Arts & Entertainment : Friday, September 08, 2000

Lily Tomlin resumes ‘The Search’
by Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic

New York, September 1985.

“The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” opens on Broadway. And its star, Lily Tomlin, and author, Jane Wagner, are tapping right into the tenor of the times.

Wagner’s whirlwind saga about the entwined fates of an array of modern women plus a few men (all enacted brilliantly by Tomlin, who would earn a 1986 Tony Award for her labors) is hailed as a deftly au courant chronicle of the age.

The cast of characters includes Trudy, a bag lady in close contact with space aliens. A teenage punk performance artist. A lesbian impregnated with the help of some donated sperm and a turkey baster.

And then there’s Lyn, a walking encyclopedia of baby-boomer trends. Feminist consciousness-raising? Geodesic dome-dwelling? Corporate ladder-climbing? Lyn’s been there, done all that.

Fast-forward to Seattle, September 2000.

Tomlin stars in a revival of “The Search” at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Next she’ll take the show to New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre, then again to Broadway.

Sitting in a Queen Anne cafe with Tomlin, a compact woman of 61 who looks much younger, one can’t help wonder if she’s nervous about dusting off this theatrical time capsule without updating it.

“No, I feel pretty solid about it,” she responds in a friendly manner that’s both breezy and blunt. “To me it’s a play. You don’t change a play if it works and it’s wonderful.”

Does she worry, though, that the text may seem dated now? That some younger viewers may not get those cracks about Betamax? And G. Gordon Liddy? And former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro? (For 1 million dollars: Which year did Ferraro run? Final answer: 1984.)

“At the time we first did ‘The Search,’ it seemed so specific,” she agrees, tucking into a piece of mixed-berry pie. “But in terms of the human experience it is really universal. For me it’s about failed dreams, idealism, cynicism, disillusionment, our connectedness.

“I see it as a kind of poem, as a piece that’s extremely funny, that reveals and illuminates a lot of stuff. Most people are moved by it.”

As for the generation gap, Tomlin got the notion to revive the show after doing excerpts from it for drama students at the University of South California. “All these kids who’d never seen `The Search’ were so enthused, it made me want to bring it back.”

Tomlin admits that she had hoped, by this time, that her longtime collaborator Wagner would have crafted her a new solo play. But that hasn’t come to pass.

“Nobody gets that I’m not the writer here,” Tomlin stresses. “Jane is. I’m always correcting crossword puzzle editors who keep crediting things she wrote to me.”

So why hasn’t Wagner penned a new vehicle for her? “She doesn’t need to work like I do. Jane likes to paint and play piano and do other things. My talents are much narrower – I just love putting stuff up and performing it for people.”

Tomlin chortles and adds, “People ask me, how do you and Jane work together? I tell them I drop to my knees and beg her, `Please write me some material!'”

Though Tomlin is still urging her partner of nearly 30 years to get cracking, she thinks there’s plenty of life left in “The Search.”

The script actually had its very first staged reading at Seattle Rep in 1984, when Tomlin was performing there in another solo show by Wagner, “Appearing Nitely.”

“I read ‘The Search’ as a little perk for Rep donors,” Tomlin recalls. “It was late at night, and the script ran three hours at that point. It went so late, a lot of people were nodding out. It wasn’t fully formed then – you knew something was there, but you didn’t know what.”

Tomlin and Wagner kept refining the piece, testing it out in Seattle again (in a pre-Broadway run in the summer of 1985) and in New Mexico. “One night in Santa Fe, (former Richard Nixon aide) John Ehrlichman and (publisher) Rupert Murdoch were in the audience,” Tomlin recalls. “I have no idea what they made of it.”

If they were put off by the funny but empathetic group portrait of women grappling with the freedoms and contradictions of modern life, that wouldn’t ruffle Tomlin.

The Detroit-bred comedian and actress has always been a quirky individualist, a loopy conversationalist and something of an odd duck in show business.

“I never fit into the system. When I was 18 I read for ‘Gidget.’ The casting woman, who looked like Nancy Walker with the big face and big New York accent, told me, ‘Lily, someday there’s gonna be parts for people like you and me.’ I knew I had to make them myself.”

Introduced to the public as the snorting telephone operator Ernestine, the wise child Edith Ann and other mirthful personae she brought to the television show “Laugh-In,” Tomlin went on to break new comedic ground in idiosyncratic TV specials of her own, with writing support from Wagner.

Tomlin expertly portrayed men and women, whites and blacks, pioneering a protean stand-up format that mingled pathos and psychological acuity with keen satire and dramatic shape-shifting.

Though an inspiration to many younger comedians, including Whoopi Goldberg and Kathy Najimy, Tomlin rejects the role of “role model.” And she has been cagey about putting a label on her politics, or her sexuality.

“I’m nobody’s poster child,” she insists, but admits that “the feminist movement was very important to me, and the gay movement, too.” And she’s proud of narrating “The Celluloid Closet,” a documentary about the images of gays and lesbians in Hollywood film.

Yet when asked if she hopes young people who see “The Search” will get a greater appreciation of how feminism leveraged more opportunities for women, Tomlin answers, “That would be nice, but it’s not important to me.

“This play really has no agenda. It speaks more to relationships, to the choices people make when they think they’re acting out of some kind of doctrine or philosophy or political idea. Really, we’re all just specks in the universe. Significant ones, beautiful ones, base and novel ones, yes. But specks.”

Though Tomlin hasn’t had a monster hit since “The Search” struck gold, she’s stayed busy and industrious. She does comedy “concerts” and works in movies (including an offbeat, little-seen film of “The Search,” which debuted at the Seattle International Film Festival in 1991).

She has a cool Web site (, and TVviewers have known her as the voice of Mrs. Frizzle in the children’s show “The Magic School Bus,” and Candice Bergen’s boss on the sitcom “Murphy Brown.”

Tomlin would like her own comedy series, but the networks “keep changing the ideas I pitch until they turn into something really different,” she says with a shrug.

For creative control, there’s nothing like theater: “It’s about your own sensibility. You can go where you want to go with an idea.”

Where Tomlin goes, when the conversation gets too earthbound, is off on philosophical tangents that make her sound like a saner Trudy, the sage bag lady in “Search.”

“Here’s the seed of everything for me,” Tomlin muses. “As a child I learned very early that my parents had been children once, too, and that as adults they really didn’t know anything. And I couldn’t help but look at them with compassion.

“So I have a very hard time condemning any person, or any character I play, because I think people in general are screwed up. But screwed up in a very sweet and funny way.”

Lily on film: varied versatility

Much of Lily Tomlin’s best work has been live and on TV, but there is a scattering of movies that spotlight her versatility as a comedic and dramatic actress:

  • “The Late Show.” Robert Benton’s 1977 sleeper paired up Tomlin, as a lovable flake, with the aged Art Carney, as a crusty detective trying to solve a murder. The chemistry between the unlikely pair made this noir-style mystery something very special.
  • “All of Me.” Tomlin and Steve Martin teamed up in Carl Reiner’s uneven but ingenious 1984 farce about a nasty rich dame (Tomlin) whose spirit enters the body of an idealistic young lawyer (Martin).
  • “Nashville.” I’m not a big fan of director Robert Altman’s highly schematic view of the American panorama, circa 1975, but Tomlin does sterling work here as the sensitive mother of a hearing-impaired child. (She won an Oscar nomination for the role.)
  • “Nine to Five.” OK, so it’s silly, dated and not exactly the apex of co-star Jane Fonda’s career. But for historical purposes, and the superior first half, this topical feminist-comedy-for-the-masses about three oppressed secretaries (Tomlin, Fonda and Dolly Parton) plotting to foil their chauvinist-pig boss (the deliciously smarmy Dabney Coleman) is worth a screening.
  • “The Celluloid Closet.” Tomlin earned a Peabody Award for her warm, wry narration of this popular 1995 documentary about Hollywood’s depiction of gays and lesbians over the past century.
  • “Flirting With Disaster.” As the birth parents of adoptee Ben Stiller, Tomlin and Alan Alda were enjoyably wacko aging flower children (and LSD enthusiasts) in David O. Russell’s 1996 neo-screwball comedy.

– Misha Berson

Copyright © 2000 The Seattle Times Company