Lily Tomlin has been called many things in her career. Acclaimed as one of the most beloved comics in the US, her talent even drove USA Today newspaper to pronounce, Lily Tomlin just may be the eighth wonder of the world.
Her name also bears the titles of Oscar-nominee, multi-Emmy winner and two-time Tony winner.
But one thing the 60-something comic can never be accused of is being selfish.
While she has been lauded all around the world for the brilliance of her comedy and biting social satire, she refuses to accept the accolades as being her work alone.
She is allowed to be good, she explains during a telephone chat from the United States on the eve of her first Australian tour, by the brilliance of the material she has to work with. And that material is written and directed by her life partner, Jane Wagner.
It can sometimes be hard to be in a relationship like this, particularly as I get all the credit, she explains. I am forever correcting people who quote lines I have said in a show, and I have to say they were actually written by Jane.
I just try to make sure she gets the credit for her work because she really is more brilliant than I could ever be.
Wagner will be joining Tomlin when she arrives in Australia at the end of the month for an extended holiday and performance dates in Sydney and Melbourne.
Tomlin explains that Wagner hates going on the road and usually never accompanies the comic as she does the US comedy circuit.
But in the case of visiting Australia for An Evening Of Classic Lily Tomlin, which plays on Wednesday 30 August at the State Theatre, Wagner is making an exception.
We both so much want to come to Australia and we have never been before as we didn’t want to leave our dog behind, she says. Well, that dog has since died, and so we are now on our way.
Tomlin and the writer-director have been together for 35 years, but it was only six years ago that Tomlin officially came out as a lesbian on US TV.
In this age of Ellen and Portia and Rosie and Kelli, Lily and Jane are not among the high-voltage lesbian couples. And Tomlin says, for some people, that poses something of a problem.
Jane really doesn’t like the limelight, Tomlin admits. People like to kid us about it and sometimes say, -˜We think Jane and you are the same person as we never see you two in the same room at the same time.’
The pair have collaborated on some of Tomlin’s greatest achievements, including the stage hits Appearing Nitely and The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe, the movie The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and Tomlin’s numerous TV comedy specials.
Tomlin began her career as a stand-up comic before achieving international fame on the iconic 1960s comedy series, Laugh In. Since then, her work on stage and screen has kept the world laughing.
In the past 20 years, Tomlin has been most famous for her work on the big screen in such hits as Nine To Five, All Of Me and Big Business.
She has also proved her mettle as a dramatic actress in such movies as Nashville (for which she was nominated for an Oscar), Short Cuts, I Heart Huckabees and on TV in The West Wing. She and Meryl Streep co-star as country music sisters in the upcoming A Prairie Home Companion.
As Tomlin prepares to play to Australian audiences for the first time with An Evening Of Classic Lily Tomlin, she admits she is not short of material for her show.
I will try to pull something together that will make people laugh, but also reflect on something that will turn a mind around.
I want people to laugh, but also to get something more out of it. I want to give a layered rich experience, as that is what I like to get.
There is always something that has delighted me about this material, or that I thought was worth expressing.
Tomlin’s iconic comic creations like telephone operator Ernestine and precocious child Edith Ann will also feature prominently in the show. As she talks, she can barely hide her enthusiasm, in between bouts of laughter.
I still get such a kick out of playing Ernestine as she is so involved with herself, she says.
I can’t even talk about her without screwing up my face and wanting to snort, she says, before snorting with hilarity.
And one of the things I really love about playing Ernestine is that she gets to make comments and almost gets away with anything at all.
She gets away with a low pun, but then also skewers an issue. It’s the same with Edith Ann. It is amazing what you can get away with when you say it in a child’s voice.
But as people are laughing, I also hope they are thinking of what these characters are sending up.
It is now 10 years since Tomlin narrated the award-winning documentary The Celluloid Closet, about Hollywood’s portrayal of gays and lesbians. She believes the past decade has seen marked improvements, but believes people need to be concerned in increasingly conservative times.
A lot of acceptance has been won, but we are on a precipice with the incredible division in people with this [Bush] administration.
It has been so profound, using the same-sex marriage issue as a divisive issue and making this seem like such a threat to the tradition of marriage, whatever that may be.
I feel if we don’t change this administration and turn some of this around, where could it possibly end? I don’t trust it at all and feel it is perilous.
I think everyone has to be vigilant -“ not just the gay community, but humanity needs to be vigilant. There has to be a different path.
An Evening Of Classic Lily Tomlin plays on Wednesday 30 August at the State Theatre. Bookings on 136 100 or at the Ticketmaster website.