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Tomlin adds contemporary spin to classic characters

Tomlin brings a new review to Seattle for two nights.
Tomlin brings a new review to Seattle for two nights.Lily Tomlin, photo by Jenny Risher

While Lily Tomlin’s latest tour includes video clips showcasing such her classic characters as Ernestine and Edith Ann, she doesn’t want it to be just a trip down memory lane.

“As long as it is relevant and speaks to the audience, I’m always working on the material,” said Tomlin. The busy comedian, now in her sixth decade of performing before live audiences, has adapted her beloved characters to take on challenges that they never knew when they first premiered in the 1960s. Irrepressible six-year-old Edith Ann now uploads her mother's IPod while telephone operator Ernestine has left her obsolete career to work for an insurance conglomerate, denying healthcare to everyone.

However adding multimedia, and interviewing herself, isn’t necessarily a new idea. “I once did a video show with these small black-and-white projectors because color projectors cost too much,” Tomlin recalled. Those shows in the 1970s were cashed in on the popularity of characters seen on "Laugh-In," but also provided a way for Tomlin to continue a tradition that she’d had since she was very small.

“I had an act from the time I was seven or eight years old,” she said. “When other kids in the building wouldn’t rehearse, I started doing it all myself. This show is natural extension of that.”

Still Tomlin said that she really didn’t consider being a full-time comedian until a talent show derailed her intention of becoming a doctor. “I made a hit in that college show and kept going,” she recalled. "I never graduated from college."

Stand-up comedy led to her own television specials, guest appearances on numerous television series, major film roles, Broadway performances, and more awards than can be listed in one article. In fact, Tomlin is quick to move past any discussion of her numerous honors to discuss the one Tony nomination that her partner Jane Wagner should have had. The pair began collaborating in the 1970s, with Wagner writing scripts for television specials, movies, stage shows, and more.

“When I won the Tony (for "The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe"), it wasn’t nominated in the play category. But it is an important feminist play and it’s so important for Jane’s authorship to be acknowledged,” said Tomlin, who married Wagner in 2013.

These days, Tomlin’s projects include a new series, “Grace and Frankie,” co-starring with Jane Fonda, which will be released on Netflix and a new Paul Weitz movie, “Grandma.”

One thing that Tomlin probably won’t be discussing in Seattle is retirement. “I love doing what I do and I am so fortunate in that,” she said. “It’s a feeling that a lot of artists share. As long as you’re still delivering, it is exciting to work.”

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“Lily Tomlin, Live” plays tonight (June 6) at 8 p.m. and tomorrow at the 5th Avenue Theatre. Tickets are available through the theater’s website.