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Lily Tomlin: Countless Colorful Characters, One Comedic Genius

(Photo credit BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

The number of laughs Lily Tomlin has invoked over the course of four decades must be some ridiculously large, undefined number. She’s a genius in her field; a one-woman creative dynamo who houses an entire pallet of colorful characters within her solitary being.

Tomlin’s critically-acclaimed body of work has been recognized with a long list of prestigious awards including four Primetime Emmys, a Grammy, two Tony Awards, two Peabody Awards and in 2003, the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. These notable honors appropriately reflect years of passion the Detroit native poured into her art, which was sparked by a childhood fascination of people.

Comedic Beginnings

Lily Tomlin was born Mary Jean Tomlin and changed the spelling of her mother’s name “Lillie” for her stage name “Lily.” Growing up in Detroit’s inner city and visiting Kentucky in the summer exposed Tomlin to a variety of interesting people that she wanted to emulate. She began performing porch shows for apartment audiences at an early age and developed an interest in variety shows while enrolled at Wayne State. She started her professional career doing standup at night clubs in Detroit and New York City. During this early time, ideas for some of her legendary characters began percolating.

Trademark Characters and “Laugh-In”

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Lily Tomlin joined NBC’s sketch comedy show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” in 1969 and was an instant success. She brought one of her New York standup characters, The Tasteful Lady, to the show and originated nosy and crass operator Ernestine and precocious five-and-a-half year old Edith Ann, who called things like she saw them. The latter pair went on to become two of Tomlin’s most iconic characters. She even won a Grammy for a comedy album which featured Ernestine’s clashes with her callers. From Ernestine to Mrs. Judith Beasley to male drag character Tommy Velour, Tomlin exaggerated all sorts of behavioral quirks through her characters with keen insight into the human experience that was distinctly her own and utterly hilarious.

Broadway and Film

It takes an incredible amount of courage and talent for one solo actor to make lightning quick transitions and lead a live audience through a two-hour tale told through multiple characters. Tomlin did this to Tony Award-winning acclaim in the 1985 one-woman Broadway play “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” which was penned by her former partner and current wife, Jane Wagner.

The versatile actress transitioned from “Laugh-In” to make several notable dramatic and comedic TV guest appearances through the years, including “Saturday Night Live,” “Frasier,” “The Magic School Bus,” “The West Wing,” “Damages” and “Web Therapy.” Notable film roles include “Nashville,” for which she earned an Oscar nod, “9 to 5,” “The Incredible Shrinking Woman,” “I Heart Huckabees” and “Admission.”

Now 75, Tomlin shows no signs of slowing down. She is slated to star alongside her longtime friend Jane Fonda in the upcoming Netflix series “Grace and Frankie.” The premise already boasts a hilarious ride: “A pair of rivals find out their husbands want to run off with each other.” The series premieres in 2015.

In 1977, “Time” magazine dubbed Lily Tomlin the “New Queen of Comedy.” Nearly 38 years later, as she is about to receive another distinguished honor, it would be difficult to name of one Tomlin’s peers who is qualified to dethrone her. 

Lily Tomlin is one of five honorees at the “37th Annual Kennedy Center Honors,” which airs on Tuesday, Dec. 30 (9:00-11:00 PM ET/PT) on CBS.

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Lori Melton is a freelance writer. Her work can be found on


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