To Lily Tomlin, getting her hand and footprints embedded outside the TCL Chinese Theatre is a joke — literally. Her 1982 television special “Lily for President?” kicked off with Tomlin in a limousine en route to sidewalk immortalization before a car accident re-routes her to instead run for higher office. In real life, Tomlin will receive the honor on April 22, as part of the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Film Festival, taking place this year April 21-24.
As for that TV special, spoiler alert: Tomlin wins the White House. In fact, it’s hard to think of an instance in which Tomlin hasn’t triumphed. Her first TV show, “Laugh-In,” made her a star. Her first album, “This Is a Recording,” won her a Grammy. Her first film, “Nashville,” landed her an Oscar nomination for supporting actress. Even when Tomlin was stuck serving clam rolls at a diner in Times Square, she awarded herself Waitress of the Week, and persuaded customers to applaud.
That the 82-year-old comedian is finally squishing her fingers into cement two years after her initial ceremony was postponed due to the pandemic, and four decades after she wrote it as a gag, is an honor not just well-earned, but seriously overdue.
Born Mary Jean Tomlin in Detroit — her stage name comes from her mother, Lillie Mae — the future star of “9 to 5” and “Grace and Frankie” grew up in a blue-collar apartment building crowded with characters of all ages and backgrounds.
“A soup of humanity,” Tomlin once said to a hometown newspaper. Her parents were too poor for a car or a television, so she had a part-time gig running errands after school (where she was captain of the cheerleading squad and voted most popular). Her neighbors would toss her a dime, but the real reward was getting to absorb other’s lives as they vented about everything from prices to politics. “I was so madly in love with people and how they behaved.”
These personality studies evolved into Tomlin’s ground-breaking style of humanist comedy. In an era girdled by hostile punchlines about women’s liberationists (“All so funny you just want to scream,” she once groaned), Tomlin distinguished herself by making audiences identify with her female characters who spoke up for themselves. That included chatterbox 5-year-old Edith Anne to brassy phone operator Ernestine. When a critic complained that one of her skits lacked drama, Tomlin replied to the New York Times: “That’s right, it’s a poem.” She also tested out calling her act “docu-comedy” and “sentire” — sentiment plus satire. But as her stature grew, her unique empathy simply became synonymous with Tomlin herself.
Tomlin, however, gives much of the credit to Jane Wagner, her writing partner and wife whom she met in 1971.
“In two minutes, I fell in love with her,” Tomlin told Variety. “She can express in words what I feel about the world, about humans, about the struggle that we’re in.” The two share a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Fame where, during her acceptance speech, Tomlin hailed her wife’s genius: “The brainy stuff really comes from her.”
The two created the Tony-award winning one-woman show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” in which Tomlin evoked 12 different characters with just a tilt of her shoulders.
On-screen, costumes and make-up allow her to disappear into her characters so thoroughly that they truly seem to become their own person.
“To me, they’re real people,” Tomlin insisted to the New York Times. So while fans visiting her marker in the Chinese Theatre forecourt will see only one set of footprints, Tomlin herself will see all of the folks who helped a girl from Detroit become a star.
WHAT: Lily Tomlin imprint ceremony
WHEN: 10:30 a.m. April 22
WHERE: TCL Chinese Theatre forecourt