For 45 years, since she first showed up on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” Lily Tomlin had made us laugh.
Whether as the snooty telephone operator Ernestine or the precocious little girl Edith Ann, as efficient office worker Violet Newstead or a version of herself on Broadway, the 74-year-old entertainer has always been a keen observer of people and the world around them.
The legendary entertainer will bring her brand of character-driven comedy to Spokane on Sunday for a performance at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
And yes, Ernestine and Edith Ann will be among the dozen or so characters coming along for the ride.
“I have to do Ernestine and Edith,” Tomlin said in a recent telephone interview. “But they’re relevant. Ernestine now works with Health Care Insurance Corp. Edith is still 6 years old but she lives today. … She’s able to program most anything.”
Tomlin said she never gets tired of getting into these characters.
“If they have something funny or relevant to say, I like it,” she said. “They’re like real people to me.”
Tomlin has been performing since her childhood in Detroit, putting on shows for family and friends before she even really knew shows were a thing. Her interest in performing was sharpened at Wayne State University, and she started doing stand up in Detroit clubs.
She found instant success on “Laugh-In,” and it was there that she created some of those famous characters, including Ernestine and Edith Ann. She made her first comedy record, “This is a Recording,” in 1971, which earned her a Grammy. She shifted into drama with her role in Robert Altman’s 1971 classic “Nashville,” which earned her an Oscar nomination. Nine years later, she scored her biggest film hit in “9 to 5.” Her TV appearances have included “The West Wing,” “Murphy Brown,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Web Therapy” and “The Simpsons.” She’s even moving into the world of online series, as she and “9 to 5” co-star Jane Fonda are set to star in “Grace and Frankie” for Netflix.
She wouldn’t want to choose between doing movies and television and the stage, but one thing she likes about the stage is that she can be, she said, a “self-starter. All I have to do is get a couple of people, even at the laundromat, and I can start performing.
“And I used to do that in the old days when I lived in New York and I was just starting out,” she continued. “I was so obsessed with a monologue and every nuance, every syllable. If I changed one phrase I’d think it was a total reinvention. And I’d make my friends sit through the monologue, probably for the 15th time. I’d say ‘You have to see my new monologue.’ Of course it wasn’t new for them. They wouldn’t even see that I’d made a change, but to me it was monumental.”
As with her professional life, her personal life has kept humming along with one notable exception. This past New Year’s Eve, she and her longtime collaborator and partner, Jane Wagner, were married in Los Angeles.
So how is married life so far?
“Just like our unmarried life for 43 years,” she joked. “It’s just going along nicely.”
She never thought in her younger life that she would one day be able to marry the woman she loved.
“So much has happened. We have an African-American president. So many revolutionary moves have been made that it seems like it’s the emphasis of the time,” she said. “But believe me, there’s plenty of backlash as well in certain parts of the country and in certain strata of society.”
Not that she’s seen that backlash among her own fan base.
“My real fans always knew Jane and I were a couple,” she said. “I’m sure there are people who are surprised and may still like me and I’m sure there are people who are surprised who will never like me again.
“Although they may be seduced by Ernestine.”
And at that, Lily Tomlin made herself laugh.