My Darling Lily’s Coming to Town

To be clear, I love Lily Tomlin.

I love her for her expertly crafted characters. For 50 years or so, she’s charmed audiences with the wisecracks of Ernestine the telephone operator, the devilish honesty of 6-year-old Edith Ann, and the profound grumblings of Trudy the Bag Lady (my personal favorite).

And, obviously, I love her for the countless laughs she’s given us at the movies in All of Me, Nine to Five, Flirting with Disaster and a bunch of other wonderful films.

But I love Lily Tomlin most when she’s onstage live.

Ernestine, Edith Ann, Trudy and many of Tomlin’s other classic characters will be appearing at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 13, at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo. The multimedia show, which allows the characters to interact with video clips, is a perfectly measured mix of humor, warmth, and stinging commentary. I recently saw the show in New York and was beyond impressed.

Even for the best actors, portraying someone substantially older than oneself is a challenge. Though a gray wig and age makeup can help, a performance can often be less than convincing. It follows that playing a character decades younger should be even more difficult, but Tomlin – with nothing but a tilt of her head or a simple arm gesture – suspends the audience’s disbelief and, becoming Edith Ann, forges an authentic connection between the crowd and the child. As she runs and rolls around the stage, it’s easy to forget that she’s more than 70 years old.

But what I was most taken with was the show’s freshness. After all, when you’ve been playing a role for 50 years, keeping things from getting stale is a real concern. Times change, tastes change, and after decades, it’s less possible to rely on the tool of surprise that’s so essential to comedy. Ernestine, acknowledging her own waning relevance, delivers one of my favorite lines:
I gave the best years of my life to Ma Bell, and what did it get me? When she went to pieces, so did I.

It would be perfectly understandable if Tomlin were to retire the character, but luckily for us, she’s brought the operator into the present without relegating one smidge of the biting commentary (or laughter) to the past. Finding Ernestine employment at a health-care company where she’s free to mock disgruntled customers is a stroke of genius.

If you can’t make Tomlin’s show at the Kauffman because you have a snakebite that demands immediate attention (which is really the only legitimate reason to miss it), then get Netflix, if you don’t already have it. And, as soon as the venom starts to wear off, check out the new original series Grace and Frankie (imdb.com). Come to think of it, check it out sometime even if you’re going to the performance.

The Netflix show pairs Tomlin, as Frankie, a liberal, spiritually searching, painter, with her old Nine to Five pal Jane Fonda, whose character, Grace, is much more conservative and uptight. Not surprisingly, the two characters can’t stand each other, but because of their husbands’ law partnership, they have been forced to tolerate each other for 40 years.

But when their husbands, played by Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen, come out of the closet and break the news that they’re in love, the women’s lives – including their dislike of one another – go all to hell.

Though most people think of Tomlin primarily as a comedian, her dramatic work in films like Nashville and TV shows such as The West Wing and Damages has been consistently praised as well. In Grace and Frankie, we’re privileged to see her do it all, going from heart-wrenching to hilarious as she embarks on a peyote-fueled quest, is mistaken for a nursing home resident, and cowers under a table during an earthquake. She and her three stellar castmates leave me no doubt that most viewers will be binge-watching.

I first met Lily (yes, we’re on a first-name basis!) when I interviewed her for Camp in 2011 (One Ringy Dingy…). Our conversation took place over the phone from a hospital while my mom was undergoing cardiac surgery. Of course, when I explained the annoying PA system and heart monitors beeping in the background, Lily offered to reschedule, but I knew from her publicist that she was extremely pressed for time. I’m sure I wasn’t the first interviewer she’d spoken to, and I expected she’d be in a hurry to get through my questions, but rather than rushing off the line, she stayed on.

She couldn’t have been sweeter as we spoke about my mom’s condition, and when she learned that I was also a comedian, the conversation moved in that direction for a bit, with her offering encouragement and a little advice. When I mentioned that we had my pal, comedian Bob Smith in common, things expanded further.

Without a doubt, the best thing about that phone call and the thing that made me love Lily even more was that by engaging me, she gave me the chance to repay her for all of the times she’s cracked me up. I got off several good lines while we chatted, and hearing her laugh was beyond affirming.

A few weeks ago, Lily gave me a whole new reason to love her when she took time out of her schedule to meet Bob and me for coffee. Bob, who’s battling ALS, has long cited Lily as one of his comic inspirations and even wrote a hilarious story about how she unknowingly helped him come out as a teenager. (The story can be found in When I Knew, a book of anecdotes from LGBT men and women about when they first knew the truth of their sexual orientation.)

After watching her joke with Bob for an hour, it was clear to me that her sincerity and warmth are why so many have responded to her and her characters with such affection.

GO TO THE SHOW!

(And be sure to also catch Lily’s new film, Grandma, coming out Aug. 21 (imdb.com). Besides Lily, it stars Sam Elliott, Julia Garner, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox and Marcia Gay Harden.)

Lily Tomlin will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 13, at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $49-$79 and can be purchased online at www.kauffmancenter.org.
Comedian Eddie Sarfaty has appeared on “The Today Show”, “The Joy Behar Show”, Comedy Central’s “Premium Blend” and LOGO’s “Wisecrack”. He is the author of Mental: Funny in the Head, a collection of comic essays (Kensington Books). Readers can find him online at www.keeplaughing.com.

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