Growing up lower middle-class in a culturally diverse Detroit apartment complex, she found joy in the simple acts of listening to radio shows with her little brother and putting on skits for the other tenants on the balcony. Her first exposure to organized performing came from a local community center’s summer program. “We didn’t go to the theater a lot,” Tomlin recalls, “but this program let the older kids put together plays. That was a big influence on me.”
Her keen ability to mimic a wide variety of voices and facial expressions was evident early on. Tomlin recalled how one of her most beloved characters—the precocious and perpetually congested 5-year-old Edith Ann—was inspired by the daughter of one of the young mothers who lived in her building. “I’m still friends with her mother after all these years,” Tomlin says. Her daughter had this thick, heavy voice. It was so unique for such a little girl, and I remember trying to capture that voice when I first started doing the Edith Ann character. I don’t know where the stuffy nose came from, but it just worked.”
After a few years performing her act in coffee shops and comedy clubs, Tomlin made the move to New York City and started appearing on The Merv Griffin Show. Getting picked for the hit series Laugh-In in 1969 became a pivotal moment in her career, and she got her first real taste of fame. “Back then, there weren’t that many channels to choose from. Laugh-In was one of those shows the entire family gathered together to watch. I started getting recognized on the streets after that.”
It was while working on Laugh-In that Tomlin met her longtime partner, Jane Wagner. She recalls watching an afternoon special that Wagner had written, and was immediately taken with Wagner’s development of the characters. Tomlin contacted Wagner and they began working together to develop the Edith Ann sketch into its own special. The two women became inseparable, both professionally and personally, and they have lived and worked together ever since.
Wagner has written all of Tomlin’s major projects, including her television specials and Tomlin’s proudest performance, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which not only broke records for its success on Broadway and across the country and eventually made it to the big screen, but also earned Tomlin the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2003. “When I first learned I won the award,” Tomlin says, “I refused to accept it unless they agreed to give Jane one, too, because every word of that play belonged to her.”
Tomlin has enjoyed a long and successful career in entertainment. She has appeared in almost 20 movies, been cast on hit TV series, earned nearly every award imaginable including multiple Tonys, Grammys and Emmys and starred in six comedy specials. Now, at age 72, she still travels extensively, performing new material to audiences around the world.
Her most classic characters will definitely be part of the current show. Edith Ann will be sharing her latest adventures with her dog Buster and continuing to announce her superiority by declaring “and that’s the truth.” The ever-popular Ernestine will also make an appearance, though Tomlin warns not to expect any stories about the telephone company. “Ever since the divestiture, Ernestine had to quit Ma Bell,” Tomlin says. “She had her own Internet talk show for a while, but now she’s found her perfect job—working at a health-insurance company, denying everyone’s claims.”