As a little girl in Detroit in the 1940s, she remembers, "Other kids would play 'office' or 'doctor.' But I played 'theater.' And I'd never even been to the theater. But I took ballet and tap dance -- we were working-class, you know -- from the Parks and Rec Department.
"My ballet teacher was pretty devoted." she says. "Mrs. Fitzsimmons. I idolized her. When I was a child, she was probably about 40. She didn't have any children. She was married to an attorney.
"So many years later, I'm on The Mike Douglas Show, and they've gathered all these people from my life to surprise me. Well, she was about 95 by then, and I don't want to sound ageist or anything, because I'm getting closer to that myself now [Tomlin is 68]. So Mike introduces her, and I'm so excited because I'm expecting to see this 40-year-old woman. But she's wearing this wig-hat that's just sitting on top of her head, and house shoes, and she has this little-old-lady Tim Conway walk. She sat between us -- she was very small -- and we're talking to each other over the top of her head.
"And Mike asks her, 'Did Lily as a tap dancer have any talent?'
"'Oh, my goodness, no,' she says, without even looking up.
"And then she said the most startling thing. When her husband died, she said, 'He called me into his deathbed room, and he told me that he was to be buried in Sheboygan and not in Detroit.' And she didn't make any eye contact.
And then for just one instant, she looked up and said, 'You know, the colored.'
Tomlin pauses, sighs. "But you know, she was such an elegant woman otherwise. I learned a lot from her."
That's a story full of closely observed details that suddenly veers from funny to sad. Tomlin finds the humanity in it, but it also has a political edge. A bit of anger and disappointment.
That same mix -- anger that we haven't achieved more, compassion for those who are still trying -- runs through several of Tomlin's roles. In Robert Altman's Nashville, her reward for being a hard-working mother is the hint of adulterous affair with Keith Carradine (and his serenade of "I'm Easy"). In Nine to Five -- angry at being passed over for promotion -- she teams up with Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton. She was the dying millionaire whose body gets half-taken over by Steve Martin in All of Me. She played the title character's boss in both Murphy Brown and Will & amp; Grace. With Meryl Streep, she improvised her way through the country songs in A Prairie Home Companion -- and then did it again when she and Streep presented Altman with his lifetime achievement Oscar in 2006. She spent four seasons as Martin Sheen's Oval Office secretary on The West Wing. And she'll be at the Fox next Thursday night.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & omlin is a lefty and a lesbian -- right there, with some folks, that gives her higher negative ratings than Hillary Clinton. When I suggest that many conservatives would dismiss the idea of attending one of her shows, Tomlin responds, characteristically, with an anecdote.
"I was at this high-end dinner in Dallas a couple of years ago," she says. "And I was seated next to this man -- he'd be well-known in the financial world. And I didn't go into politics, given the social setting. He was sort of aloof, an older man -- but there comes a point in their lives when they've gotten a bit more playful, you know? Well, you could tell he didn't want to be there. And so we're talking, and finally he comes out with 'You're just a Hollywood liberal and you've been brainwashed.'
"And I remained calm and said something like, 'I'm willing to listen. Tell me what you mean and maybe you can convert me.'
"So he started warming up, and he bragged to me that he was absolutely in at the launching of the Swift Boat campaign [against John Kerry]. Now, I didn't get angry or start to hate him, or throw a drink at him or anything like that.
"And his wife and others noticed that he was laughing so much -- probably at me -- and that he was enjoying himself. And this was uncharacteristic of him. They'd never seen him enjoying himself so much.
"But I asked him, 'Don't you think our purpose in being here is to make life a little bit better for just a few people?"
"And he says, loudly, 'No! Let the free market take care of them.'
"Well, his wife invited us back to their place. But I don't think I'll be going back there."
Sure, the man may have been drunk. And you get the sense that Tomlin -- who's coming to Spokane as a benefit for Planned Parenthood, after all -- may be a little self-serving in the way she depicts her exchange with someone whose political views she disagrees with. (As do all of us, from time to time.)
And yet in past interviews, Tomlin has decried such things as how overtly sexualized and youth-obsessed our society has become, how non-judgmental at all costs. Sounds fairly conservative. She's passionately political, but her comedy might provide a bridge between conservatives and liberals.
"You know, you speak of 'left' and 'right.' but it's really a matter of evolution,' she says. "Not in the sense of evolving to the correct political beliefs, but that people have to develop a higher level of empathy. It's not the ideology they live by that matters," she says. "It's how empathetic they are."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & t the end of The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe -- her multi-character one-woman play and movie, written by Tomlin's romantic and professional partner, Jane Wagner -- Trudy the bag lady invites a group of space aliens into a theater. And they get goosebumps -- not from watching the play, but from watching the audience. "To see a group of strangers sitting together in the dark, laughing and crying about the same things ... that just knocked 'em out," Trudy says. "And maybe one day we'll do something so magnificent, everyone in the universe will get goosebumps."
There's some things going on right now that might give us all goosebumps -- the music and art we're creating, any number of medical advances, a woman and a black man running for president, the possibility of global cooperation in fighting climate change.
"When we were out on the road with Search, early on," Tomlin says, "one of the early reviewers said that, 'At the end, we standing and applauding our higher selves.'"
Lily Tomlin says that she'll "work in some Spokane references" during her show. Her stories will be topical, then, but funny and compassionate and sad, too. They'll point out what we haven't yet done, and what we might yet do.
"An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin" comedy routines on Thursday, June 5, at 8 pm. Tickets: $60-$80; $150, with reception. The Fox, Sprague and Monroe St. Visit www.martinwoldsontheater.com or call 325-SEAT.