting shes 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 Womens Law Center, and the people who give a lot of time for policy for women and girls, and they seem really dedicated, and Im amazed at people who hang in there decade after decade in a really committed way. And then I think of lines that Ive said Once youve tried to change the world, you find its easier to change your mind, or one of Janes most famous lines, No matter how cynical you become, its never enough to keep up lines like that are hard to say in the face of people who have real idealism.
Still, Tomlins gravely concerned about the absence of any significant range of political discussion in this country, and the move by Colin Powells son, FCC chief Michael Powell, to completely deregulate the airwaves, further stifling the few remaining independent voices.
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It has to swing back the other way, please God, otherwise its so narrow.
Tomlin was among the Hollywood 100 who signed the Win Without War petition, but she denies shes been harassed by anybody. I dont want to make myself so affectionately regarded, she says with a sly smile.
I dont 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 its 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.