With so many high-profile comedians these days making their names playing themselves — Louis C.K. with “Louie,” Whitney Cummings with, well, “Whitney” — it’s easy to forget that comedy used to be built on characters. At 72, Lily Tomlin continues to set the gold standard for character comedy, playing anyone and anything but herself on screens big and small. For more than 40 years, Tomlin’s career has been populated by a dizzying assortment of personas, including nosy telephone operator Ernestine and precocious 5½-year-old Edith Ann. Ahead of a stand-up show at Strathmore on Sunday packed with some of her best-known bits, Tomlin reflects on a lifetime of getting laughs.
On Women in Comedy: Tomlin has been a pioneer for women in the world of comedy, working as a rare female in stand-up in the 1960s, then joining the cast of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” in 1969 and later performing on her own TV specials. She’s since been on shows including “Murphy Brown” and “The West Wing.”
“A lot of barriers have been knocked over. Not nearly so many women used to do comedy,” she says. When Tomlin started out, women in show business had two choices: be funny or be beautiful. “I was in a revue in the mid-’60s, and the girl that played the ingénue had nothing to do onstage,” she recalls. “But in the dressing room, this girl was hilarious! I would be doubled over she was so funny. And I’d say, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do this onstage!’ And she’d fluff up, her hair would just expand on its own, and she’d look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was unattractive.’”
On Relationships: Tomlin has been in a decades-long relationship with writer and director Jane Wagner — who also happens to be her most famous collaborator. Among other projects, Wagner wrote and directed Tomlin’s 1991 one-woman stage show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”; wrote for the 1973 TV special “Lily” (and won an Emmy for it); and wrote and produced the 1981 TV special “Lily: Sold Out.”
“Jane is totally the writer,” Tomlin says. “But I get credit for everything, which I feel really bad about. If you go on the Internet, it looks like I’m as quotable as Gandhi, but it’s mostly Jane’s writing.” Tomlin says Wagner’s guidance as a director has always kept her on her toes — such as when they recorded a film version of “Signs of Intelligent Life.”
“When she wasn’t there, I might alter something if I found it difficult to do,” Tomlin laughs. “I would just shape it differently so it wasn’t so demanding. And then she’d come and catch me at it.”
On “The West Wing”: “When it [first] came out, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t on it. I thought, ‘This is the best show!” says Tomlin, who wound up playing President Bartlet’s secretary, Debbie Fiderer, for the last four seasons of the series.
“We didn’t have such a good deal going on in the real world [in those years], and sometimes when you were on the show you actually thought Bartlet was our president,” she laughs. “It felt like all these people were really in control in the White House.”
When the show finally wrapped, reality was tough to accept. “I really cried on the last episode, when I had to hand the Oval Office over to that other woman,” she recalls. “I was crying, big, blubbering, ugly crying.”
Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; Sun., 7 p.m., $35-$75; 301-581-5100. (Grosvenor-Strathmore)