February 27, 2014 at 1:00 am

Lily Tomlin talks Detroit upbringing ahead of LaughFest

Ernestine is one of Lily Tomlin's most famous and popular characters. (Detroit News Photo Archive)

Comedy pioneer Lily Tomlin will perform in Grand Rapids for the first time as part of Gilda’s LaughFest. The Detroit native got her start on the television show “Laugh-in” in the late 1960s and has won accolades in the realms of TV, film and Broadway.

She spoke with The Detroit News earlier this month about her influences, including her years living in Detroit and Highland Park.

Are you on tour now, or are you just coming to Michigan to perform at LaughFest?

I tour on and off all the time. People say, “When did this tour start?” and I say it started many decades ago on the back porch of my old apartment house. I just never stop.

I always had an act from the time I was 10 years old. I didn’t know it was an act (back then). I think I’m the world’s first performance artist. I’d do everything. I’d tap dance, I’d do ballet, then I did a lot of magic tricks. I would imitate my dad coming home from the bar at night. I’d see people behaving and carrying on. Things like that I thought were really just fun or interesting. That was my very eclectic taste for performance. I’m still like that. I haven’t changed, and Detroit was my agar plate. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

So growing up in Detroit help shaped you as a performer?

Where I lived ... it was a very rough neighborhood. It was predominately black; I could never have imagined that I would meet people in the future who had never even known a black person. It was stunning. It blew my mind. I felt completely at home in the Jewish culture, the black culture, the southern culture, the inner city, the white working class. When something lives in your body and in your soul, you don’t hesitate to reflect on it.

When did you leave the area?

I went to New York to stay in probably 1966. I left because I got into a college show (at Wayne State University), and I was such a big hit, I thought, “Gee, I wish I could do this for a living.” I put on shows all my life as a kid in the old apartment house where I grew up. I lived right across the street from Cobb Field. I took ballet and tap, and in the summer when we were on the playground, my whole life centered around Cobb Field and Mrs. Fitzgerald, who was the ballet teacher there.

What is your act like now?

It’s more like a one-woman show, but more relaxed, more intimate than if were doing a theater piece. It’s more playful. I will do a lot of characters, and I will also use video to interact with and make fun of myself and enlarge the character.

You’re performing at Gilda’s LaughFest, which raises funds for Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids. Did you know Gilda Radner well?

Of course I knew her from “Saturday Night Live.” I worked on “SNL” many times — and I knew Gilda and was very saddened when we lost her because she was still so young — and no telling what she would do.

Who are some of the up-and-coming comedians you think are entertaining or interesting?

I saw a young woman for the first time a month ago; her name was Julia Goodman, and I thought she was pretty inspired. I love that girl Kate McKinnon, who did (Justin) Bieber recently on “Saturday Night Live.” Her Bieber was divine, and very different from her.

Are you still in touch with family or friends in Metro Detroit?

I’ve been in touch with people who are working and really there in the trenches working on Detroit and trying to create attractions and improvements. My friend Allee Willis, she’s a musician, and she wrote this song “The D.” She went around and filmed dozens and dozens of locations in inner city Detroit to create a documentary about all this. We both love Detroit. That was our city.

Before our interview is over, Tomlin adds a story about trying to revisit a house she used to live in in Highland Park after she left the area and went on to become famous.

I go up on the porch and this nice woman opens the door, and I say, “Hi, I used to live here”; and she doesn’t know me from Adam, or if she does she doesn’t care. She steps out on the porch and shuts the screen door behind her. I talked to her for about 20 minutes, but she would not let me in! So, you can’t go back. Well, you can go back, but you just might not get in.

Melody Baetens

'I haven't changed, and Detroit was my agar plate,' Lily Tomlin says of ... (Matt Sayles / AP)