Overheard on the Road to Hollywood 2: Lily Tomlin and My First Open Mike

Spring, 1987

I saw a documentary called Lily, about the making of Lily Tomlin’s groundbreaking, one-woman Broadway play, Search for Signs of Intelligent Live in the Universe written by her longtime collaborator and life partner, Jane Wagner. I can’t find it on IMDB or Netflix, both of which list a TV special titled Lily from the early 70s but neither of which mentions a late 80s documentary of that name. I just facebooked Scott Dinger who owned The Dobie Theatre back in the day to find out if the doc had a different name. Update to come.

Aside: From 1992-1994 worked with one of the people responsible for launching Lily’s career. That crazy as catshit person wasted three years of my career I’ll never get back! More to come.

Around ten years prior to Lily, I was obsessed with the soundtrack of her first Broadway one-woman comedy, Lily Tomlin: Appearing Nightly. (“Would you please stop talking about that caaaaaaake!”) I do what I do today because of Appearing Nightly and Search for Signs.

Back up to seven years old. I memorized Bill Cosby’s “The Chicken Heart” routine from Wonderfulness and loved to perform it for my family and friends. I sucked at so much—school for instance—that I got my strokes from being funny. I do standup today because of Bill Cosby. Three-ish years later, Appearing Nightly launched my dream of creating a one-man show of my own. Ten years after that in 1987, Lily directly inspired the first incarnation of that dream.

Aside: In 2000 after the world hadn’t ended (we all know that will happen next year) I saw the Broadway revival of Search with my best friend Greg Walloch who’d just befriended Tomlin. A few weeks later, she came and saw Greg do selections from his White Disabled Talent and one of my earlier drafts of Senioritis at WestBeth Theatre, which went on to be the fourth act of Holy Cross Sucks!

I GOT A CHANCE TO TELL MY IDOL, THE MOTHER OF MY CAREER, THE LILY TOMLIN THAT I DO WHAT I DO TODAY BECAUSE OF HER!!!

Back to 1987, sexually liberated from the repressive chains of the Catholic Church, I left Lily, and went straight home to write a first draft of “Father O’Connor” in which a priest journeys from spouting the Church’s official stance on masturbation to a “Jacking off is a gift from God” rant after the third and final Onanist tells his story of sin and degradation.

“Father O’Connor” marked the first character driven comedy piece I ever wrote.

I usually performed him solo, but twice I did the sketch with my friend Mark Flores who just facebooked me saying he still has the VHS from an audition for a Kids in the Hall contest we did back in college 24 years ago. We didn’t win. Fucking Canuks!

Quite creaky from taking a 7 year hiatus from all things theatrical, my performance clunked along while Mark’s stole the show. I played the straight man Fr. O’Connor and he got to be 3 masturbators confessing their sins. Of course his performance beat the shit out of mine!

But it was back in July of 1987, that Father O’Connor and I made our virgin voyage on a Monday Open Mike Night at The Laff Stop (Now the Capitol City Comedy Club where open mike goes up Sundays). I packed the small cabaret room with coworkers from Birra Poretti’s on Riverside where The Austin Lyric Opera now stands. Now I know that many first time open mikers stack the room, receive lauds and ovations from familiars then exit the stage thinking they’re the new Robyn Williams (whom I soon went on to learn that most comics consider an unfunny thief of other comic’s material) only to go up next time in front of strangers and die that slow painful open mike death that separates the devoted from the dabbler.

With an audience full of shills, of course I was a smash hit smugly shaking the hand of each BP employee and everyone else as they filed out into the parking lot as if it were my show.

(OMG! The spell check just suggested I change “were” to “was” in the previous sentence! It’s called “the subjunctive tense” Microsoft!!!

(OMG2!!! Now there’s a green squiggly line under “’was’” above!!! When talking about a specific word, one puts said word in quotation marks, Bill Gates! Why don’t you bundle your software into your computers, kill all word processor competition and teach the world some incorrect English, ya heartless Philistine bastid!)

I performed Father O’Connor to tepid audiences in comedy clubs a handful of times including the following summer when the booker at The Comedy Workshop in Houston (RIP) told me not to do it anymore and to do standup.

The historical Comedy Workshop was the first comedy club in Texas and possibly in most of the states south of the Mason-Dixon Line. So long ago, Jimmy Walker headlined a few times. (Honky please!) The CW birthed the careers of the Texas Outlaw Comics, most notably Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison).

I wrote my first standup bits including some recovering alcoholic jokes—I was clean and sober 5.5 years in college before I took 12 years off from sobriety. (Clean and sober 6.5 years and 4 days from the date of this post). I also wrote some out gay comedy but audiences generally didn’t seem to take my outing seriously.

Today and a quarter century ago, many comics write punchlines in which they ended up at the receiving end of… something… gay, so back then audiences didn’t consider that such jokes could be serious statements. From the beginning of my standup career I did out or at least one foot in, one foot out of the closet standup.

Soon: “Possibly the first out gay comic playing mainstream clubs from the southern US.”

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  1. #1 by Niles on May 14, 2011 - 11:35 AM

    This is the Tomlin documentary you’re looking for.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091414/

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1987-06-19/entertainment/8702150751_1_agnus-angst-lily-tomlin-jane-wagner

    “Appearing Nitely” is a timeless gem, but don’t forget “Modern Scream.”
    Tomlin is playing Vegas June 18-19, part of her tireless touring.

    • #2 by therobnash on May 14, 2011 - 6:35 PM

      IT IS!!!

      • #3 by Rob Nash on May 14, 2011 - 7:26 PM

        And yes it was not a great doc but it was a great inspiration

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