Saturday, April 21, 2018
Stage

Lily Tomlin, coming to the Tampa Theatre, is still breaking comedic boundaries

One way of demonstrating Lily Tomlin's long and varied career is noting she's just shy of being an EGOT — a recipient of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony.

The actress and comedian has won three of those awards, some multiple times, and earned an Academy Award nomination for her turn in Nashville.

Ask Tomlin about her success, however, and she can only think of the satirical possibilities, imagining what she'd do if she ever won an Oscar.

"I would roll out a case where I had all these awards in it and there'd be a niche for an Oscar and I'd put it in that niche and roll it off, act like I never expected to win," she said. "I mean, you have to have some fun with it. I think it's great if people take notice of it. But show business is not real life."

Tomlin comes to Tampa Theatre on Thursday at 8 p.m. with her live show. In it, she switches between traditional stand-up, a Q&A session and renditions of characters like phone operator Ernestine and precocious girl Edith Ann.

"I used to like to call it kind of a roller coaster," Tomlin said. "I don't set things up to that degree, I just kind of go because I expect the audience to go along with me."

Tomlin started in stage and stand-up, but it was her time on 1970s sketch comedy show Laugh-In that made her a star. Her most famous characters from the show include Edith Ann and Ernestine, who she portrayed in her Grammy-winning comedy album This is a Recording.

"It was very playful," she said of Laugh-In. "People fooling around and improvising, moving very fast because you almost never did another take."

That improvisational nature would follow her into her start in movies with Nashville, directed by the famously freewheeling filmmaker Robert Altman.

The two would continue working together over the decades, including on his final film before his death, 2006's A Prairie Home Companion.

"I used to call him the benign patriarch — he was so completely in control, but he was never officious or in anyway intimidating," Tomlin said.

In Altman's Short Cuts, she played the spouse of musician Tom Waits, acting as waitress Doreen to his limousine driver Earl. Tomlin said she connected strongly with him, drawing half-heart tattoos on their thumbs and having conversations as their character.

"The first week we shot, I'd go home, and the first night, Tom called me pretending he was Earl driving around in the limo," she said. "I went along with him and it was so wonderful, he's such a poet anyway."

Tomlin continued to find success in film with the 1980 comedy 9 to 5, and Flirting with Disaster and I Heart Huckabees with director David O. Russell.

Lately, however, she's once again working largely in television on shows like HBO's Eastbound and Down and Showtime's Web Therapy. Though she said TV language standards are much more liberal now — certainly on Eastbound and Down, where profanities are lobbed like baseballs — she tested them ever since her time on Laugh-In.

"We were all like bad kids," Tomlin said. "That's why you have the Farkle Family and The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate. We wanted to give some rise to language and not being able to say it."

Next she'll reunite with her 9 to 5 co-star Jane Fonda for a Netflix sitcom called Grace and Frankie. The two star as women whose rivalry is shaken when their husbands declare their love for each other.

"I think we both want to do something about women of our age in our culture, what they're up against in the culture," Tomlin, 74, said. "But we want it to be really funny and wonderfully real."

Netflix star is another new role for Tomlin in a career full of them — in part, she said, because she's never paid much attention to boundaries.

"Thank God I haven't been limited," she said. "I've done a lot of different stuff. Partly it's because I probably didn't even have sense enough to know that there were parameters."

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