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comedy

Characters are a laughing matter for Tomlin

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There is something invigorating about hearing Lily Tomlin laugh. It’s an explosive sound, spontaneous and honest. She has spent roughly 45 years making others convulse with joy onstage doing one-woman shows, in films like “All of Me” and television shows like “Laugh-In.” It’s reassuring, uplifting to know she feels that joy, too. She is inhabited by a cast of characters like Ernestine, the one-time phone company operator turned health care specialist, precocious 5½-year-old Edith Ann, and Tess/Trudy, a homeless woman with a strange and beautiful philosophy about humanity. At 73, Tomlin still makes frequent appearances in film (“Admission”) and television (“Malibu County,” “Web Therapy”), and tours with her characters. She brings them to the Cape Cod Melody Tent Thursday.

Q. Is the live show what you enjoy most these days?

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A. I wouldn’t say “most,” but it’s certainly important to me. I’ve always done it. Even from the time I was a kid I was always putting on shows, even though I had no real reason to put on shows. It’s not like my family went to the theater or did anything like that. I went to the movies. I took ballet and tap at the department of parks and recreation. Maybe that’s where I got the idea of making a show. I lived in an apartment house and I’d try to get the other kids to be in it and get all the neighbors to buy tickets. [Laughs] I’d do take-offs, I’d see something on TV like, you know, something on “Howdy Doody” or Princess [Summerfall Winterspring] or Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. I’d see characters I could do and then I could translate them into my own life.

Q. What does the live show look like these days? Is it much different from what it would have been several years ago?

A. It’s still character-based, that’s what I do. I don’t do traditional stand-up. I do a bunch of characters. I’m using some video to kind of satirize myself as a celebrity and some video to make a connection with the character or to have the character interact with their image. I’ll try to talk about the Cape and Hyannis. I’ve been to the Cape many, many times. In fact, one of my first jobs was at the old Pilgrim House in Provincetown. And that was the summer of, I don’t know, ’67 maybe? Something like that. Lynn Carter was the headliner at the Pilgrim. He was a drag artist, and he was the big draw. And then during the day, there were a couple of acts that did a cocktail show and I was one of them with a fellow named John Paul Hudson. And we did a two-person revue called “Two Much,”
t-w-o much. I spent the whole summer there on the Cape in P-town.

Q. Are there any characters you identify more with these days than others?

A. No, not really. Depends on what they have to say and what they’re doing, what they’re up to. To me, as long as they work or they’re relevant or they have something to say or they’re really fun to do or they comment on something — that’s what I really like is the variety.

‘Even from the time I was a kid I was always putting on shows.’

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Q. Do they have a life offstage?

A. In my heart they do. I’ve always felt that Ernestine, she was sort of like Bette Davis and I was just one of the many people who imitated her. Ernestine, she was always bitter with me because I was famous and she wasn’t. She says I imitated her and made a big success and was really riding on her coattails.

Q. She was working in the health care industry when last I saw her. Is she still there?

A. I still do that sometimes. I’ve been trying to develop another monologue with her working at the NSA.

Q. How do you and your partner and writer, Jane Wagner, work together? Is there a particular process?

A. No. I usually fall to my knees with my arms outstretched and say, “Please write something!” [Laughs] “Please write something really good!”

Q. Are there any particular current events you’re looking to comment on these days?

A. There’s so much stuff. It’s limitless, really.

Q. It generally doesn’t come out in a direct way with the characters.

A. I try to find some way to touch on something or mention it or just reference it. You can’t always come up with some absolute definitive remark about anything that has any validity or any real substance. You don’t want to make just a cheap reference or something that’s just a cheap shot. I never do. Overall you want to convey a certain sensibility that’s just more embracing, more inclusive. I do, I’m saying. So it’s mostly wanting people to value themselves.

Q. You’ve been cast recently in a few roles as the strange, cranky mom in “Malibu County,” in “Web Therapy,” and in “Admission.” Do you think you’re starting to get typecast?

A. [Laughs] I don’t know. Yeah. I guess so. I’m definitely getting typecast as a mother or a grandmother. I’m McGee’s grandmother on “NCIS.” I played a grandmother on “Malibu.” The kids were my grandkids.

Q. Does that make you uncomfortable?

A. No. That’s just the way of it. I even made that white wig for “Malibu.” I paid for it. I paid $7,000 for it. I took my mother’s name for that character and my mother had white hair, and I love white hair. So it was a good opportunity to have white hair.

Q. Comedy Central just announced today that Bill Cosby is going to do his first special in 30 years. Do you think you’d ever do a special again?

A. Yeah, if they wanted me, that would be just dandy. I love television. I’m so glad just to do “Web Therapy,” because it’s so [much] fooling around. It’s mostly improvised.

Q. Is that what you enjoy most?

A. No, I like it all. I like to have something really off-the-cuff or I like to have something really crafted that you’ve worked on. Some things call for that and some things don’t.

Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at nick@nickzaino.com.
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