Lily Tomlin Essay - Critical Essays

Tomlin, Lily


Lily Tomlin 1939–

(Born Mary Jean Tomlin) American writer, comedienne, and actress.

Tomlin has been lauded as a comedic genius; some critics feel that her work has even transcended the genre. Robert Benton, who directed Tomlin in The Late Show, has said about her film work that she is "the greatest living American actress." Although not all critics will concur with this extreme praise, critical opinion has in general recognized her as a superior actress with far-reaching potential. The skill with which Lily Tomlin has made the transition from comedy to acting is said to be a startling example of the versatility of her talent. Tomlin, however, has always considered herself an actress. She approaches her comedy as an actress would approach a serious, dramatic role. Her characters are studied, shaped, formed, directed, and executed as if she were the playwright, the director, and the play. Tomlin's close associate Jane Wagner maintains that Lily practices what she calls "comedic posession." She maintains that Lily Tomlin simply becomes her characters.

Tomlin's comic writing has a distinctly literary quality and her work verifies the fact that the line between comedy and drama is a fine one. She has created characters who have real depth and range. They are funny, but they are also sad, lonely, and despairing.

Lily Tomlin is a staunch supporter of the women's movement and her work often projects her feelings on this subject. She is politically and socially active and aware. Some critics feel that her work has suffered as a result, and what was once cynical and intelligent has become arrogant and moralistic. These critics, among others, feel that Tomlin's best material comes from her memories of growing up in an old Detroit apartment building that was filled with "upwardly striving, downwardly moving people who were all funny in different ways." Tomlin advocates will say that it was necessary for her to expand her repertoire to include more universal figures. Her most loyal audiences have said that Tomlin shows us a vision of ourselves—individuals who sometimes win and sometimes lose. At its best, her wit is not directed towards individuals but towards the society which imposes convention and judgment upon them. Her characters are survivors. Their strength and dignity as individuals lend a certain optimism to her work.

Amy Gross

[Lily Tomlin's] operating, more and more, from a comic perspective she discovered, and from there, things are not so much funny ha-ha as funny amazing. Watching her being one of her characters, you would not double over in hysteria, but you might well shake your head, marveling, and smiling a smile of recognition: ain't that the truth. And the Tomlin truth—her sad-sweet sensibility, meltingly compassionate and almost surgically delicate—is that we humans are totally absurd but endearingly so … a little like the seven dwarfs maybe. (p. 186)

Amy Gross, "Lily Tomlin on Lily Tomlin" (courtesy Amy Gross; copyright © 1975 by The Condé Nast Publications Inc.), in Mademoiselle, Vol. 81, No. 11, November, 1975, pp. 111, 186, 188-89.

James Wolcott

Modern Scream (great title: movie-mag trashiness crossed with primal therapy) is not the usual recorded-live-stage-show-comedy album, as Lily Tomlin's first two albums were. It's a conceptual work—a movie with Lily Tomlin in every frame. The plot structure is an interview in which the Hidden History of Tomlin's life is revealed. (Actually, concealed.)…

All of Tomlin's characters are twisted, but like Robert Altman, with whom she worked on Nashville, she does not hang them on hooks of contempt for our amusement; their kinks are painted with tender strokes….

[This is] the true subject of Modern Scream: having your fame and still maintaining your inner equilibrium. As it says in the Label of Contents: "Lily talks intimately to reporter, reveals nothing." Not quite nothing. Interviewer: "Did it seem strange … making love to a man on the big screen?" Tomlin: "You don't have to be [a heterosexual] to play one." For years, reporters have been probing this area of Tomlin's life; this switch on the old joke is her way of disposing of the issue without allowing her intimacies to be violated. She does a media strip-tease, and through the assurance of her technique … remains clothed…. Tomlin's triumph on Modern Scream is that she takes this—the fake intimacy that we all indulge in—and makes it funny. (p. 73)

I could have done without the obvious conceit of Tomlin comparing herself to a chameleon, and the reprise of bits at the end doesn't give the album a sharp enough sendoff. Trivial complaints when weighed against a fine sequence like Tomlin's female version of the American Graffiti high-school heebie-jeebies, in which the desperation of acceptance-seeking teen girls is presented with comic poignance. Wanting to be liked has never seemed so scalding….

Indeed, after Modern Scream, a lovely comic garland for the twisted, Lily Tomlin's voice will have the certification of Katharine Hepburn's cheekbones or ballerina Gelsey Kirkland's feet as an authentic American treasure. (p. 75)

James Wolcott, "Bizarre Acts Revealed by Star," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1975; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 200, November 20, 1975, pp. 73, 75.

Ellen Cohn

What [Tomlin's] unique perspective has given us is a repertory of nearly 20 characters ranging from a cheeky adenoidal 5 1/2-year-old named Edith Ann to Sister Boogie Woman, a 77-year-old evangelist….

Tomlin respects her characters and fights vigorously for their integrity. (p. 39)

For Tomlin, an ardent feminist, any male/female nomenclature is suspect. Nonetheless, her body of work is for some women an antidote to that of the female practitioners of stand-up comedy—such as Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Totie Fields—who have internalized "Take my wife … please," to regurgitate, "The last time I took off my makeup, my dog threw up."

None of Tomlin's women are male-defined, all spring from an economic and social place in society. They have no interest in idly putting down men; neither will they allow themselves to be skewered. (p. 90)

With her Edith Ann record "And That's the Truth" (Edith's spluttering tag on her monologues), Tomlin moved away from arbitrarily strung-together routines, the standard format for comedy recording…. [The] record features two characters—Edith Ann and a woman Edith calls "Lady"—both played by Tomlin. With sound effects added to the narrative, the result is a two-act radio play….

Edith Ann, no longer merely a smart-alecky kid, becomes a vehicle for revealing the loneliness of childhood, the naked need for approval and admiration.

And "Lady" we experience through a little girl's ears and eyes. Her voice has the tinkle of grown-up cocktail parties, the assurance of one who can walk in high heels without wobbling. (p. 94)

Ellen Cohn, "Lily Tomlin: Not Just a Funny Girl," in The New York Times Magazine (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 6, 1976, pp. 39, 90-4.

Lynn Van Matre

I've found Tomlin funny and perceptive at times in the past; her Ernestine the operator routine, which she did not reprise has sent me into hysterics. But I haven't been enjoying Tomlin … since that plodding sense of social consciousness started hanging heavy over most of her work. It's as though, through her performances and her humor, she must teach lessons continuously.

So we learn that the unwed really want to pull in double harness while the marrieds wish they were single, that hip posturing is laughable, that the handicapped are people, too [this lesson via Tomlin's "Crystal the cripple" character, a bit which stretched the limits of taste uncomfortably]. These are not exactly revelations. They are the kind of things we could expect Rod McKuen to write poems about.

Lynn Van Matre, "Didactic Bits Gild the Lily," in Chicago Tribune (© 1977 Chicago Tribune), March 4, 1977, p. 2.

Elliot Norton

Miss Tomlin is a SATIRIST, and a genius. She mocks her own generation in somewhat the same way that Jules Feiffer does. She puts them on the stage, and "puts them on," and so skillful is she, so brilliant, so witty, she makes them laugh at their own comic images….

"PERFORM" is one word for what she does; she surely is a performer. But she is also a creator, and that's rare and wonderful. She creates, or recreates, a gallery of people, children and adults, some of whom are reflections of herself and, at the same time, universal. Summoning them up from memory or imagination, she makes them vivid, human, funny and sometimes sad. There is no suggestion of mawkishness in "Lily Tomlin on the Way to...

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Clive Barnes

The important thing about Miss Tomlin—and the lady is very important—is that she defines her generation and her time. She is the Anti-Establishment Establishment. She waltzes to a different drummer and a clash of symbols….

Lily Tomlin makes you believe in Lily Tomlin. Behind all of her characterizations there seems to stand a serious person saying: "I live here, I am a woman and, so far as I can tell, this is the way it is." It is difficult to think of any other comedian who actually does this. Miss Tomlin never shirks the pain of comedy….

When one of her parading characters describes herself "as a figment of my own imagination" you get the real feel of Miss Tomlin. She is...

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Jack Kroll

Tomlin's Broadway show ["Appearing Nitely"] may well be a crossroads in one of the most extraordinary careers in our popular culture…. [Tomlin] has chosen to challenge herself and her audiences, to move beyond the Pavlovian reflex called laughter toward a total assault on her audiences' sensibility—their minds, their hearts, their funny bones. (p. 63)

There was always that extra dimension to Lily Tomlin's comedy. But watching her put the new show together, it's clear that she's reached the point where laughter is simply the final confirmation of the penetration of her insights. Without the costumes and props of her TV specials—Edith Ann lost in her giant chair, Ernestine's sausage-rolled hair...

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Brendan Gill

[The occasion of Lily Tomlin's Broadway début with "Appearing Nitely"] is a personal triumph on a scale not unlike that of, say, Alexander sweeping through the Valley of Swat. Miss Tomlin is alone onstage for two hours or more, and her props consist only of a couple of stools and a few snippets of canned sound, but she is at once so likable and so tireless in her attack that the evening never wears thin. Sometimes she is content to act as a sort of latter-day Will Rogers without a lasso, commenting in her own voice, in a series of laconic one-liners, on the fuzzy thinking and domestic misadventures of contemporary life. More often she plunges at random into her seemingly inexhaustible repertory of impersonations…....

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Ross Wetzsteon

[Lily Tomlin's] cult says she identifies so deeply with her characters she becomes them, but I feel she identifies so deeply with her characters she ignores us. She appears to adopt a persona not so much to bring herself closer as to distance herself from her audience. I've never seen a stage persona so armored, so well defended….

Again and again, Tomlin has been characterized as a chameleon, but if a chameleon were surrounded by mirrors, what color would it take to blend in with its surroundings?

In one of Tomlin's bits, Glenna, "a child of the '60s," is talking about her parents: "I learned all about fascism from my father." Is she making a joke about our parents? Or is...

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David Felton

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….

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…. 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….


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Tracy Young

Lily Tomlin's career, thus far, straddles a decade. It is not a specific, chronological decade like the fifties or sixties, but rather an amorphous period of cultural shifts that began with Laugh-In taking pot shots at the Establishment; paused with Saturday Night inviting Ron Nessen to guest-host a show; and segued into Barry Manilow, who, on his recent TV special (backed up by three black females with upraised fists), performed a medley of his commercial jingles while the prepubescents in the audience stood on their seats and screamed.

In a culture capable of such casually bizarre transitions, it probably is fitting that in 1969 Lily Tomlin was a prime-time Laugh-In regular,...

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Elizabeth Stone

Lily Tomlin's humor is a victory of the comic spirit in a world closer to [Jonathan] Swift's than to [George] Meredith's, as her … one-woman show, "Appearing Nitely,"… makes clear. Before Tomlin appears onstage, a small female voice, tremulous but clear, seeps out through the house. "I am not afraid of anything," it sings in a nursery-rhyme sing-song, the suggestion being that it has considered the alternative. The world Tomlin sees has much in it to fear: the social condition is chaotic … and all of us are subject to dehumanization….

Tomlin's characters, both the new and the familiar, live in an isolated world, hardly ever rooted in a family or close friendships. The few who are in...

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Jonathan Takiff

Lily Tomlin is that rare creature who can make you laugh and cry, almost simultaneously. She is not so much comedienne as impressionist, or better yet, social observer. Even in her most whimsical throwaway lines, there is a keen kernel of insight. And even with her most farfetched characterizations and vignettes, there is an undeniable core of relatability.

Be it through the fantasies of a second-grader, or the insipid banter of bar-hoppers, with the lunatic-fringe bag lady Tess or the quadriplegic with a penchant for hang-gliding, Lily Tomlin is dealing with the dreams and passions, weaknesses and strengths of everyman. Or better, of every-person. She hits with such accuracy, so often, she's...

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Richard L. Coe

Lily Tomlin is more than a comedienne. Whereas Alice went "Through the Looking Glass" to find a topsy-turvy but delightful world, Lily breaks through the Tube to find there was nothing there but broken promises, shattered illusions and hollow dreams. (p. B1)

To a degree, Tomlin's comedy, so enlarged and enriched from that switchboard turn which put her on the American map, is the most intelligent humor to come from the Tube. Her characters are observed from almost a sociologist's or an analyst's chair. It is "Look Back in Disgust" time for the late '50s, the chaotic '60s, the puzzled '70s.

Her characters have learned about life at the Tube. That, as that awful phrase puts it, is...

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Peter Buckley

[Tomlin's] more than a comedienne, she's a clown….

A carefully constructed pyramid of wit and wisdom, [Tomlin's humor is] by and for the people, a contemporary phenomenon that shouldn't be examined and dissected in some academic exercise; but it certainly can be admired as a reflection of the seventies, for she is one of our spokes-persons, clowning it all the way to tomorrow. After all, we live in a fairly schizoid society, and amidst this relatively safe, healthy world there is a great and growing fear of the unknown, the uncontrollable; if we can't laugh at it, we're in much worse shape than we think. (p. 46)

You gotta laugh. And that, of course, is why we have clowns—to...

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Stephen Holden

On Stage [is] more than just a recorded stage show; it's a self-sufficient album comparable to the best of the Firesign Theater. (p. 93)

The bulk of the album consists of three pieces, "Tell Miss Sweeney Goodbye," "Lud and Marie Meet Dracula's Daughter" and "Glenna—A Child of the 60's." Formal monologues conceived in the high-theatric tradition of Ruth Draper, they downplay Tomlin's gift for caricature to pursue more intellectual ends. In "Miss Sweeney," the most perfect piece, Tomlin alternately recalls and reenacts a crush she had on her second-grade teacher. Though prefaced with a salvo at the Fifties ("a decade of foreplay"), the monologue is a virtual paean to sublimation in which Lily...

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Lester Bangs

"On Stage" is a recording of highlights from [Appearing Nitely], and it reveals both Tomlin's virtuosity and her limitations….

Appearing Nitely's most audacious creation—the quadriplegic who is determined to travel cross-country by wheel-chair and to go hang-gliding off the California coast—was better conceived and far more incisive than either the Shopping Bag Lady or the UFO Guy, yet she has been left off the record entirely. It would be nice to be able to applaud Tomlin for her compassionate understanding of some of the most pathetic and wretched people in our big cities, but her portrayals of these two just don't work. Her down-and-outers seem far more like Walt Disney's Goofy...

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Robert Ward

The thread that weaves through all of Tomlin's work is a great respect for her inventions. [Tomlin] never condescends to even the most absurd of her characters. And this same integrity extends to her audience. She demands compassion. (p. 34)

[Tomlin's art lies in the] Southern fondness for family and for storytelling itself, with all the moles and stinks of character, the crowded rooms with linoleum floors, the smell of cabbage on the stove, the formica-topped diners, the sorrows and glories of drink, and the love that somehow makes a whole fabric out of what could easily be (in a lesser talent) only a thin, bleak, adolescent cry. (pp. 35-6)

Tomlin's monologues have [the same...

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