Lily Tomlin is probably best known for her sketch comedy characters Ernestine, the chronically unhelpful phone operator; Edith Ann, the smugly precocious 6-year-old; the nut-job philosopher that is Trudy the Bag Lady. On Saturday night in the University at Buffalo's Center For the Arts, Tomlin gave a benefit performance for Beechwood Continuing Care that let us spend time with all of them, and several more. But by far, the most ingratiating, insightful and entertaining persona of the evening was the artist herself.
Taking the stage after a brief video retrospective, the 73-year-old comedian, movie star and Broadway performer made it immediately clear that this wasn't going to be your typical speaking engagement from a celebrity who's eligible for Medicare. Gallivanting around the stage in a loose-fitting black jumpsuit, she gave an ambitious, theatrical, physical performance, mixing war horse one-liners with extended spoken-word pieces about her childhood, one-act plays complete with sound effects, and brief cameos from the beloved characters that made her famous on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In."
Tomlin warmed up what seemed to be a full house with an opening barrage of lighthearted observations, from the logical quandary raised by fat-free half-and-half to bits about social media and the Secret Service prostitution scandal. While only a portion of these jokes landed, it barely mattered -- the performer's charisma always shone through, punctuated by the kind of deep, expressive smiles that inspire people to put faith in strangers.
A Trudy the Bag Lady sketch came next, including nifty nihilist mantras like, "Reality is nothing more than a collective hunch." Then we got a visit from Judith Beasley, the chilly Southern belle of an ad spokesperson who loves to remind you that she's "not an actress, I'm a real person like yourself."
All of this material went over like gangbusters, but it mostly succeeded on the strength of Tomlin's energy and timing. When she left the more theatrical stuff behind and just started telling stories, this became the kind of performance you could lose yourself in. Particularly engrossing was Tomlin's story about her second-grade teacher, Miss Sweeney (no relation), in which she described being in the throes of a childhood crush so beautifully, you felt like you were right there with her.
"I could always make her laugh when I wanted to," she said. "And I almost always wanted to."
At the story's peak, Miss Sweeney has to leave the classroom, and Tomlin finds herself wandering up to the blackboard and drawing a hula girl that makes all of her classmates laugh. But before we could reflect on the possibility that this was the moment when Tomlin found her calling, she shared that the drawing upset her teacher, who gave her a scolding that inspired feverish fantasies about stepping in front of a bus and making the world mourn her tragic death. This wasn't necessarily comedy, or drama, or stand-up, or performance art. It was an artfully crafted nostalgia trip from a person you know you like from the start, even if you can't precisely explain why.
Saturday evening in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, North Campus, Amherst.