In the revival of her classic one-woman show, Lily Tomlin embodies a galaxy of comically tragic characters
By Sarah Goodyear

All my life I’ve wanted to be somebody,” says the sweet-but-clueless Chrissy in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. “I realize now I maybe should have been more specific.”

Ever since the early ’70s, when she ringy-dingied her way into the national consciousness as Ernestine the telephone operator on Laugh-In, Lily Tomlin has spent her career enacting specific—some might say special—somebodies. Tomlin is just as comfortable playing the wickedly honest little girl in the big chair, Edith Ann, as she is taking the stage as the pelvis-thrusting Vegas lounge singer Tommy Velour. In The Search, a one-woman show that’s returning to Broadway 15 years after its triumphant premiere, Tomlin inhabits everyone from Paul, a bitter divorcé (“Every time you turn around there’s a new erogenous zone you gotta go explore…. Hell, these days a guy needs his dick hooked up to a laptop computer”), to a meditating feminist named Lyn (“I feel such a rush of positive ‘woman-energy’!”). Tying these heartbreakingly funny characters together is her insane and enlightened Trudy, a bag lady who believes she’s in touch with extraterrestrials. These people might be ridiculous—okay, they are ridiculous—but Tomlin’s deft, compassionate portrayals ensure that they never become caricatures. She obviously loves these crazy folks, and by evening’s end, we do too.

“When I was an ingenue,Gidget was the ideal, so peoplejust didn’t see me.”

The Search, penned by Tomlin’s longtime partner, Jane Wagner, first hit Broadway in 1985; back then, it won Tomlin a best-actress Tony (she’d already received one for 1976’s Appearing Nitely) and earned her a reputation as one of the most innovative forces in American comedy—a standing that, even at 61, she seems in no danger of losing. Over the years, she’s also proved herself versatile on film, in roles as different as the gospel-singing mother of two deaf kids in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), a vengeful secretary named Violet in Nine to Five (1980) and a waitress who is perhaps the only truly moral figure in Altman’s devastating Short Cuts (1993).Recently at the Parker Meridian, the comedian let her french fries get cold as she talked about fighting against cynicism—with hair on her chest.

Time Out New York:So I hear you were up on the roof of the Booth Theatre this morning, being photographed next to the marquee for the show. Was it scary?
Lily Tomlin: No, it was fun. I wish they would have let me take a risk, get closer to the edge. Get a little rush. But they had me tethered down.

TONY: What’s changed since the last time you opened this show on Broadway?
LT: Well, I know I’m better, so I want people to see—even though they thought I was good then, I don’t think I was really quite that good. I looked at old tapes. And it’s sort of great to be able to do what I can do at my age. [Laughs] I don’t really feel like I’m that age. I’m probably stronger and more physical than I was then.

TONY:Do you work out a lot?
LT: Yeah, I work out. I don’t work out a lot, because I’m not too motivated. But when I’m under the threat of public exposure, I start hefting those weights.

TONY:Being a dozen or so different people in one evening must be draining.
LT: No, it’s invigorating. Because first of all, I truly am elated that I’m doing it. And I think it’s respectful. The material is respectful of the audience’s intelligence and their spirits.

TONY: So much comedy today is about irony and cynicism, and putting quote marks around everything. Your work has never been like that.
LT: Well, I worry about that in the whole culture. There’s a line in The Search that has been quoted innumerable times: “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.” And that was 15 years ago. Yeah, you worry about it, because when you are cynical you shut everything out. When Frank Rich [of The New York Times] reviewed the play in 1985, he said it was subversive material. And I said, Well, to me the most subversive thing about it is that it’s tender.

TONY: The play sympathetically depicts a lot of outsiders, people ignored by the system in America. How have you maintained your political conscience?
LT: I try not to let too much erode. It’s easy to abdicate anything if you are cynical. You think, Well, it’s just bullshit anyway. There was a period of about ten years [in the ’80s] where the idea of conscientiousness or real principle was a thing to be ridiculed. Like, what a fool you are. Wake up to what the real world is. You’re stupid if you think those things matter. I’m terrified that that is coming back.

TONY: I loved your appearance at Liz Taylor’s birthday extravaganza in 1997, where you came out as Tommy Velour, with the hair on your chest, and got down on your knees and serenaded her.
LT: I put hair on my knuckles. I got down close to her, and Liz saw the hair on my knuckles. That’s why she went “Aah!” like that.

TONY:That was pretty outrageous in the context of a black-tie Hollywood gala, with Michael Jackson and the red carpet.
LT: You’re right. And Michael Jackson—he doesn’t know who the hell I am. It was just all too…it was wild. And what did I say when Tommy gets down? [Sings] “Isn’t it rich? Isn’t it rare? I’m here on my knees, the king of pop’s in my chair.” That was good.

TONY:That was subversive.
LT: Was that subversive to you? To me, that’s like playtime or something.

TONY: You’ve done such great work with Robert Altman. Would you work with him again?
LT: Sure. But Bob gets mad at you, and then you don’t get a part for a long time. Like I was supposed to do Prêt-à-Porter—I was offered that Kim Basinger role—and I backed out at the last minute. So then I didn’t get to be in Kansas City.

TONY: How long does it take for him to get over these things?
LT: I don’t know! He knows I love him. I’ll do anything. I’m waiting for him to renew his relationship with me. I don’t mean we’re not friendly. But I never know if I’m going to get that call. I really do have great affection for him. He’s like this benign patriarch who is totally flawed and totally available.

TONY:Has being a woman in the male-oriented business of comedy ever held you up?
LT: Well, probably. I’ve always had to make my own place; when I was an ingenue, Gidget was the ideal, so people just didn’t see me.

TONY:You’re no Gidget.
LT: No, I’m not. So you know, I could be deluded—self-deluded—in many ways. Trudy has a great line: “Our ability to delude ourselves is an important survival tool.” I just made up stuff for myself to do. And I never did think that getting famous was the end-all. I thought that just to work, to make a living, was the gift. I thought, Well, if I could just make a living doing this, that would be plenty.

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is now playing at the Booth Theatre.