Lily Tomlin Ellen Cohn - Essay

Ellen Cohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.