Tomlin brings ‘Intelligent Life’ to King Center

Cast of characters follow comedian from TV to stage

By Breuse Hickman

Despite her wide-ranging film and television roles over the past 25 years, and her many alter-egosLily Tomlin has a theory about how she’ll be remembered someday.

“I just know they are going to run my obituary next to Ernestine‘s picture,” she said by phone from her home in Los Angeles. “People think Lily is Ernestine.”

Of course, Tomlin became a household name in the early ’70s with her snorting, cleavage-fiddling telephone operator (“Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?”), as well as Edith Ann, the nasal-voiced, philosophical doll-toting moppet (“My name is Edith Ann and I’m 5 1/2 years old … and that’s the truth, phsstt.”)

Tomlin brought those characters and others to life each week on the fast-paced comedy show “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” a sort of topic-laced predecessor to “Saturday Night Live.”

But after “Laugh-in,” Tomlin proved her many characters were much bigger than what “Laugh-In”‘s short segments would allow. On stage, she created entire worlds through her one-woman Broadway shows, such as 1977’s “Appearing Nitely.

Tomlin performances always are filled with memorable one-liners (I worry that drugs have forced us to be more creative than we really are.” “Wouldn’t it be great if all those people who wander around New York talking to themselves could be paired up so they’d look like they were having a conversation?”) But audiences quickly learned the characters didn’t just exist to deliver jokes. They were real people.

Her most successful show to date is the critically acclaimed “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”, which she will perform Saturday in Melbourne.

“The Search” premiered in 1985 at the Plymouth Theatre in New York. But Tomlin eventually took a break from it to focus on other projects, mainly a stint on “Murphy Brown” as Murphy’s boss.

Now she is ready to slip back into “The Search.” But anyone who caught her act on Broadway is in for a surprise. The show is evolving.

“We are working on it and changing it somewhat,” Tomlin said. It has the basic elements of “The Search”, but we’re expanding and experimenting with it.”

“The Search” follows one of Tomlin’s most endearing characters, Trudy the shopping bag lady, who lives in a cardboard box and serves as audience tour guide on a journey to understand the meaning of lifeart and, yes, soup.

The performance best can be summed up with one of Trudy’s best known lines: “Reality is nothing but a collective hunch!”

The show was written by Tomlin’s longtime collaborator Jane Wagner. They worked together on Tomlin’s TV variety show as well as recordings Tomlin hopes will be re-released on CD soon.

In 1995, during a benefit for CENTAUR (Central Florida AIDS Unified Resources) in Orlando, Tomlin surprised Central Florida fans by reviving her characters Ernestine and housewife/consumer watcher Mrs. Beasley (“Hi. I am not a professional actress, I am a real person like yourself!”)

She says she might bring some of them back to life during this weekend’s Melbourne performance.

Sans costumes

In “The Search,” characters – male and female – fade in, fade out of Trudy’s world. Unlike the 1991 film version, it is performed without costumes. But each character – punk rock kida socialitean older suburban couple and both a black prostitute and a Puerto Rican prostitute – Is so fully realized, audiences rarely miss the costumes and wigs.

Join in laughter

Audiences rarely laugh at the characters — they laugh with them. It’s as if Tomlin is channeling real people. Tomlin laughs a this notion.

“You know, (the Characters) just form inside your body and you know when they’re ready to come out,” she said. “Sometimes Jane writes a character or I want to fill a certain culture type in society … I mean that’s what I’ve done all my life – reflect people who are around me.”

While growing up in an old apartment house in Detroit, Tomlin met “every kind of person imaginable – radicalpolitical, apolitical, educated, uneducated,” she said. “When I was a kid, I would go from apartment to apartment and literally play the room. I was crazy about everybody. Whatever they did, I would adapt my actions to their habits and activities.”

Help from friends

She would enlist friends and put on big productions in garages and on porches.

I just loved to make a show,” Tomlin said. I think I was one of the world’s first performance artists because I would do magic tricks and ballet that I had learned at the local parks and recreation department and do jokes I’d heard on Ed Sullivan.”

In fact, while Tomlin is in Florida, she plans on visiting her longtime idol Jean Carroll, a comedian who appeared on the “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

“I watched her as a kid and I’m hoping to finally meet her for the first time,” Tomlin said. “I’m just going to tell her what it was like for me to see her as a kid and ask her who her influences were and what kind of places she used to play and what it was like for women to do comedy in those days.”

Repeat questions

Of course, many would ask Tomlin the same questions.

Years before the comedy explosion of the late ’80s, Tomlin paved the way for one-woman shows that reached beyond traditional standup routines.

Reflecting on her career, Tomlin said she feels most at home on stage – where she has more creative control.

“On television there are just so many voices and people watching over everything,” she said. “And the variety form at that point (late ’70s and early ’80s) was too naive and too slick. But I needed that vehicle so I could do many characters and all kinds of content.”

Every few years, Tomlin pops up in films – her latest was starring alongside Cher and Maggie Smith In “Tea with Mussolini.” But she has never felt part of the movie industry.

Her most critically acclaimed film work has come via two Robert Altman films: “Nashville” . (1975) and “Short cuts” (1993).

Most of the roles she has had, she’s welcomed. However, she originally turned down the part of Miss Hathaway in the 1993 film version of the ’60s television show “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Not Miss Hathaway

“But then, everyone in the damn world – including MY mother – called and said ‘You’ll he the perfect Miss Hathaway,’ and I felt insulted,” Tomlin said with a laugh. “I

mean, I don’t want to be the perfect Miss Hathaway. But sure enough, I got better notices from playing Miss Hathaway than almost anything I’ve ever done.”

Of course, the subject of selling out has come up periodically in Tomlin’s act. But Tomlin says the idea of integrity can be blown out of proportion.

Perhaps, she summed it up best on her 1975 album “Modern Scream” when she jokingly said integrity was holding her back: “I realized I’ve always been a star, it’s just taken everyone else a while to catch on.”