GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Comedian Lily Tomlin made her TV debut more than 40 years ago on a show that also featured James Brown, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and a Beatles music video.
No, that show wasn’t "Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In."
It was called "Music Scene" on ABC-TV, and it went head-to-head with the rapid-fire, sketch comedy show on NBC-TV that launched the careers of Goldie Hawn, Arte, Johnson, Ruth Buzzi and more.
The LaughFest 2014 headliner had a bid to join "Laugh-In" from the start. But she signed on instead to the cast of the contemporary, Billboard, hit-parade-style music show.
"We had concerts with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Johnson," Tomlin recalled. "We’d do comedy and introduce the songs."
Five of six co-hosts, including Tomlin, lasted six episodes. A sixth host hung on for 14 before it was cancelled. That was the flying, fickle finger of fate for you.
"I took ‘Music Scene’ because I thought it was hipper," Tomlin recalled. "Of course, ‘Laugh-in’ was my big break."
The comedy show hosted by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin gave Tomlin her start, though many fans don’t remember she didn’t join the cast in "beautiful, downtown Burbank," until its third season in 1970.
"The other kids were already big stars," she recalled.
Tomlin, 73, was born and raised in Detroit, but her 50-plus year career in show business, spanning Hollywood films such as "9 to 5," Broadway shows including "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," and TV shows including "The West Wing" and "Murphy Brown" has never before brought her to Grand Rapids.
The comedian who famously quipped, "Instead of working for the survival of the fittest, we should be working for the survival of the wittiest – then we can all die laughing," makes her debut at LaughFest, created by Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids to promote laughter for the health of it is.
Gilda Radner, another Motor City native, and an original cast member of "Saturday Night Live," who died of ovarian cancer in 1989, was the inspiration for Gilda’s Clubs, founded in 1991 to help people and families facing cancer.
"I knew Gilda. I did ‘Saturday Night Live’ a few times, and she’s from Detroit as well," Tomlin said. "I thought she was darling."
The Tony, Emmy and Grammy Award-winner appears Monday in DeVos Performance Hall in a performance co-sponsored by Broadway Grand Rapids.
"An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin" features Tomlin as well as her classic characters including Edith Ann, the precocious 5-year-old philosopher, and Ernestine the obnoxious telephone operator among others, both on stage and on video.
The 2003 winner of the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor doesn’t do standup comedy in the usual sense.
"It’s my version of standup," she said. "I do characters."
"It has a different sensibility because I’m not doing one joke after another," she added. "If I start a monologue, it carries for the duration."
Tomlin’s characters have endured but also have evolved over time. The snooty Ernestine no longer counts "ringy dingies" for Ma Bell.
"During the Bush administration – the George W. Bush administration – she had a webcast chat show– still in a communications mode," Tomlin said. "She could call Bush and say, ‘You don’t have to be afraid of John Kerry. He only served in a war. You started one."
Today, Ernestine has even bigger fish to fry.
"Ernestine works for a big, corporate, health-care insurance company," Tomlin said. "Just as long as Ernestine is in the power seat doesn’t have to be courteous."
Edith Ann, on the other hand, hasn’t aged a day, though her musings have moved on into the world of social media, still ending with "And that’s the truth," followed with a raspberry.
"She’s a 5- or 6-year old kid living in a modern culture," Tomlin said. "But she’s still 5 or 6."
Tomlin starred opposite John Travolta in the 1978 film "Moment by Moment," written and directed by Jane Wagner, who collaborated with Tomlin to develop her Edith Ann character and who worked with Tomlin on one of her first comedy albums.
On New Year’s Eve, Tomlin and Wagner were married after a 42-year-long relationship.
Tomlin’s movie appearances include playing Vivian in the 2004 film, "I Heart Huckabees," and as Linnea Reese in Robert Altman’s 1975 film "Nashville," and she was the voice of Ms. Frizzle on "The Magic School Bus" from 1994 to 1997.
Her classic characters from her "Laugh-In" days have endured.
"I can’t speak to why Ernest has been so popular," Tomlin said.
"Usually when I created a character, it was a metaphor that was universal and related to the society," she said. "I went there because they were interesting to me."
Here’s Ernestine the Telephone Operator at work.