As she opened her one-woman show Sunday night at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Lily Tomlin waxed philosophical: “At times like this I’m not sure if you’re here because of me or I’m here because of you. Without you, there’s little point in being here tonight.”
She immediately gave the show a local twist, delving into a Missouri/Kansas bit that included this incendiary line: “A Tiger could easily eat up a Jayhawk.” After the room erupted into a torrent of cheers and boos, she scolded, “You see, this is why the world doesn’t work.” She would return to that theme several times -- “KCM” vs KCK; each time it elicited a big laugh or a cheer.
Her performance was split into standup routines, character sketches (including footage of skits broadcast on a huge screen behind her) and narrative routines, and she shifted and slipped from one to the other seamlessly. Her standup is a mix of old-school one-liners, a la Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield and the off-kilter observations of comics like Steven Wright. Like this one: “I bought a wastebasket and took it home in a paper bag. When I got home, I threw the paper bag into the wastebasket.” She also played with language, like George Carlin: “I know where olive oil comes from, and I know where peanut oil comes from. So where does baby oil come from?”
She also tossed out bits of wisdom and philosophy, in the vein of Will Rogers or Mark Twain: “What is reality anyway? Nothing but a collective hunch.” And: “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.” Or this about Twitter: “When does something stop being trendy and become a disorder?”
Between those comic routines, she disappeared into characters and sketches, starting with the Trudy, the street person. Trudy talked about her former life as a marketer for a company that makes crackers and snacks -- a bit that prompted some head-shaking laughter (the kind Sam Kinison was famous for). Trudy tells her boss they should tap into the Third World markets: “Millions of people over there don’t know where their next meal is coming from. The idea of eating between meals has never occurred to them.”
This was in part a greatest-hits show. She showed her well-known commercial for hairspray (which survives a trip through a car wash); she also reprised her commercial on vibrators (“Think of them not as a threat to the family unit; think of them as kind of a Hamburger Helper for the boudoir”). Nonetheless, the evening was revelatory. Her skills and instincts as a performer are unsurpassed; her wit is still keen; her humility and sense of herself are endearing. After she feigned a moment of grand conceit -- “I know you’re thinking, ‘How is she is still so attractive?’” -- she advised the crowd, “When I go on one of those ego trips, someone please yell out, ‘Are we there yet?’”
She managed to keep it all fresh by inserting asides and connecting to her audience. Nothing felt rehearsed or rote. The highlight for me was the bit she did about a teenager, coming home to her parents and a friend of theirs sitting in the living room, where the conversation is obsessively about cake. That word, “cake,” eventually sets off explosions of monstrous screaming and thunderous door-slamming from the teenager’s room upstairs. There was no cheap ending or punch-line to the routine. Just Tomlin playing the roles of five characters, spinning a yarn rich with detail and humor. It was masterful.
Ernestine made an appearance, as an operator at a health insurance company, where she is as cold and crass as ever: “Yes it’s an elective procedure, one we elect not to pay for.” And: “Your health is our business, not our concern.” So did Edith Ann, though of all the bits, this one was the weakest. The infusion of the iPad and iPhone into the routine felt forced; and Edith Ann sounded much older than 6.
That was a slight blemish on a stellar evening filled with all manner of humor, some of it familiar, some of it fresh and improvised. And as for who was there for whom, in some ways it was all mutual. Tomlin ended with a 15-minute Q&A, answering questions that had been submitted on index cards. One question pertained to “9 to 5,” the film she made with Dolly Parton. As she feigned more conceit and larded the film with praise, someone in the crowd shouted something inaudible. After some coaxing, Tomlin got the woman to repeat what she’d yelled: “Are we there yet?”
And no one in the room laughed harder than Lily Tomlin.
| Timothy Finn, The Star