The most surprising thing about Lily Tomlin is that she’s really not that funny.
At least, that’s what she says.
“I’m quite in earnest as a person. I could imitate funny things or people who were funny, but I’m the last person to know I’m behaving in a funny way,” she said.
That’s an ironic fact about a woman who has been considered one of the funniest in the business for more than four decades. But being somewhat normal “kept me in the small money for quite some time,” she said.
People in the business didn’t know how to take her at a time when most of the comedians were characters such as Wally Cox or Dody Goodman, she said. She was a little like the suburban housewife of comedy.
“I’d be this regular person, then I would do a character for them and they would totally shrink back or make their secretary buzz in and interrupt.”
Tomlin broke out when she joined the cast of “Laugh-In” in 1969. Her remarkable knack for creating memorable characters such as Ernestine, the power- hungry operator for Ma Bell, and Edith Ann, the savviest 6-year-old on the planet, made her more than a success. She became a pop culture icon.
Her career took off after “Laugh-In” went off the air in 1973. She began creating her own specials with her longtime partner and writer, Jane Wagner, who wrote Tomlin’s one-woman show, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” which took on everything from UFO sightings to homelessness.
In her career, Tomlin has won two Tonys, two Peabodys, six Emmys, a Grammy, the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards, plus the Mark Twain Prize for American humor. She will open in Las Vegas on Nov. 10.
She spent some time on the phone last month with Dana Oland.
Q. So, what got you back out on the road?
A. I’ve been on the road since I became famous. I’ve always done as many dates as I could in between whatever else I was doing. I like performing live and keeping my hand in. I do my version of stand-up, which includes lots of characters.
Q. What issues do you find yourself being drawn to today?
A. I never did do a lot of issue- oriented stuff. A piece might reflect that, but it’s not like I take on topical politics. As Lily I may, but that’s the fooling around stuff. The pieces (I do) have always been more socially relevant and deal more with the human condition.
Q. Do you have an example?
A. I might do one of my old monologues: the world’s oldest beauty expert. That came about because I was so offended as a young girl about the double standard and that women had to be more attractive than men and how that’s changed.
In the old days, you had to just be sort of decent looking. Now you have to look like Christie Brinkley at 50 or something. So when I did that monologue, it was about trying to stay sexy and beautiful your whole life, and (you might be) disposable if you weren’t. I invented that monologue years and years ago, but it still plays so strong today.
Q. What characters do you find yourself going back to?
A. Well, Ernestine, of course, and Edith Ann. Ernestine has had many jobs since the divestiture (in 1984 the Bell System phone company was broken up into eight companies by the U.S. Department of Justice). Somehow, she had a reality Web show and could call people and through the Web see what they’re doing. During the Bush regime, she had a lot of reality chats via the Web. Now, she’s working at a big insurance corporation, denying health care to everyone. She goes wherever she has autonomy and power and can abuse the most people.
Q. What about Edith Ann?
A. She’s still only 6, but she talks about big stuff. Kids aren’t so radically different now, but today they have exposure to different things. With television shows, iPods and computers, you have to talk about that.
I’ll do about 10 or 12 characters. I’ll do Lud and Marie and a little bit of Trudy from “The Search,” Sister Boogie Woman and Mrs. Judith Beasley.
Q. What was your first character?
A. That’s hard to say. I would do shows when I was a kid and imitate the neighbors or something I’d seen on TV all the time. I was influenced by Bea Lillie, Imogene Coca and any number of people who were on early television.
But my first conscious character was when I was in college in Detroit. That’s where the Tasteful Lady came from. She was a Grosse Pointe matron who had a bit of pretension to her, and she was a big hit. I went on all the local talk shows.
Q. How has comedy changed since you’ve been in the biz?
A. More women do comedy now. Culturally, the general thought was that if you were a woman doing comedy you had to be unattractive. Totie Fields was fat, Joan Rivers couldn’t get a man, and they played on all that stuff.
The idea of a woman making a room full of people laugh if she wasn’t belittling herself in some way was absurd. I thought that was just foolish.
Q. What makes you laugh today?
A. Anything true.