Lily Tomlin & All Her Characters Comes to Town

The sharp-witted, thin-grinning comedy veteran Lily Tomlin — one of America’s foremost comediennes an actresses — performs at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center (5001 Coliseum Drive) on Thurs. Feb. 12 at 7:30 p.m. She plans to do a one-woman show, touching on many of her classic characters, including Lud, Trudi, Marie, Madame Lupe, Edith Ann, and Ernestine (see gallery below).

Drawn to this form of comedy at a young age, Tomlin has performed on stages, small screens (from Laugh In to Sesame Street), big screens, and on Broadway. It’s a treat to have her in Charleston. Freelancer Andrea Warner conducted an interesting Q&A for a feature on Tomlin in this week’s issue. A last-minute opportunity speak with Tomlin directly came up last week, so I took it and thoroughly enjoyed gabbing with her about American comedy, classic TV shows, music, her lengthy film career, and her earliest days breaking into the stand-up scene. Here are a few excerpts.

On what to expect at the Performing Arts Center show:

“I’ll be very free-wheeling and more intimate and direct to the audience. Not so much like a theater piece that I might do under other circumstances, but more like a stand-up concert where I do a lot of characters and fool around with Charleston … and Washington, as well as I can. I’ll just talk about humanity [laughs] — and the situation we’re in. It’s a little bit political, and there’s a lot of personal stuff, too. I usually do a Q&A at the end, and that’s a lot of fun. It’s very intimate and one-on-one; the audience is one, and I’m the other one.”

On her preference between performing the sketch type stuff that’s more prepared or more improvisational situations:

I’ve always liked all of it. It’s all rewarding. I like to have enough space that you can fool around or take advantage of anything that happens. Some monologues are more crafted. They’ve been developed to express a certain point of view or issue. I always find the audience has more fun when things are more off the wall. I just throw myself into the hands of the audience because so many of them have known for a for a long time. I almost feel like I’ve grown up with some of them, you know? I’m just there to reconnect. I can do something very naturalistic and then do something very rich. I’ve done two one-person Broadway shows. Some nights, it’s like playing a piece of music and playing it really well with so much passion and feeling that a lot happens. I think you feel somewhat transported.”

On her experience playing “Honey Bush” in my favorite Robert Altman film, 1993’s Short Cuts:

“Bob [Altman] knew I was just crazy about him. When he told me that he cast Tom as my husband I just went nuts. I was just over the moon. We were like the first couple in that movie who shot, sand we shot for a week. The first night, I go home and the phone rings, and it’s Tom pretending to be Earl, my husband driving around in the limo. We were just ad-libbing and having fun, and when we hung up, I thought, ‘If only I had tape recorded it!’ It would have been so divine. Tom Waits is so special.”

On the increasing opportunities in the entertainment biz for women to do comedy:

“There was a time when women did not do any kind of stand-up. There were a handful. In my time, one of the very earliest was Jean Carroll, who used to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. She was fantastic. As kid, I was enamored by her. And Phyllis Diller, who’s in her 90s now, too. There were women who did sketch or who had a show of their own, or a sitcom, but very few stood up on their own It was considered “not feminine.” It was too powerful to stand up. But they got away with it for a time, because, generally, they made fun of themselves. Totie Fields used to joke about being overweight, Joan Rivers would joke about not being able to get a guy or whatever, and Lucy would be scatterbrained and always doing something she’d have to get by Ricky. But now, many young woman do comedy and talk out of their own sense of intelligent observation.”