Lily Tomlin regrets not being able to save her childhood home in Detroit.
"My neighborhood was pretty much destroyed after the 1967 riots. I always kind of hoped that if I ever got famous, that apartment building might be saved because I grew up there," Tomlin, now 72, says. "But it was torn down."
The Tomlin family — headed by her father, Guy, a factory worker, and her mother, Lillie Mae, a nurse's aide — lived on the second floor of the building. It was there that she and her younger brother, Richard, began acting out to make each other laugh.
"We would take the hose from our mother's vacuum and lower it out the window. It was the same color as the building's walls. We would wait for one of the bullies in our school to walk by, and then we'd talk into the hose, saying stuff like 'Get out of here or we're going to kick your ass.' The kid couldn't see the hose, so he'd stand there and wonder where the voice was coming from while we were upstairs laughing our heads off."
It was that same type of mischief that later inspired one of her most famous characters, the precocious 5-year-old Edith Ann on the wildly popular, late-'60s TV comedy Laugh-In. Another character, the Tasteful Lady, was a creation from Tomlin's days as a student at Wayne State University.
"I was in a variety revue and I offered to be this character, a parody of all of the rich society matrons I had observed in Grosse Pointe," she says. "It was a huge success, and suddenly, I was performing it all over. That gave me the courage to drop out of college and move to New York to go into show business."
After stints as a waitress, Tomlin began getting nightclub gigs as a stand-up comic. Instead of rattling off jokes like her contemporary Joan Rivers, Tomlin created characters — Judith Beasley, Susie Sorority and telephone operator Ernestine — who made wry observations about the world around them. They've all been part of Tomlin's stage persona for decades.
"I have such a great repertoire of characters, it's hard to add new ones, so I'm always adding new ideas instead," she says.
Tomlin and her band of personalities appear at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts Sunday. "Now tell me, so I don't get this wrong," she says, "when I come out onstage, am I in Kansas or Missouri?"
"Missouri," I tell her, warning her not to make the mistake that Bernadette Peters made at the Music Hall in the 1990s. She came out of the wings to rousing applause and enthusiastically announced, "Hello, Kansas!" The auditorium fell silent. Some even booed.
"Oh, God," Tomlin says, "I don't want to do that!"
Her Kansas City performance, she says, "will be a compilation of everything, from new material to bits from the characters that people really seem to love." She adds: "I'm using a lot of video in my shows now. It's very satirical stuff that mostly makes fun of me.
"My characters like to comment on current issues. Ernestine, for example, has had a lot of jobs since her days at AT&T. She's worked for United Health, done a few commercials for WebX. I've updated her look a bit with a snazzier wardrobe and updated hairstyle. Same lady, but she looks fabulous! She likes to be where she can get media attention, you know, to express her opinions on things. How about a broadcast from the Occupy Kansas City site?"
A brilliant idea, if it hasn't been torn down.