Lily Tomlin

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Lester Bangs

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654

"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 than like the despair-maddened humans sleeping on the sidewalks and endlessly muttering to themselves that I encounter every day in New York. Whatever the bag ladies and UFO crazies really are, they aren't cute, which is what Tomlin makes them.

Cuteness has afflicted Tomlin's characters ever since Laugh-In's Edith Ann (the little girl in the huge chair), and here it undermines many of the one-liners as well. Most of these, in fact, are simple reversals of clichés—for instance, "I worry that drugs may have made us more creative than we really are." For a show celebrated for its brilliance, there are altogether too many clichés. Tomlin's famous telephone operator, Ernestine, shows up, but do we really need to be told again that the phone company is an inefficient monopoly gagging on its own technology? (For that matter, is it really true?) The "Dixie cups and a thread" line is lifted straight from Lenny Bruce, who satirized the phone company a lot more pointedly twenty years ago.

Glenna-A Child of the 60's, a twenty-one-minute routine that takes up half the record, is many people's favorite…. Whatever the routine's resonances or revelations, they come more from Tomlin's vocal inflections than they do from the material itself; the only time it even comes close to saying something interesting about the Sixties is when a stoned Glenna turns off Vietnam news in order to watch I Love Lucy reruns. We never learn exactly what Tomlin's attitude toward the Sixties is: nostalgic affection? thinly veiled contempt? mythic awe? Perhaps we are still too close to the period, still too stunned by the disintegration of that decade's promise, to understand it. Tomlin's is not the only failed attempt to interpret it for us, but it might have been a more interesting failure. As Glenna herself might say, it's sooo … obvious, mannn….

Tomlin's real strengths come through in two routines that by themselves make "On Stage" worth buying. Lud and Marie Meet Dracula's Daughter and Tell Miss Sweeney Goodbye are both classic pieces of heightened autobiography and high comedy, featuring a novelistic eye (and memory) for such details as the exact size, shape, and texture of clothes and the contents of school lunch buckets. They convey a sense of life as it was actually lived in a specific time and place (the Fifties, interestingly enough) that far transcends cliché. As Tomlin spins these childhood fantasies, she has the power to cancel your awareness that you are listening to a record and to pull you inexorably into her private yet somehow universal world. Just where many comedians turn self-indulgent, Tomlin creates authentic American folklore out of her most intimate material, giving us an oral history that goes beyond comedy to touch the heart and show up Glenna and the like for the cheap and basically lazy confections they are. I hope that Lily Tomlin will ease away from the wisecracks and glib stabs at social criticism and share more of her autobiography with us in the future. It is the story of all our lives, and in her ability to tell us about ourselves lies her true genius.

Lester Bangs, "Lily Tomlin: 'Appearing Nitely'," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1978 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 40, No. 1, January, 1978, p. 120.

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