Lily Tomlin Jack Kroll - Essay

Jack Kroll

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 and platform shoes—Tomlin gives a burning life to all her characters with just her marvelously mobile face, expressively graceful body and flexible voice. The result is like a one-woman "Canterbury Tales," a rich and savory collage of human types and destinies….

There's an odd innocence in Lily Tomlin that drives her to do material like Crystal, [the CB quadriplegic]. What she instinctively is reaching for is the moment when laughter and tears dissolve into one another. You laugh, but you taste a sweetness in your laughter that isn't there when you're reacting to most comedy or satire….

Her characters are totally real for Tomlin and she doesn't want to manipulate them for effect but to evoke that reality. (p. 64)

Tenderness may be the ultimate secret of Lily's appeal. It also points to the danger in her approach, the danger of sentimentality…. Lily's closest colleague [Jane Wagner] understands this…. "Lily is after something beyond formulas—not sketches, not naturalism, not black comedy. Call it maybe docu-comedy, something that reveals human nature—absurd, touching, grotesque and overwhelming." (p. 66)

Jack Kroll, "Funny Lady," in Newsweek (copyright 1977, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 89, No. 13, March 28, 1977, pp. 63-6.