By Rhea Mahbubani
12:32 PM PDT, June 22, 2013
Lily Tomlin's stint in mime lasted all of three weeks.
It stands to reason — she likes words too much.
"With your words, you are trying to impact the audience and make them feel all kinds of things," said Tomlin, 73, who tried miming when she was a fledgling performer in college. "Everybody can't see your face or your eyes, so the words, whether they're comedic or dramatic, have to carry the emotion."
Tomlin, who got her first taste of performing arts working at a New York talent agency during her sophomore year at Wayne State University, will take the stage at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Saturday. Titled "An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin," the 90-minute show will feature 10 or 12 characters from the comedienne's cache.
Having previously seen the Los Angeles resident live in Houston, Segerstrom President Terrence Dwyer is "thrilled" to host Tomlin at a performance for the local community. She last performed at Segerstrom in 2009.
"Lily was hilarious, heartwarming and dramatic," he said. "I've seen her on many TV shows, and it was wonderful to watch her in action — she's very generous and warm-spirited."
Growing up in a rough Detroit neighborhood, Tomlin went door to door, spending time with and picking up habits from every resident of her apartment building, all of whom she described being "mad" about. As a young child, she also observed her ballet teacher Mrs. Fitzgerald hosting yearly programs, which in turn sparked her interest in doing the same.
Demonstrating an entrepreneurial spirit early on, Tomlin launched a "dime business" — walking dogs, taking out the trash, babysitting — before she was 10. She then used her income to learn magical illusions, employ her friends as assistants and buy props for her shows.
"Everything I saw, I was influenced by," said Tomlin, who not only performed in her mother's slip, but also picked up tidbits from the TV and radio. "I wanted to represent, replicate or interpret it."
Being part of a "blue-collar working-class family," though, she didn't have to do much to exceed her parents' economic achievements, she said. Both were very supportive of the path Tomlin eventually chose.
"A mark of success in my neighborhood was if the girl didn't get pregnant and the boy didn't go to jail," Tomlin said. "I'm exaggerating, but it was a little bit of that."
Having idealized the notion of a "career," she started out as a pre-med student, hoping to serve society, realizing instead that she'd be "in a load of trouble if asked to compute someone's thyroid."
What began as an experiment with like-minded college counterparts and elective courses in theater arts "just exploded," she said, taking her to Manhattan's coffee houses and clubs like the Improvisation, Cafe Au Go Go and the Upstairs at the Downstairs, as well as on Broadway and across movie theaters nationwide.
"I was on fire for it," she admitted.
It was on Rowan & Martin's "Laugh-In," an NBC television comedy where Tomlin debuted at the end of 1969, that Ernestine, a character she described as having "no integrity, except to herself," was born.
"Right now, she's working at a big healthcare insurance company denying healthcare to everyone," Tomlin said of Ernestine, who started out as a cantankerous telephone operator and has also worked for the George W. Bush administration. "Of course, she's expert in wire tapping, so I'm betting the NSA has enlisted her help as they've done before."
Realizing that Ernestine struck a nerve among audiences, Tomlin added Mme. Lupe, Chrissy, Rich Lady/Poor Lady, Lucille, Mildred, Sr. Boogie Woman, Cheerleader, Trudy, Mrs. Beasley, Crystal the Quadriplegic and Edith Ann — Dwyer's favorite — to her repertory.
"Watching an adult transform herself to a little six-year-old its completely amazing," Dwyer said. "Edith Ann is devilish and irreverent — Lily has a gift for the creation of unforgettable characters."
Influenced by Jean Carroll and Ruth Draper, trailblazers in the comedic community, Tomlin today enjoys freedom and acceptance as a comedienne, which were in short supply in the '60s.
"I can remember a time when funny women often related to themselves as the object of the humor: homely, overweight, flat-chested, can't get a man, scatterbrained," she said. "More women now do intelligent, observant humor. They are fearless in being themselves and having a political point of view."
Until recently, Tomlin played Reba McEntire's mother, Lillie Mae, on "Malibu Country," but the show was discontinued. She is now Putsy Hodge, Lisa Kudrow's mother, on ShowTime's "Web Therapy" and is working with her partner Jane Wagner on a new play that they hope to enact in New York.
Looking back on a prolific career, Tomlin falters when recounting memorable experiences — there have been too many, she said.
One that springs to mind is a Broadway show that several blind people, and their guide dogs, attended. Her act was interrupted midway by the dogs who all of a sudden began howling in unison.
"The audience laughed as long and as hard as I did," she said. "I swear they sensed (maybe smelled) my own dog offstage in the dressing room."
Her last performance at Segerstrom was also marked by a change of pants onstage, followed by her waving to the audience from inside each leg's pocket hem.
No matter the role, Tomlin's foremost priority is to stay "alive" in the moment, which ensures genuineness in her artistry and builds a rapport with the audience.
"It's like a good marriage," she said.
If You Go
What: An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin
Where: Segerstrom Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Cost: $39 onward
Information: http://www.SCFTA.org or (714) 556-2787