Lily Tomlin September 16, Reynolds Hall at The Smith Center.
It’s amazing to think how Lily Tomlin has spent more than three quarters of her life entertaining the masses. Whether it was her breakout characters Edith Anne and Ernestine on Laugh-In, her first leading role in 9 to 5 with Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton, or her new stint selling vibrators and yam lube on Grace and Frankie, Tomlin has always known how to tap into the realness of the female experience. Tomlin continued that legacy inside the Smith Center on Saturday afternoon, with more energy and finesse than most half her age. The 78-year-old actress spent nearly two hours on the stage during An Afternoon of Classic Lily Tomlin equipped with nothing but a chair, a table, a small set of stairs and a video projector, using the screen to take the audience back through the highlights of her career.
For the next 120 minutes, she visited clips of her most famous characters and intertwined them with what she has become known for—blending her own monologues with a cast of hilarious, and sometimes absurd, rotating characters. Whether it’s the “Las Vegas lounge lizard” Tommy Velour (especially fitting for the location), spokesperson Judith Beasley or the punk rocker Agnus Angst, the timelessness of her characters is worth noting — most of them would easily fit in any current episode of Saturday Night Live. Also notable is her obvious influence on some of SNL’s most prolific modern comedians; without Lily Tomlin, there would be no Kristen Wiig or Kate McKinnon.
Despite the success of Grace and Frankie with younger generations, the crowd at Smith Center skewed much older, something which was also reflected in her routines. Admittedly, a few of Tomlin’s monologues felt dated, especially compared to some of today’s more popular sardonic comics like Louis C.K. or Ali Wong, but Tomlin has never relied on sheer shock-value to get her point across. Instead, Tomlin uses minimalist characters to make bold statements about the human condition—from observations on alcoholism and sexuality to aging and more.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Tomlin said halfway through her set, as she laid across the stairs on stage. “She’s still so attractive.” Tomlin peppered her set with plenty of memorable cheeky comments, but the best part of her set came toward the end, when she re-enacted her famous character, the telephone operator Ernestine. Updated for 2017, Tomlin played a heartless healthcare insurance operator, delivering one-liners like “An apple a day keeps the doctor away! And so does being poor.” And “You were shot in a Subway? Next time, eat at Quiznos.”
In 2000, Variety magazine wrote about Jane Wagner and Tomlin’s Broadway play, Searching for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which included plenty of characters from Saturday’s show. “Cruel humor is easy; it’s harder to mine laughter from the human comedy without using the handy weapon of contempt,” Variety wrote of the play, which was, at the time, already 15 years old. Now 32 years since that play’s inception—and many more since her early days on Laugh-In—Tomlin is still the master of both absurdist and thought-provoking comedy that challenges us to see the humor in the mundane and question our social norms. The comedian has always commanded the stage, and An Afternoon of Classic Lily Tomlin showed that little has changed.