Lily Tomlin sure can tell a story.
Known for her artful monologues, enduring characters and storytelling stand-up style, the comedy maverick makes her first return to the Triangle area in decades with a show at the Carolina Theater next Thursday. Her own story is pretty remarkable, too.
Tomlin, now 74, rose to fame in the late 1960s and early 1970s with a stable of oddball characters on the TV sketch comedy show “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” Among the regular characters in Tomlin’s repertoire: Ernestine, the gossipy and dismissive switchboard operator, and Edith Ann, a wildly precocious 5-year-old girl with big plans.
Tomlin received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her first film, director Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” She went on to an acclaimed film career including turns in “Nine to Five,” “All of Me,” “I Heart Huckabees” and most recently as Tina Fey’s old-school feminist mom in this year’s underrated rom-com “Admission.”
Speaking from her home in California, Tomlin talked about her old characters, her new stage show and hiding out in Raleigh parking lots.
Q: What can we expect from the new show?
A: It’s my version of stand-up, though I never really have done classic stand-up, because I always do characters or longer pieces that have a story. I probably do 10 or 12 characters. Some of the old favorites, but they’re updated. I wouldn’t do them if they didn’t have something relevant to say. Ernestine, for the last year or so, she’s worked at a big health care corporation, denying people health care. That kind of stuff.
Q: What’s up with little Edith Ann these days?
A: Oh, well, Edith – she programs her mom’s iPad, she does everything. Edith is hip to stuff. She writes letters to senators, telling them how to make the world better. She wrote a letter to Rush Limbaugh. Her dad is a Rush Limbaugh fan and she took exception to that awful bumper music he has on the show. You’d hear “Born Free,” then you’d hear gunshots and animals dying. She’d write him suggesting better bumper music. She’s still a kid.
Q: Have you played down here before?
A: Not for a long time. My partner Jane, her sister lives in Greensboro. So I’ve been in that area many times. I played the old Frog & Nightgown in Raleigh – many years ago, because I remember Buddy Hackett was in the audience. There was no dressing room at the Frog & Nightgown; you had to come in through the house and leave through the house. Back then we had a station wagon we were touring in and I’d just lay down in the back of the station wagon in the parking lot. I could hear everyone talking about me.
Q: I just read that you and your partner Jane might get married after all these years?
A: Well, we’ve talked about it, sure. We might. We’re thinking about it. But it would be very small. You won’t be invited. (Laughs.). It will be very low-key.
Q: Even early in your career, you were famous for doing characters and monologues. Did you do this stuff as a kid, putting on shows and coming up with characters?
A: I did, I did. I grew up in an apartment building in inner-city Detroit, in a predominantly black neighborhood. I had a lot of black friends and my parents were blue-collar Southerners. There were a lot of retired people there, too. Every apartment was another microcosm of life. I would go to the track with my dad on Saturdays and to the Baptist church with my mom on Sundays. I just had so much to draw on. I put on little shows all the time. Costumes and everything. Trying to get the neighbors to buy tickets.
Q: As you grew up, did you have any role models or comics you looked up to?
A: I had them from television. I would see Imogene Coca on TV, doing characters. And Lucille Ball, and Joan Davis had a show. When I was 18 or so, I was introduced to Ruth Draper. I was really marked by her, because her monologues were so literate and funny. In college, I would work in this old coffeehouse in Detroit. There would be improv and jazz after hours. I began experimenting, I would start building my own monologues to fill the time.
Q: For the Durham show, will there be a Q&A segment with the audience?
A: Oh yeah, I always do a Q&A at the end. People hand in cards and I’ll take those at the end. It can get wild. In fact, I’ll tell you a funny story. I was in Flint, Michigan – this was at the height of the Iraqi war – and someone asked who I would rather have as president, George W. or the Marquis de Sade. And the audience got into a yelling match with each other! Somehow stem cells came up. I couldn’t stop laughing. I tried to get people to come up on stage and express themselves, but they just wanted to yell at each other.
Ah, we’re so divided. But we’ve got to keep on trucking. In my comedy, my inclination has always been to be inclusive and not divisive. We’re funny enough, we don’t have to go against each other to be funny. The human comedy is enough.