Comedienne-actress-writer Lily Tomlin may be best known to some fans for the characters she first portrayed on television’s Laugh-In; to others for movies ranging from All of Me to 9 to 5 to Nashville; and to yet others for her most recent stint on the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, in which she stars with her old pal, Jane Fonda. Prowling the stage of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall Wednesday night, Tomlin touched on much of that history, along with drawing stories from her childhood and teen years in Detroit and from her one-woman Broadway show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by her partner, Jane Wagner.
Dressed in comfortable black clothing and bounding onto the stage with an energy that makes her age (77) seem irrelevant, Tomlin entertained the full house at the Van Wezel with some brief clips featuring famous characters like Ernestine, the telephone operator; Judith Beasley, the pitchwoman for a hair spray that can stand up to a car wash; and Madame Lupe, the self-professed oldest beauty expert in the world. But those clips form only a small part of Tomlin’s show, giving her a chance, perhaps, to catch her breath or sip on a bottle of water before launching into another routine that demonstrates her comic versatility.
She touches a bit on the world of Washington politics (“No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up”), identity theft “(Why has no one chosen to be me?”), and her Detroit upbringing (rendering a classic tale of a cheerleading disaster of her youth) before morphing into bag lady Trudy or the 5 ½-year-old Edith Ann, bouncing up and down impetuously. Then she can move back to herself as a rebellious teen, playing raucous music and slamming her bedroom door while her parents have a seemingly endless discussion about cake below her; or, at last, Ernestine, who in this day and age (surprise!) has switched her allegiance from Bell Telephone to working for an equally indifferent health care insurance claims office “(No, that’s not covered…not covered…not covered.”)
Some of the monologues will be familiar to those who’ve seen The Search for Intelligent Signs, but that doesn’t mean audience members won’t respond favorably to them, as they do when Tomlin, after her planned performance, takes time to answer questions from them supplied on index cards. Those questions range from what it’s like to work with Fonda ("It’s not even work really; we have so much fun”), advice for staying fit (“Bend your body; you need to remain flexible,” as she demonstrates her own loose limbs), or the most risqué phone call Ernestine ever took (not so risque 40 years later, but I still won’t repeat it here). She left her audience with a full appreciation of her unique abilities and personality, and, maybe, a desire to check back into some of her work they haven’t viewed for a while.