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Most legendary American comedians can’t claim the toddler set among their most strident fans, but back in the late 1960s, when Lily Tomlin was on the road performing stand-up at venues across America, she would make sure to schedule two shows — one at night for the adults, and one in the afternoon for their children.

“If I did a show in a nightclub, they’d open the club in the afternoon and I’d have a show where kids would come with their mothers,” says Tomlin, who earned her showbiz sea legs as a cast member, first on ABC’s short-lived “Music Scene” and then on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” in which the iconic characters she created — Ernestine was a telephone operator with a signature chortle; Edith Ann was a precocious 5½-half-year-old in an oversized rocking chair who’d make appearances on “Sesame Street”— proved a gigantic hit among audiences of all ages.

“I really had fun with those little kids,” says Tomlin, who is receiving the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award on Jan. 29 at the Shrine Auditorium. “I felt so badly that I had a show and kids couldn’t really come that easily — so now they had a show to come to. I was playing up in Buffalo one year and when the show was going to finish a young couple came to the show, probably in their 20s, and they had this little girl, a toddler, and she used to watch ‘Laugh-In’ with her grandmother. And the little girl would go around the house toddling around and going [snorting]. [The parents] thought there was something wrong with the kids. Those characters I did in those days were so visual — they just imprinted on the kids. And I really loved and appreciated that perspective.”

Tomlin was in her late 30s when she made her big-screen debut in Robert Altman’s 1975 comedic drama “Nashville,” which earned her an Academy Award nomination for  supporting actress. She famously attended the Oscars with Altman and agent Sam Cohn dressed up as a 1950s movie star, with a fur stole and twinkling tiara. She’s since won six primetime Emmy Awards, and has been nominated 23 times, including two for her role as Frankie, an “offbeat” hippie artist on the Netflix comedy “Grace and Frankie.”

And in 1986, Tomlin won the Tony for lead actress in a play for her one-woman show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” penned by Jane Wagner, Tomlin’s longtime partner and wife.

“I didn’t necessarily think of myself as a comedian — I thought of myself as a performer.”
LILY TOMLIN

It’s hard to even imagine America’s canon of great comic cinema without Tomlin, whether she’s fighting for women’s rights in the workplace (“9 to 5”), satirizing Hollywood in the “The Player,” or playing the cantankerous titular character in Paul Weitz’s 2015 comedy “Grandma,” for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe, proving once again that Tomlin’s quirky brand of comedy knows no expiration date.

“So many kids loved that movie,” says Tomlin of “9 to 5.” “It has such a broad-based appeal. It just blows my mind that kids go and they so very much enjoy something.”

But there was a time when Tomlin, born and raised in “hardcore Detroit,” was just a fledgling comic angling to hold onto her gig on “Laugh-In.”

“I didn’t necessarily think of myself as a comedian — I thought of myself as a performer,” says Tomlin of those nascent years in the business.

“When I first started at ‘Laugh-In,’ that was the middle of the third season and they were already rather big stars — Arte [Johnson], Alan [Sues] — they had a big cachet, being on that show. That show was such a top hit, it just created such a furor. So when I came in in the middle of the third season I didn’t even know if I would last — I just wanted someone to eat lunch with. I had no idea that Ernestine was going to hit the way she did.”

Ernestine, like so many of Tomlin’s stage personae, was popular because she was based on true-life experiences carefully cultivated by Tomlin, who spent her childhood studying and imitating the people and places around her. And while the kind of comedy Tomlin did back in the late ’60s and ’70s would likely not be considered politically correct in today’s world — Pervis Hawkins was a fictional black R&B soul singer — they were rich and nuanced and joyful. It’s obvious to anyone that’s seen her perform that Tomlin had great love and affection for these characters she created.

“I grew up in a black neighborhood, my neighborhood was essentially the ghetto,” says Tomlin. “When I was a little girl, 5 or 6, the really hardcore black ghetto was around Hastings Street, and my dad and I would go around there every weekend and he would get live catfish, and my mother would cook it. By the time I was 10 years old my neighborhood was mostly black, and that imprinted [on] me a lot, and I did black characters. But my mother and dad were both from Kentucky, and every summer my mom and I and my brother would go to Kentucky so she could visit, and so I was in the middle of these two radically different cultures. The South was very much segregated and I would see what went on there and I would just be appalled because I knew it wasn’t right — and I would compare it with Detroit.

“But I was crazy about my Southern relatives, too — their Southern accent and all that stuff was easy for me, just as the black culture and the black accent was. The old apartment house where I grew up, it was so important to my development, because every apartment had a different kind of person in it — totally educated people, totally uneducated, radical, conservative, just everything you can think of. And so all those people, it was a big deluge of humanity just pouring in on me, and I couldn’t help but imitate it and think about it and relate to it — it meant everything.”

Next up for Tomlin is season three of “Grace and Frankie,” which premieres in May. She’s also producing the Victoria-era drama “Fingersmith,” which bowed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year and is being eyed for Broadway, and developing a film based on the Beebo Brinker lesbian pulp novels of the 1950s.

But mostly, the ever-so-humble Tomlin is hoping that Wagner will write another play again.

“People always give me credit for so many things that I really should not be credited for, especially where Jane is concerned,” says Tomlin. “I want Jane to write another stage play so badly. I don’t care what she wants to do with it, so long as she does it. And then I would help her produce it.”

Tipsheet
What: 23rd annual SAG Awards
When: 5 p.m. PST Jan. 29
Where: Shrine Auditorium
Web: sagawards.org