In the 40 years from when she first appeared on the revolutionary TV show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In to when she performed at the MGM Grand last fall, Lily Tomlin has made quite an impression on stage, television and the big screen. Dubbed the “New Queen of Comedy” in a Time cover story in 1977, Tomlin has also collaborated on books with life partner Jane Wagner and fought for liberal political causes. The 70-year-old dynamo, who returns to MGM Grand March 11-17, never phones in a performance, unless she’s playing her character Ernestine, of course. That said, it’s time to pick up the phone and interview the lady whose many characters have permeated the pop culture switchboard.
Tell me about your past experiences performing in Vegas.
If you look back over my history, in ’81 I did a [television] special called Lily Sold Out. And [the premise was that] I went to Vegas for the money, and I had to convince myself this time that I was going for the right reasons. I did an act that would rival a Cher or Ann-Margret at the time.
What are some of the artistically risky things you’ve done?
Oh God, I don’t know.
Well, you really were the first person to hit my wheelhouse with cross-dressing female to male. That was risky.
It didn’t seem risky at the time; it seemed interesting. [When] we created the first Vegas show, I had to do a Vegas headliner like Tommy Velour.
One thing I heard you say 20 years ago has stuck in my head: “Someday a bean-bag chair will be an antique.”
Yes, that was so long ago. A lot of stuff you do, it’s almost trying to underscore your own humanity. You want the audience to validate you. How much fun is it to do comedy and in every moment you know if the people are getting it and are connecting with you? It’s that validation of your humanity from both sides of the stage.
What do you plan for the future?
Well, I guess more of the same. There are a couple of little things I’d love to do. Things that have happened or experiences that I know would make hilarious and entertaining short films. Things that my brother and I did as kids. I think I have enough of this rich background as a child growing up in inner-city Detroit with my family. And in the summers my brother and I were sent off to Kentucky to stay on the farm with my aunts and uncles.
What ever happened to that giant high chair from Laugh-In days?
I have that. In fact, I brought it to Vegas. I will have it in the show this time, too.
Have you ever seen Dolly Parton’s breasts?
[Laughs] No, I haven’t. The tops of them, but not in their entirety. I mean, we’ve all seen the tops of them.