Friday, March 04, 2005

Grant Salutes Lily Tomlin for Women's History Month

Grant: Lily Tomlin is one of the funniest people doing comedy today. If the networks knew what was what, they would have built a sitcom or variety series around her long ago.

Tomlin broke through on Laugh In with characters like Edith Ann and Ernestine. She went on to record hilarious comedy albums and do some outstanding comedy specials. Every now and then a network would offer up a special often intended as a pilot. But no series was forthcoming.

When she finally did turn up on network TV in a sitcom, it was only years after she'd been Oscar nominated (Nashville) and delivered knock out performances in films like Nine to Five and All of Me. Well after in fact. 1996 to be precise. That's when she began playing the role of Kay Carter-Sheply on Murphy Brown. In 1998, Murphy Brown ended it's run and Tomlin didn't show up again until 2002 on the drama West Wing.

Tomlin's "not funny." That was said at a lot in 2002 to me when Comedy Central was highlighting some comedians. Or "she's funny for an actress." (Whoopi Goldberg was also judged to be an actress and not a comedian.) Makes you wonder what it is that people see as funny in a woman?

If Tomlin were bitchy a la Joan Rivers, would that let them see how funny she is? If she was doing an entire routine about her looks or weight, would that demonstrate that she was funny?

Pressing the "judges" I worked with delivered the following insight, "Well she's so observational." Huh? Like Jerry Seinfeld or Bob Newhart? "Oh those are comedians!"

It's an interesting world she's had to navigate. Put her onstage or in front of a camera and the laughs are pretty much guaranteed. But she's "not funny."

Before Tomlin, a woman pretty much had to degrade herself to find mainstream acclaim as a comedian. She had to be the wife no one wanted or the slob who couldn't pull it together or the ultimate bitch.

Tomlin rejected those traditional roles and did something far more challenging and far more edgy. Instead of making fat jokes about celebs or doing bad imitations, she chose to base her characters and humor on what she observed. And not what she observed going on at a soundstage, but what she saw in life.

She carved out a space for other women who would come later. And it's funny because I'm old enough to remember when Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor were both considered the funniest comedians in the country. But today, Pryor's still considered a comedian and some don't consider Tomlin to be one.

She challenges some people's ideas of what a woman can do and what a woman can say. And that seems to scare some people.

With her partner Jane Wagner, she's built a foundation that demonstrates women can be funny without resorting to a male imposed stereotype. And even the nay sayers have to admit she's built a career like no female stand up comedian before her.

She's brought dignity and compassion to the stage and maybe in a world of a dick jokes and take my wife please jokes that's just too upsetting. If it is, I say keep upsetting them Lily Tomlin because you're altering their perception and our world for the better.