Backstage With Lily Tomlin and Her Brand-New Broadway Baby

'It's all done with mirrors'

Lily Tomlin on Saturday Night Live, September 18th, 1976 Credit: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

LITTLE MORE THAN A YEAR HAS passed since that infamous night in San Francisco when Lily Tomlin wasn't funny. No, it really happened, there's witnesses and everything — mainly some 50 loyal fans who clung to the stage of the Boarding House till the bitter end (about 7 a.m.) in the firm belief that something funny would happen. But what they witnessed was a frustrated, self-pitying Tomlin who refused to perform, refused to leave the stage and insisted on boozing and using controlled substances uncontrollably until the sun rose. Finally her road manager had to urge her fans one by one to leave (as Lily, slurring and reeling, angrily ordered them to stay) so the star could be whisked home to sleep it off.

That was in December of'75, and few weeks later the incident appeared as a gossip item in the National Enquirer:

Lily Tomlin of Laugh-In fame went bananas on stage at San Francisco's Boarding House. Lily stunned fans when she suddenly stopped her show and launched into a wild, senseless political harangue. She had to be led off the stage.

Well, I was one of the witnesses that night and I don't recall any wild political harangue, but certainly many of her statements made little sense. One that did, however, was her complaint, understandable for a comedian, that it was an increasing pain in the ass to do the same material each night, material she'd been doing for years. At least the statement made sense to me, but apparently not to Lily, who remembers the evening more as an extended piece of satire.

"It was nothing. My goodness, you gotta step out once in a while," she said recently in New York. "It was a piece of satire, you know?—satirizing being a celebrity. I'm just drawn to that theme a lot, as a source of humor. Because I don't have any problem ... I mean, if you like something, not that you don't keep changing and trying and everything, but it's this idea of, uh ... oh, it's all mixed up, I don't know. As an actor, see, I have less problem with creating the life of a character over and over than another kind of performer. Like, once I get ahold of a character, get ahold of their essence, I'm just as excited the next time I create it."

At any rate it's a moot point. For when Lily returned to the Boarding House a few weeks back, she again stunned her fans—with a two-hour show of all-new material even more outrageous, complex and powerfully touching than the amazing stuff she's been doing for the better part of a decade. The whole package had been assembled in less than five months, a miraculous feat for any performer not named Lily Tomlin.

It was five months ago that Lily decided she wanted to play Broadway. ("It seems more organic somehow. It's got all this stuff around it, it's got tradition around it.") She figured the latter part of March would be nice. She'd just finished starring with Art Carney in the Robert Altman/Robert Benton movie, The Late Show, and she knew the film would be showing in New York by then. (About the same time, a 90-minute videotape sci-fi fantasy in which she plays an extraterrestrial visitor would air nationally on PBS.) Things were coming together.

So she sat down with several collaborators, including her longtime associate Jane Wagner, and started writing the new show. She sat down with artists Ron Lieberman and Richard Bernstein and designed two posters and a full-page ad for the New York Times to promote her Broadway baby. She called her friend Lorne Michaels, producer of NBC's Saturday Night, and arranged to appear on Saturday night, February 26th, two days before tickets for her show would go on sale. She shot a three-minute videotape with the "friends of Lily Tomlin" (Susie Sorority; Ernestine, the telephone operator; Judith Beasley, the Calumet City, Illinois, housewife; Toni, the Fifties teenager; Rick, the singles-bar cruiser; Bobbi Jeanine, the cocktail lounge organist; Tess, the bag woman; and Crystal, "The Terrible Tumbleweed," a resilient quadriplegic in a CB-equipped wheelchair) to be shown on Saturday Night and later cut into TV spots to advertise her Broadway appearance. Then she booked herself into clubs in San Francisco, Chicago and Boston so her new material could be "pulled together" in time for the Big Apple.

By mid-February Lily Tomlin was ready for Broadway. Trouble was, Broadway wasn't ready for her. No theater was available in late March. She wanted something small and, you know, classy. "See, you always go for what you think is perfect," she explained later. Lily tried the Booth, the Plymouth, the Music Box; they were all booked. Except for this one little hitch, however, everything else was turning out great. The Late Show opened in New York to rave reviews. Lily's week-long Boarding House performance was a smash; so many people were turned away that she volunteered to do an extra 1 a.m. show on Saturday and Sunday.

Finally, on February 17th, the day her New York Times ad had to be ready for veloxing, Lily scored a theater—the Biltmore, which she describes as "a very pretty little theater, perfectly fine." She'll be appearing there four weeks, March 22nd through April 17th.

But what if she hadn't been able to land the Biltmore? "I'da just had a real nice poster that cost a lot of money," said Lily, giggling. "But if I didn't go ahead and prepare everything, then I ... but luckily I did, so that when suddenly the theater became open, and we were able to get it ... it's all a matter of luck." Well, luck and Tomlin's ability to organize and get things done. "I'm not organized," she snapped. "I'm tenacious."

HOW DOES SOMEONE, someone even as gifted as Lily Tomlin, come up with so much dazzling new stuff in so short a time? Her explanation: "Well, sometimes ideas just come faster." Apparently so. When we caught Lily recently at the Boarding House, in orange overalls and black turtleneck, without costumes or props, we were introduced to at least five strange characters we'd never seen before ... except, perhaps, in real life. And that was at one of those extra, 1 a.m. late shows which apparently were abbreviated.

There was Crystal, the CB quadriplegic, wheeling defiantly cross-country toward Big Sur to become a hang-glider rider. There was Lily, the second grader, hopelessly in love with her teacher, Miss Sweeney. ("I didn't think of myself as a teacher's pet. I just didn't have anything in common with a bunch of seven-year-old illiterates.") There was Tess, the bag woman (cowriter Jane Wagner calls her "the loony woman"), who, when not institutionalized, roams the streets with a shopping bag, a copy of the National Enquirer and a headful of private but peculiarly logical theories about everything from flying saucers to Patty Hearst to secret death rays that can attack you through the telephone:" You pick up the telephone, and it just kills you, you just fall down, and you're layin' there, you're dead, people come in, and they see you layin' there, and they see the phone, they just think you died from bad news."

And there was Glenna, the "Sixties Person," certainly the longest (15 minutes), most elaborate and possibly most socially satirical sketch Lily has yet done. Written in collaboration with a woman named Pat Resnick, the "Sixties Person" is a piece about changes, not only in an individual but in a period of history when changes were one of the few constant values. It begins with Glenna as a high-school teenager somewhat reminiscent of Toni, the Fifties teenager who Lily has been creating for years. For "pushing pills" from her mother's medicine chest, Glenna is suspended by the school authorities. "They are so lame," she complains with pubescent scorn. But unlike Toni, whose monologue is confined to one scene, a high-school dance, Glenna goes through many scenes, growing older in the process. She starts "getting into weed," at some point changes her name to Plumb and rambles through every cosmic cliché of the last decade: "What's your sign? I knew it! Pisces just blow me away." And later: "Wow, TV is so heavy-no, man, don't turn it on."

She tells her girlfriend Barbie she just met "the most beautiful dude in Black Studies" named Oz: "We were walkin' across the campus, and, like, this old guy comes up to him and says, 'Hey, are you a boy or are you a girl?' And Oz doesn't even take it as a putdown! 'I am whatever you see me as.'" At another point she confides, almost tearfully, "Barbie, Paul's dead. He's the only one barefoot on the album ... Paul's dead. [Here Lily stands up and turns away.] So's Bobby and Martin Luther King. Maybe it's the other way around. I can't even remember the order everyone was assassinated in anymore."

Next we see her at an encounter group, seriously blissful: "Ricky, I honestly and openly feel you are full of shit ... you're welcome." Later she tells Barbie she met this lawyer at the crisis center who's "working to change the system from within," and they're going to get married: "I know it's just a piece of paper. For God's sake, I taught you that."

The last scene is Glenna preparing to attend a fundraiser at the Unitarian Church "for a new magazine Gloria Steinem wants to start." But before leaving the house she yells at her maid, Rosita, in a condescending manner and tells her not to forget the laundry and the grocery shopping: "And remember — no grapes and no lettuce!"

Even characters that Lily has done for years had somehow matured in the last few months. Like Bobbi Jeanine, the cocktail, lounge organist who mixes bittersweet homilies on love and marriage with cornball musical metaphors. She still does that, but now she is advising her friend Linda on the delicate and frightening problem of wife beating. Linda has just been beaten by Harry, and Bobbi Jeanine recalls similar assaults — "or as he'd call them, 'love pats'"—at the rough hands of her ex. Finally she tells Linda, "You can't help him, honey, help yourself. Come on, let's me and you go to your place. I'll help you handle Harry. We'll pack up all your cares and woes, get you and those kids outta the house. You'll see tomorrow how different things'll look. [Breaks into song] 'What a difference a day makes, and that difference is you.'"

And there's Fortune, the wistful singles-bar habitué who says things like: "Sometimes I feel like my life is just a big waste of time ... even plucking your eyebrows—a simple thing, but it's time out of your life. Sure you can get back your eyebrows, but you can never get back the time you spent plucking them. The same with a man's beard; you see, we all do it, we shave and pluck our lives away, and the clock just keeps ticking."

Fortune's observations are pretty much the same as before, but now the singles bar includes another character, Rick, the macho cruiser, a marvelously complex individual who proves more than ever that Tomlin can capture just about anyone—regardless of sex, race or perversion. Rick reinforces his manhood by getting good and drunk, then wanders over to Fortune and tries to score. When he is unsuccessful he slobbers, "I came over here 'cause I was feeling sorry for you. If I found you in bed, I'd kick you out."

At first sight some may feel that Tomlin's new people are grimmer than her earlier ones, and, in the case of Tess and Crystal, even a little sick. But a second look will discover the same triumphant spirit in them all. A few years back, in describing the comedy of Richard Pryor, Lily said, "It's like believing that we're all worth something, you know, when everything around us tells us that we're not really." But the same description could easily be applied to her stuff.

Or as Sister Boogie Woman, Lily's toothless old radio evangelist, puts it: [Shouting and undulating] "People say to me, 'Sister, I don't believe in nothin'. I believe it's all done with mirrors.'

"Boogie is believin' in the maker of those mirrors!"

Which may explain the growing fellowship of fans, of which I am one, who believe in Lily Tomlin as one of the greatest theatrical geniuses of our time.

ON MONDAY, FEBRUARY 28th, tickets for Lily's show went on sale at the Biltmore box office. One of the first people to arrive that chilly morning was a straight-laced, straight-faced Red Cross volunteer who introduced herself as Mrs. Judith Beasley of Calumet City, Illinois, and began handing out hundreds of free doughnuts and coffees to the growing lines of ticket buyers. She explained that she just happened to be in town to chaperone the senior trip and her two nephews, that there'd been just a crush of people at the Calumet City high school when Lily played there and so she knew there'd be just a crush of people at the box office.

Some members of the crowd, didn't buy it; they were certain this woman looked an awful lot like Lily Tomlin. One young teenager turned to her girlfriend and remarked, completely serious, "It's really Lily Tomlin; she's just doing this to be funny." But Mrs. Beasley was adamant. "I never met Lily personally," she said. "I don't know why that woman is stealing my likeness."

She kept this up, never changed character, for four and a half hours—which meant either it had to be Lily Tomlin or there really is a Mrs. Judith Beasley of Calumet City who looks an awful lot like her. It's getting harder and harder to distinguish between Lily and her people these days. It's getting harder even for Lily. The other day she confided to photographer Annie Leibovitz, a bit lustily, "I think you'll like Rick when you see him; I mean, you're really gonna like him." (Lily is particularly taken with Rick at the moment, partly because when she did him on the "friends of Lily Tomlin" videotape, when she "physicalized" him by wearing a moustache, sideburns and leather jacket, strutting and tugging at his/her crotch, hardly anyone recognized that the stud was her.)

Yes, perhaps sometimes the ideas do just come faster, as Lily said. But do they come from Lily or the characters themselves? When we were discussing the roots of Rick and Fortune, for example, Lily explained, "I'm trying to interweave her and Rick in the singles bar right now, that's what my big problem is. Rick was in the singles bar, and Fortune used to be in Bobbi's bar, like she'd leave the singles bar and go to Bobbi for comfort. Then I wanted to put Rick and Fortune together, and I wanted to get Bobbi by herself. That's all. They just moved around the neighborhood."

Sometimes a character, as if by its own mitosis, will split over a period of time into two or more characters with remarkably different traits. Which is how Tess, the bag woman, came to be.

"The true evolution was this," recalled Tomlin. "She started out as the boogie woman. I mean, when I was first starting to work on the boogie woman, I saw her standing out on the corner, out on the street, you know, preaching boogie? But it didn't suit her enough. And then the boogie woman just became the boogie woman, and Tess became just more and more real to me and more and more like what she is now. I had a hard time evolving them both 'cause they were kind of mixed up and I couldn't get them separated. But I began to see that Tess could go in a totally different direction, and I was holding her back.

"Tess is a borderline, you know, she's not like a stone bag woman, a solid bag woman who just does nothing but, like, lives in the street; she's a shopping bag woman who goes through stuff, picks out stuff. It's a woman that I meet on the street, or I'm in the supermarket, and she turns around to me, she's got the Enquirer, and she says: [Lily speaks in a husky, nasal voice—slightly higher pitched than Sister Boogie Woman's—her tight lips bent curiously in the middle] 'Rona Barrett cain't find nothin' on you, cain she!' Because that happens to me—infrequently, but it has happened."

It seemed to me that Tess was borderline in more ways than one, that she wasn't all there.

"Yes, she's all there," corrected Lily. "I mean, what I love about her, she's like energy, you know? She comes to everybody's defense. I just love Tess, I'm just real involved in doing her. She's like Mrs. Beasley, or like Bobbi Jeanine—they just have a life, and I can improvise constantly. I mean, they have a true life, they do. They exist."

Even so, Lily said she expects Tess at some point to split again and create yet another character, although she's not sure exactly what, or when. It doesn't matter, really. Tess is the sort of person who will let her know soon enough.