Indie Flashback: Lily Tomlin Finds Humor in Raw Neuroses

Lily Tomlin in David O. Russell’s “I Heart Huckabees.” Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The following article was originally published in the February 16th, 2011 issue of The Woodstock Independent. 

Performing artists are inherently insecure. They constantly feed off the adulation of cheering audiences in order to affirm their sense of self-worth. Comic legend Lily Tomlin is certainly no exception. She’s built her entire career on exploring life’s absurdities, such as why a newly purchased wastebasket should be taken home in a paper bag just so the paper bag could eventually be placed in the wastebasket. Her mind is always buzzing with questions of “Why?” and “Why me?” She’s as worried about identity theft as she is about the reason why no one has bothered to steal her own yet. 

When I interviewed Josh Brolin, who co-starred with Tomlin is David O. Russell’s woefully underrated 1996 screwball farce, “Flirting with Disaster,” he reminisced about how the ever-fretting actress would tirelessly question whether she was indeed funny or not. In 2004, Tomlin re-teamed with Russell for “I Heart Huckabees,” a gloriously ambitious mess of a project that was constantly being changed and tweaked during production. Tomlin’s expletive-laden, existential breakdown on the set of this existential comedy surfaced three years later on YouTube. “One actor’s doing one thing, another actor’s doing another,” moaned the perplexed comedian, “I don’t know what to do or what not to do.” 

Though the veteran performer may question her own abilities to entertain, they were never in doubt to the enthusiastic multitudes who turned out for her marvelous, one-night-only performance at the Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake. It was the sort of show Tomlin used to excel at 40 years ago, stringing together hilarious and poignant stories from her childhood with comic vignettes featuring beloved characters that she once played to perfection on “Laugh-In.” Each character was preceded by priceless archival footage of the show projected on a giant screen. There was Trudy the Bag Lady, who eagerly shared her belief that we have a “right and left brain so we can keep secrets from ourselves.” And Mrs. Beasley, the perfect housewife and commercial spokesperson who demonstrated the effectiveness of the hair-stiffening product Stay Put by hurling herself through a car wash. And Ernestine, the cheerfully heartless telephone operator now working for Healthcare Insurance, denying everyone coverage while spouting one-liners like, “Health is our business, not our concern,” and “You were shot in a subway? Next time try Quiznos!” 

One of the night’s most memorable moments occurred when Tomlin revealed that her cousin, Carolyn, was in the audience. “She used to play hospital with me and tape a doll to my stomach,” Tomlin recalled. When she began to reenact a story from her stormy teenage years, equating her parents with Ma and Pa Kettle, Carolyn let out a nervous squeal, causing Tomlin to thrust back her head and expel a disarmingly girlish laugh that instantly made her appear no older than 18. It’s frankly astonishing to consider how tirelessly limber and exuberantly energetic Tomlin is at the ripe age of 71. There’s a nostalgic glow to each of her anecdotal vignettes from decades past, such as when she recalls her early desire to become a waitress, and the challenge she had to face in “settling for stardom.” When she mentioned that two people in a childhood picture were now deceased, the audience sounded a collective, “Awwww.” A reassuring Tomlin replied, “Oh don’t worry, you’re going to die too.” 

Tomlin’s long, lined face is a true marvel as it twists, contorts and literally transforms into a variety of vibrant personas, from Madame Lupe, the smush-faced makeup expert, to Lucille the Rubber Freak. Yet Tomlin (as Tomlin) seemed as uncertain as ever about herself, even in the midst of an evening as triumphant as this one. Halfway through her spot-on recreation of lisping youngster Edith Ann, Tomlin broke character entirely and rushed for her water bottle, fretting, “I’m so dry tonight.” Another routine was interrupted when Tomlin brushed aside her feathery bangs and observed, “I need a haircut so bad.” There were also a number of moments when the giant projection screen rolled down and flummoxed the comic, clearly unprepared for its presence. “They’re trying to follow me and I don’t know what I’m doing,” she candidly admitted. Sitting far on the edge of stage left while viewing another image from her distant past, Tomlin sighed, “This is going to be my last performance. Notice how I keep drifting through the evening.” 

The self-deprecating comic may have been joking here, but her exasperation felt very real. My hope is that Tomlin comes to the realization that her raw neuroses are precisely what make her so special in the first place. They may be hell to deal with on a film set, but they are also essential ingredients to her success as one of America’s most cherished figures in the entertainment world. Her honesty about her own hang-ups makes her comedy all the more engaging and resonant. She may worry about being “a success in a mediocre world,” but there is seriously nothing mediocre about the dizzying tornado of talent known as Lily Tomlin. 

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