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Tomlin: Classically Funny, Always OUTspoken

03/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Photo: Tomlin and Wagner Theatricalz

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Lily Tomlin loves to perform. So much so that "ever since I found out I could sell a ticket" she's been on the road, she told me recently prior to taking to the stage in her latest vehicle "Classic Lily."

And while the title "Classic Lily" reflects the presence in the show of such luminaries as everyone's favorite obnoxious operator "Ernestine" to the wise-beyond-her-years six-year-old Edith Ann ("and that's the truth, thhhh!) there can be no doubt that the woman behind them is a true class act.

For over four decades she has been an out, strong female comic in an industry dominated by men and has been one of the few that has remained rated "G" in the sometimes very blue areas of stand up.

"Stage is what I do, and I fancy that I do it best, and I enjoy it most," she said, which speaks volumes given the diversity of her body of work, a career that started most visibly on television in 1969 as part of the cast of "Laugh In."

A trademark of "Laugh In" was addressing political issues, particularly the war in Vietnam, and that wasn't lost on Tomlin.

"I was completely and totally against the war in Vietnam," she stated. "And I was very rigid at the time. I have since rethought that. Back then, I wouldn't do things like get my picture taken with John Wayne and then I snubbed poor old Martha Mitchell on the show. Years later I read she was hurt by that and I thought, 'What would it have hurt to have chatted up Martha, maybe I could have saved her from political abduction by the Nixon clan,'" she chuckled.

Of course the specter of Vietnam has been raised over the last seven years as former President Bush waged what many saw as an illegal occupation in Iraq and the similarity wasn't lost on Tomlin.

"I was as stringent as my opposition to Iraq," she quickly added, "but not as rigid with its supporters. Humans are too infallible to be perfect. The war is still such a major factor in our country and I fear we don't know what the outcome of Afghanistan will be, we can't stay there forever. These problems have not gone away."

It was during the "Laugh In" days that Tomlin met her longtime partner (writing and personal) Jane Wagner. That relationship has brought forth many creative endeavors including the award-winning "The Search For Intelligent Life In the Universe" stage and screen extravaganza.

In the early days of her career her relationship wasn't a focus of media attention.
"If you were going to be out front in those days, you would be pretty much alone," she recalled. "It's not that anything was hidden, but I actually would get more flack for being a woman that didn't have or seem to want children than anything else," she added.
"I would get asked all the time by people who knew better," she said. "I remember when Carson asked me if I wanted to have children and I turned to him and said 'Johnny, who has custody of yours!'"

While it may be an entirely new world for gays and lesbians in the entertainment industry in terms of visibility, many things haven't changed that much. Opposition to same sex couples is still visible in national politics, including the controversial and oppressive Proposition 8 in California, spearheaded by Rev. Rick Warren. Warren's church is just minutes from the Orange County Center for the Performing Arts where Tomlin will be in March.

"Proposition 8 is just plain wrong and needs to be changed, there's no doubt about that," she stated unequivocally. "However, Rick Warren doesn't scare me. Him giving the invocation at the Inauguration was like my Uncle doing it. I come from a very big Southern Baptist household and I have dealt with this my entire life. Rise above it, move on," she stated.
However, she is quick to defend Warren's right to say what he wishes.

"Rick, just go ahead and say what you want to say. I think Melissa (Etheridge) got in to trouble because she defended Warren's speech. Speech is free, still, for the most part, let him blather away. But we should have the strength not to be cowed by any of that, we're stronger," she concluded.

If Tomlin seems unafraid, it's a attitude that also permeates her work and career choices. She can go from stage comedy to big screen madness ("9 to 5" comes to mind), from being a member of a tea klatch that sips with Mussolini and smuggles Jews to safety to an ensemble of staff that served a seated President on "The West Wing."

That show was a civic lesson to many and had a serious sense of authenticity; in fact, at times Martin Sheen's President Bartlett had a higher approval rating than the then seated President George W. Bush. The gravity of the show as well as the spirit of it was felt by Tomlin during her time on set.

"It was wonderful to be on a show that was about something, with such great cast and crew," she recalled fondly.

"When I was standing in the Oval Office, at Bartlett's desk, in some ways, he was the President. The transition from Bartlett to the Santos regime was actually sorrowful. I got protective and felt like the next woman taking my job wouldn't be good enough at it!" she added.

And while working in Hollywood's version of the White House the goings-on of the show's real-life counterparts were not lost on Tomlin. When asked about how to move forward as a country from the last eight years, she took pause.

"If we are going to clean things up in the eyes of the nation and world then we have to prosecute or investigate these people, Bush on down, for any possible crimes," she concluded.

Meanwhile, it's back to being funny. Will she ever slow down?

"I don't know what I'm going to do," she laughed. "I feel like I'm 30, with still so much that I want to do... I've always done 40 or 50 dates a year, or as many as I can squeeze in between other things. I don't see that stopping anytime soon."

Good because in the world of entertainment Tomlin remains classic.

For more on Lily Tomlin go to http://www.Lilytomlin.com .