RIVERSIDE — Lily Tomlin is hilarious, and that’s the truth.
Not that her fans ever doubted it, but her Hancher show for more than 1,000 people in the Riverside Casino Event Center on Saturday night (11/16/13) got off to a rocky start and stayed shaky for quite a long time.
Her 90-minute set started off with a video montage of the colorful characters that have seared her into comedy pop culture history: “one ringy-dingy” telephone operator Ernestine, lounge singer Tommy Velour, R&B singer Pervis Hawkins, punk rocker Agnes Angst from Tomlin’s Tony-winning turn in “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” and Edith Ann, a precocious little truth-teller perched in a giant rocking chair.
Then Tomlin came bounding onstage, a bundle of pent up energy that quickly fizzled out. Clutching several sheets of paper, she began reading some random thoughts about Iowa, laced with corny Tall Corn State puns. They were mildly amusing, but her halting, unrehearsed style was a little disarming.
She abruptly stopped and asked for another microphone, saying the one that clipped to her flowing black top was too noisy. She fidgeted with a replacement one the rest of the evening. The problem wasn’t the mics — the fabric of her top was too flimsy to support them. She mumbled something about another style she preferred, that wouldn’t inhibit her movement.
All of that should have been handled in a preshow mic-check, not in full view of the audience. It probably took less than five minutes, but came dangerously close to derailing her show. But, she got back on track, back to the notes she “made that day at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.” Soon it became apparent that her halting style was deliberate — her way of capturing her stream of consciousness.
The best aspect of that opening dialogue was describing the organ recital she had heard and enjoyed that day at the university: “heart, lungs, pancreas, gonads … ” She came back to that recitation whenever the jokes she was “workshopping” started to falter. “Spleen, eardrums …”
After the “getting to know you part,” she launched into a much more successful discussion of the things that are worrying her today, from showing up to an empty auditorium to “playing for a full house and leaving them empty.” Or worrying about identity theft and wondering why nobody has chosen her, to wondering why “when we’re talking to God we’re praying, but when God talks to us, we’re schizophrenic.”
That gave her the perfect segue for slipping into the skin of her many twisted characters: a sassy, observational street person; Judith Beasley, an average, everyday housewife turned commercial product spokesperson; Edith Ann; beauty expert Madame Lupe; and of course, Ernestine, who is now working for a health care insurance corp, denying coverage to everyone: “We don’t care if you’re fed up, as long as you’re paid up” and “Your health is our business, not our concern.”
Interspersed were sweet, nostalgic, funny stories and photos about growing up in Detroit, where times were tough, her neighborhood was rough, her dad took her to the bookie joints and her mother was the glue that held it all together. We found out Tomlin was co-captain of the cheerleading squad, dreamed of being first-name friends with her grade school favorite teacher, and had many wonderful adventures with her brother, Richard.
“It was like my brother and I lived in an MGM musical and my mother and father lived in a Ma and Pa Kettle movie.” She credits her father with teaching her comic timing, looking back at all the Tupperware parties where he provided sound effects whenever her mother would demonstrate how to burp the lids on the bowls.
Time and again, she displayed her top-notch acting skills with the most simple of mimed gestures — and a physical dexterity decades younger than her 74 years.
After ending her show with a few more puzzling notions — like carrying home a new wastebasket in a paper bag, then putting the paper bag inside the wastebasket when she got home — she came back for a Q&A session, answering questions from index cards in that same random, stream-of-consciousness way she started her show.
“I’m like the Wayne Newton of comedy,” she said, racing back and forth across the stage. “I don’t want to get off the stage.”
She promised to come back when the new Hancher is built. Let’s hope she does. Nearly two hours inside her strange universe leaves us much to ponder.
RELATED: See her Hoopla interview here: http://hooplanow.com/2013/11/10/lily-tomlin/