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A comedian's tragic take on modern living

Lily Tomlin, who performs in Tampa on Saturday, doesn't consider herself a pessimist. But she bemoans the shift toward mean-spirited comedy and the dumbing down of society.

Published May 4, 2007

[Special to the Times]
"Everything today is about humiliation, tearing someone else down," Lily Tomlin says.

[Times photo: Times Files]
Tomlin was Ernestine the operator on Laugh-In.

[Times photo: Times Files]
Tomlin starred with Sir Ian McKellen, left, and Matthew Modine in the HBO movie And the Band Played On.

Twenty-two years after her Broadway triumph, Lily Tomlin still seeks signs of intelligent life in the universe.

She doesn't find them on YouTube or reality television shows, and certainly not in the halls of government power. Tomlin, 67, locates only traces of astuteness among her comedy contemporaries, hidden beneath crude attacks and celebrity artifice.

It is enough to make a twinkle-eyed optimist wonder if intelligence, like dinosaurs and dodo birds, has become extinct.

"We're getting technologically advanced but people aren't getting any smarter," Tomlin said recently from a stop in Connecticut on a tour that brings her to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center on Saturday. "Maybe we can survive long enough to evolve some intelligent life.

"I'm not pessimistic. I can't be. I have to live as much in the present as I can, as opposed to projecting our downfall in the future. But who knows what we've unleashed?"

That's the real Lily Tomlin speaking, not "Edith Ann" babbling childish wisdom or the pushy operator "Ernestine," despite a telephone being involved. Those characters created on the countercultural TV show Laugh-In and dozens since on stage and screen are Tomlin's creative friends, not her mouthpieces.

She doesn't need their help in that regard. Tomlin admits she is a "meanderer," urging an interviewer to keep her on track through personal and political tangents. Not easy, but necessary.

No fan of cutthroat comedy

Nothing kept her more focused during this particular conversation than discussing what comedy has become, the fallout from a coarse culture.

"Everything today is about humiliation, tearing someone else down," she said. "That goes for comedy and political discourse. The easiest way to undermine someone is to ridicule them. That kind of material never appealed to me, anything that debased other people.

"I mean, politicians are exempt from this. World leaders are exempt because they have too much power over our lives not to be pulled up short. But other human beings - it's one thing to talk about something in general, but picking out one specific group or ethnicity? No. It's too divisive, too ridiculing."

Tomlin first noticed the shift in manners while watching Survivor, the reality TV show in which cutthroat strategy and false alliances lead to success. Not too different from show business. Tomlin never understood the need for it there, either.

"It seemed only for corporate life, this jockeying for position at someone else's expense," she said. "I never was savvy on that."

A different approach

Maybe that is what set Tomlin apart, even in the years before Laugh-In. Not only her angular face twisting into a different personality at the drop of inspiration, but her reluctance to play the feminine role that audiences expected in the 1960s.

"Almost all the women who did comedy back then generally played on some kind of negative stereotype: women as fat, homely, couldn't get a man, scatter-brained, whatever."

The almost imperceptible exception was Jean Carroll, whom Tomlin remembers as the first woman she ever saw doing stand-up comedy, on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Carroll looked conventional for the era, dressed in a mink stole and dripping diamonds: "Very breezy and talking about her husband, kids, shopping, all that stuff," Tomlin said. "But she was very sly; funny but with a little subversiveness under it."

More often, female comedians were like Totie Fields and Phyllis Diller, exaggerating their plainness into gargoyle humor.

Tomlin recalled a stint at the Upstairs at the Downstairs comedy revue in New York, as a second or third banana upstaging a lovely female star Tomlin wouldn't name.

"She was the ingenue who was absolutely boring onstage. You could hardly tolerate it. But in the dressing room she'd be incredibly funny, the way she would characterize things, just hilarious.

"I'd tell her: 'You have to do that onstage.' She would puff herself up and say: 'Oh, I wouldn't want anyone thinking I'm unattractive.'"

A piece of pop culture

That never fazed Tomlin, whose muse - especially with the Tony-winning one-woman show The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe - hinges on exploring ugly truths and appearances. She even laughed off her recent YouTube infamy, profanely blowing her stack at director David O. Russell on the set of I Heart Huckabees.

Without realizing, Tomlin became part of the coarse culture she tries to avoid, downloaded for kicks by people seeking cheap thrills at someone else's expense.

"It's the whole tabloid-ization of our culture," she said. "In a way, it's sort of liberating. Everybody has moments of bad behavior that you wouldn't want displayed to the world. Now it's out there and I can't do anything about it. But that's this generation, going to the Internet for communication and community."

Tomlin remembered being 8 years old, reading a newspaper account of a mother jailed for child neglect. Young Lily didn't know what "neglect" meant. Her mother explained that the mother didn't treat her children well.

"That was it for me," Tomlin said. "That leveled the playing field. I knew my mother could go to jail if I didn't like the way she treated me. An illusion had been destroyed.

"Kids today go to the Internet and there are no illusions about anything. Everything is exposed, including people's genitals. Maybe it creates kids who are really smart and who challenge authority. But it usually gets directed to wanting to be on YouTube.

"I don't know where it all ends but meanwhile people continue to live longer and longer. What are people retiring at 60 going to do? They might have 30 or 40 years left at this point in our evolution."

Tomlin ruefully laughed and added: "if the planet lasts."

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or


Lily Tomlin's career highlights


The Garry Moore Show (1966-69)

Laugh-In (1969-73)

And the Band Played On (1993)

The West Wing (2002-06)


Nashville (1975). Nominated for an Oscar.

Nine to Five (1980)

Short Cuts (1993)

I (Heart) Huckabees (2004)

A Prairie Home Companion (2006)


The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (also available on home video). Tomlin won the Best Actress Tony in 1986.

If you go

"An Evening With Lily Tomlin, " a one-woman tour of the comic-actor's classic characters from TV and stage, 8 p.m. Saturday, Morsani Hall, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $35.50 to $55.50. Call (813) 229-7827 or (800) 955-1045 or go to

[Last modified May 3, 2007, 19:41:38]

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