Tomlin's carefully crafted characters leave audiences in stitches

Toben Shelby
Illustration by PAMELA DUNLAP-SHOHL / Anchorage Daily News
Illustration by PAMELA DUNLAP-SHOHL / Anchorage Daily News

Lily Tomlin is tough to categorize. While many likely know Tomlin for her classic comedic roles on stage or screen, she's also spent substantial time honing her craft as an actress in the dramatic realm.

The Detroit native has found success in show business for decades, thanks in part to the many funny characters she's created over the years, but also because of her ability to adapt and accept darker dramatic roles. During her two shows in Anchorage, the comedian will return to the well-known comedy and characters that launched her career.

Since making her first TV appearance in the mid-1960s, Tomlin has built a body of work that has been rewarded handsomely: She's claimed Emmy, Tony and Grammy awards, as well the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2003 -- and she's shown few signs of slowing down.

One of multiple actors from the TV drama "Damages" to be nominated for an Emmy in 2010, Tomlin also appeared in later seasons of "The West Wing," and more recently returned to TV comedy in "Web Therapy" and "Eastbound and Down."

Considering her aspirations early in her career, it's all the more impressive.

"I didn't even want to be on TV, originally -- I went to New York to be a theater actress," Tomlin told the Onion's A.V. Club Twin Cities last year. "But I always did monologues, so I would go to the Improv and do them. And I started working on the telephone operator (character) because everyone hated the phone company in the '60s."

That character, Ernestine, would become one of Tomlin's most popular creations, appearing on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" with a very particular manner of speaking (punctuated by snorts) and a mischievous spark in her eyes. These days, with the relevance of a phone company operator long passed, Ernestine still sometimes appears in the comedian's act as an employee of a more contemporary villain -- a health insurance company.

"She was invented to satirize the phone company when it was a monopoly, and, of course, that's a whole other era," Tomlin told the Chicago Tribune in February. "She now calls herself a 'communications visionary.' "

Tomlin's done more dramatic work in the past few years, but she showed those chops early on, snagging her first movie role in 1975 in Robert Altman's "Nashville." For that performance, Tomlin, who already owned a Grammy for her debut comedy album, garnered an Oscar nomination. Within a few years of taking on film, Tomlin debuted on Broadway, appearing in productions written by her partner, Jane Wagner. Their creative collaboration would lead to a Tony for 1985's "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe."

Now 72, Tomlin remains active and hopes to make a connection with the audience in her performances.

"I talk about all of us on Spaceship Earth together trying to hack it," she said in an interview with The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, Calif. "I feel like we're in the bomb shelter. We want to laugh in some way; we don't want to sit there and be in misery. We're all in this together."

By Toben Shelby
Daily News correspondent