Thursday, January 17, 2013
Lily Tomlin has been a iconoclastic performer without even really trying. She just went about her business – comedy, acting, producing and writing, since the late ’60s – as if there were no barriers to 1) a woman performer, 2) an intelligent woman performer, 3) a not-very-closeted lesbian woman performer, and 4) a woman performer who wasn’t trading on previous roles as the bombshell or the ditz or the subservient. Tomlin was fortunate to come of comedy age in the 1960s and rode hot counterculture waves to a career that seems effortless and natural. But an insistent independent, humane and thinking person’s streak is there throughout.
That’s bound to be on display at her appearance at Sunset Center this Saturday during her one-woman show, which is billed as a retrospective.
Tomlin seemed to come out of nowhere in 1969 on the hit variety comedy show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, named after the love-ins and be-ins of the hippie generation.
She brought to the show one of her most enduring characters, Ernestine, a Ma Bell company switchboard operator who exasperates people trying to make phone calls because she engages them with gossip and callousness and insults.
In one sketch she reads a tabloid rag about “Cher Bono” and her social life and decides to call Cher by referencing a black notebook called “The CIA Looks and Listens to the Hollywood Stars.” (Tomlin later told Rosie O’Donnell in an interview that the FBI in her day was known to listen in on conversations with people of interest). The sketch goes on to satirize celebrity gossip rags, corporate hegemony and Henry Kissinger.
Though Laugh-In was a silly and fast-paced show, it was also one of the progressive cultural voices that were changing the content of comedy, getting more risque with heavy doses of adult political and sexual humor, a progeny of Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory and the Smothers Brothers.
Some of Tomlin’s other memorable characters – both from the Laugh-In days and beyond – are Edith Ann, a 5-and-a-half year old girl who sits in an oversized chair dispensing precocious wisdom about the world. It’s not even classic set-up-punchline type stuff, but more like a free-flowing, understated monologue, something Andy Kaufmann would appreciate. But one of her boldest creations was Pervis Hawkins, a black, male singer modeled after Luther Vandross.
Her comedy records have been good to her. Starting in 1971, they’ve won her Grammys and held best-seller spots. She keeps tabs on her own fame in a mock interview on her 1975 album Modern Scream.
“Hollywood, Lily, do you feel it’s corrupting?”
“Oh yeah. That’s why I came out here. I began to feel my integrity was holding me back, hurting my chances for happiness… before it looked like I had integrity because I had no buyers.”
“I understand you once had a drug problem.”
“I still do. It’s so hard to get good grass.”
“You once said, ‘Truth is the best mind-altering drug.’”
“Did I say that? I must have been stoned.”
Tomlin was, by then, a star of the stage, TV and records when she launched another aspect to her career – film. And what an auspicious debut it was: Robert Altman’s 1975 Nashville, a huge cast in a big, robust story about American music and politics. Tomlin was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role, but maybe her most famous film role is 1980’s Nine to Five, in which three women (the others Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton) take revenge on an asshole boss.
In 1993 she teamed with Altman again in Short Cuts, and again for his last film, A Prairie Home Companion. In 1996 she narrated The Celluloid Closet, a documentary about the portrayal of gays and lesbians in Hollywood.
Her film output covers working class struggle and the American Dream deferred, social resistance and well-aimed satire, but with sympathy for the underdog and scorn for true life villains.
She stepped up to Broadway in 1977’s Appearing Nitely, but earned more renown for 1985’s Tony-winning The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by her longtime partner, playwright Jane Wagner.
Of their relationship, Tomlin said that she was never closeted about her sexual orientation; it just never became a matter of contention. In 2008 she gave a radio interview in Toronto about performers who still stay closeted.
“I never make a judgement about anybody, you just don’t know their circumstance, you’re not in their shoes. You can’t put that expectation on them.”
But she reserves judgement, she says, for “people who have power… in the government and misuse that power, lie to the population, like our administration. To me that’s really a heinous thing to do – and criminal.” (That administration being that of George W. Bush.)
Tomlin had a prodigious return career on TV, including choice roles on Murphy Brown, Will & Grace, The West Wing, Desperate Housewives and as Ms. Frizzle, the frazzled and free-wheeling schoolteacher on The Magic School Bus. All smart roles, in a career full of them.
AN EVENING OF CLASSIC LILY TOMLIN takes place 8pm Saturday at Sunset Center, San Carlos and Ninth, Carmel. $69-$99. 620-2048, www.sunsetcenter.org
• The Monterey Sculpture Center is re-opening in Sand City with a Bronze Hot Metal Pour reception and demonstration Friday, Jan. 18, 6-8pm. For a preview, though, Weekly videographer Joel Ede visited the renewed facility and shot a segment on the foundry’s inner workings. Go to www.montereycountyweekly.com/moltenmetal.
• Harry Marks is speaking at Arts Habitat, at Seaside’s Oldemeyer Center, Jan. 22, at the monthly presentation of Arts in Progress, a series that brings people from creative walks of life to talk about their art and projects. And what will Marks talk about? Typography. Kudos. I know a number of graphic designers who would line up for that. What might most folks like to hear him talk about more? Co-founding the TED Conference. Probably.
• Last week Friday, Tim Fain touched down on the Sunset Center stage with a minimalist assemblage of film screen, violin and a table and chair for his multimedia show Portals. It might have thrown some off, as witnessed by the sparse crowd. One woman said she tried to describe Portals to an acquaintance thusly: “How long do you have?” But it wasn’t difficult to discern the preponderance of video, satellite and digital technology married to the fine arts in a way that sometimes worked and sometimes – like during a couple of technical miscues – didn’t. Fain’s playing, especially his blistering passages on Philip Glass’ Partita for Solo Piano, and his evocative accompaniment to choreographer Benjamin Millepied’s (Black Swan) intense filmed dance scene, was awesome. The Q&A, not so much.
• Opportunity spanks. Jan. 22 and 23 is when Lalla Lounge on Alvarado holds pre – and post-parties in celebration of the Golden State Theatre’s hosting of SPANK! The Fifty Shades Parody, with discount specialty cocktails for ticket holders.
• Author Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) has focused new eyeballs on the world of birding as a guest of HBO’s Birders: The Central Park Effect and an autobiographical account of his own birding adventures. CSUMB’s Return of the Natives goes one step further – or closer – by hosting a birding event at Salinas’ Upper Carr Lake Jan. 19 for the 2013 Winter Bird Count and Planting. The planting portion takes place 10am-noon. The birding, 7am to 10pm. Call 582-3686, http://ron.csumb.edu.
• The Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration and March is one of the biggest, most inclusive, community-oriented events in the county. If you haven’t participated, you owe yourself an immersion into this affirmation of humanity. It begins 11am Monday, Jan. 21, at Broadway (aka Obama Way) and Noche Buena, and ends with a full house at Oldemeyer Center for speakers, presentations and performances. In between, a miracle mile of camaraderie with colorful folks who, altogether, conjure the peaceful but noisy and visible civil protest that’s helped shape our country’s conscience.