Lily Tomlin Clive Barnes - Essay

Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 fantasy gone sane. She is a woman's-eye view of madness. Her feminism is essential—she is so flamboyantly female she can make fun of the fact. And she can be gamine and cute….

["Appearing Nightly" gives us] Miss Tomlin out on stage in a spotlight, not baring her heart—she has a spare sleeve for that, one suspects—but exposing her guts. She is showing us her combat wounds of our own civilization.

Clive Barnes, "Stage: Lily Captures Broadway," in The New York Times (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 25, 1977, p. C3.

The grotesques Lily Tomlin presents in "Appearing Nitely" … often share a certain comic aggressiveness—the quadriplegic Crystal concentrates hers on making her wheelchair a lethal weapon; Rick channels his into making pathetic advances on the forlorn females in a singles bar; Glenna translates hers into whatever is obsessing the fashionable left through the last two decades. All these characters are a sort of wry gloss on Norman Vincent Peale, the American go-getter spirit gone hopelessly askew.

Tomlin … never condescends to her characters—she invests them with the energy and vitality of the sensitive outsider. She never assumes these characters hell-bent on selling themselves are any less vulnerable than she is, and this deeply human quality makes the humor (there are enough witty lines in her show to keep a New Yorker cartoonist busy for a year) more than just yocks. The humane foundations of her material are more impressive when you think that most female comics have built their careers on self-deprecation.

"Arts and People: Lily Tomlin," in Women's Wear Daily (copyright 1977, Fairchild Publications, Capital Cities Media, Inc.), March 25, 1977.