Busy Lily is still searching

As `West Wing' nears its end, Tomlin is touring with a solo show and finding fewer signs of intelligent life


When Lily Tomlin calls to promote her solo show, which she'll perform Saturday at a benefit for the Music Center at Strathmore, we can't help asking her about other urgent matters.

What's going to happen to her character of Debbie Fiderer as The West Wing wraps on May 14? What's this we hear about her singing act with Meryl Streep? And how is her search going for signs of intelligent life in the universe?

"With The West Wing ... I haven't seen a script beyond the one we're on now, so I don't know what the last episode will be," says Tomlin, who is calling from her family home in Nashville. "But I hope they do something that will take your breath away in terms of turning the country around, even if it's just [fiction]."

And what will happen to her character when the Bartlet administration becomes fake history?

"Ah, she could go on to do many things," says Tomlin, playing with the possibility of a post-West Wing life for the executive assistant to the president. "She could go to Vegas and become a dealer, or go back to alpaca farming. Before we knew the series was going to end, she was trying to convince ... Jimmy Smits' people, on the side, that they needed as many seasoned staff as they could get. ... But Debbie could hook up with anything. She's got a very impressive resume in terms of her executive assistantship."

Might she enter the corporate sector in a spinoff series?

"And revamp the business world? Oh, God. Maybe she could. But she has to use her power to do something enlightening. Why, that's a good idea."

It could be called simply Fiderer.

"I love it."

If that doesn't work out, there's always her touring stand-up act in which she revisits some of the dozens of eccentric characters she has created over the years on TV and in her Broadway shows.

"I talk about topical stuff as Lily when I interact with audiences," she says, "but for the most part the monologues in the show are pretty timeless."

She is always looking for new voices or to update a familiar character.

"I used to do a quadriplegic in my first Broadway show. Her name was Crystal. ... There have been many advances technologically and politically in her world. She was a great activist in her day - and that was almost 30 years ago - which was before the [Americans With] Disabilities Act. She was always planning to go hang-gliding off the Palisades or Big Sur. I don't think people in chairs had been hang-gliding at that point, but it became a fairly recurring sport after that. I'm going to be updating Crystal and bringing her into this era, too."

When the subject turns to comedy on television, her voice becomes sad and serious.

When she was starting out in the 1950s, comedy was kinder and "there were more diverse people expressing the comic touchstones of what we as a people all had in common with each other," she says. "Even characters that we were satirizing had a sense of self or had something to say and had some kind of upward aspirations."

Tomlin, 66, first appeared on television in 1958 on The Garry Moore Show. She became famous in Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In beginning in 1968 where she played the wise child Edith Ann and the megalomaniacal phone operator Ernestine.

"There were a few women in comedy in the early days of TV when I was growing up [in Detroit] that embraced a kind of sublime, warm-hearted silliness," she says. "Gracie Allen, Joan Davis and the first female stand-up on The Ed Sullivan Show, Jean Carroll. She was attractive, sophisticated and ... she would wear a cocktail dress and hat and had this breezy New Yorker-ish style. I used to steal her jokes as a little kid. I'd be 9 or 10 and I'd say: `I'll never forget the first time I saw my husband standing on a hill, his hair blowing in the breeze - and he too proud to run after it.' I thought that was the greatest joke I ever heard.

"Now comedy is more divisive, mean-spirited and filled with ridicule. It has an I'm-better-than-you and we're-better-than-them feel. I think that kind of comedy reflects what's happening in our government."

Searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe is getting progressively harder, she says.

"We're not exactly reaching our higher selves," she says. "Someone once wrote about my show: `At the end we were on our feet applauding our higher selves.' I just love that."

And her general mood in regards to the world around her?

"I'm pretty horrified and distressed," she says, "especially regarding how little outrage there is. No one seems to be responding to anything, and the Democratic Party has just become absolutely useless. There's all this horrendous stuff going on and not one of them - well, occasionally Barbara Boxer will peek out and say something, but she really doesn't have any real [national] voice.

"There's no balance, no checks and balances. The people who now run the government are not just above the law, they are the law."

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