​Becoming Lily Tomlin

It's fitting she's in love with a Detroit classic. After all, she grew up in the Motor City. She was born Mary Jean Tomlin. Lily was her mother's name.

Her working class neighborhood on the west side of Detroit became her comedic laboratory.

"The apartment house was like the center of my universe," she said. "I used to go and visit from one apartment to the next. Just mad about the people. Just wanted to hang out with 'em. Wanted to do what they were doing. And they would say to me, 'Don't you think you should go home?' It'd be nighttime, like 9:30 or something. And I'd say, 'No, no, I told my mother I was coming home late tonight!' That was my schpiel."

She had a keen sense of observation -- the tiniest gestures she could absorb and imitate.

Take Audrey Hepburn: "I read in a magazine that her eyes would move before her head would."

As good as her characters were, they weren't what most comedy clubs were looking for. But then came "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In."

"Very few people, I don't think, can sort of pinpoint when they became famous -- but you can," said Cowan.

"I can," Tomlin said. "Ernestine was the culprit. And she's been mad about it ever since!"

Ernestine, the loveable yet nosey telephone switchboard operator, made Tomlin a household name:

"We may be the only phone company in town, but we sock it to everybody!"

"I first thought she would be just a tough Bronx operator. And then as I worked on this stuff and improvised and worked on material, I thought, my body just got tight like this, and her everything -- her face got tight, and then she would snort."

"I mean, just because your face is that way, you start to talk nasal?"

"Yeah, you talk that way. That's right. It all comes that way."

Then there was the particularly convincing five-year-old named Edith Ann:

"My little baby boy brother has a little soft spot on his head. You must be very careful not to touch it. So I took a ballpoint pen and made an X so I wouldn't touch it."

But we soon learned she could tackle the serious, too. Her touching portrayal of a married gospel singer with two deaf children in "Nashville" earned her an Oscar nomination for her first film role ever.

Tomlin doesn't just play characters; she becomes them. In her acclaimed one-woman show, "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," Tomlin seamlessly floats between a dozen or more strange and wonderful oddballs.

"All my life I've wanted to be somebody. But I see now I shoulda been more specific."

"I wanted to reflect the culture. They all had a voice. Mostly I wanted to do the humanity."

Her characters' "humanity," she says, comes from her long-time creative partner, and now wife, Jane Wagner, who has written most of the material that Tomlin has been performing for decades.

"We've never been apart," Tomlin said. "No. It's been a long time, too. It's been, in March it'll be 45 years."

In 1975 Tomlin says Time Magazine offered her the cover, as long as she agreed to come out publicly. She refused, not because she was hiding the fact she was gay; she just didn't like the ultimatum.