Lily Tomlin David Felton - Essay

David Felton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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….

And there was Glenna, the "Sixties Person," certainly the longest (15 minutes), most elaborate and possibly most socially satirical sketch Lily has yet done…. [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. (p. 13)

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. (p. 14)

David Felton, "Backstage with Lily Tomlin and Her Brand-New Broadway Baby," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1977; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 236, April 7, 1977, pp. 11-14.