Late Night Last Century: Lily Tomlin Introduces Letterman to Lounge Lizard Tommy Velour

Comedy Features Lily Tomlin
Late Night Last Century: Lily Tomlin Introduces Letterman to Lounge Lizard Tommy Velour

Late Night Last Century is a weekly column highlighting some of the funniest and most unforgettable comedy from late night, talk shows, and variety shows of the 20th century that’s currently streaming on YouTube. This week we look at a clip of Lily Tomlin on Late Night with David Letterman, in which she appears as both herself and her character, lounge lizard Tommy Velour. 

It is difficult to describe Lily Tomlin’s life and work without the usual cliches—pioneering, daring, hilarious—but that doesn’t make them any less true. That she voiced Ms. Frizzle on The Magic School Bus would be enough to deserve this praise. Yet in every decade since the 1960s, she has innovated and entertained audiences in ways that unquestionably make her one of the greatest entertainers of the last 100 years.  

Tomlin first began appearing on television in the 1960s. In 1969, she joined the ensemble of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which debuted on NBC the previous year. She became famous for playing a cast of characters, often with no more than a prop or two. There was Edith Ann, a five-year-old girl who would reflect on life from a massive rocking chair. And the telephone operator Ernestine, whose devastating responses with nameless and famous customers led to the 1971 album, This Is a Recording. She became the first woman to win the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Recording for a solo performance. Elaine May was the first woman to win the award, sharing the honor with Mike Nichols for their 1960 album, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May. 

In the 1970s, Tomlin became a movie star. She received Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for her work in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1976). The following year, she became the first woman to star solo in a Broadway show with Appearing Nitely. She co-wrote the show with her longtime collaborator and partner, now-wife, Jane Wagner. On March 28, 1977, Tomlin appeared on the cover of TIME magazine under the headline, “New Queen of Comedy.” 

The 1980s brought more film classics, including Tomlin’s work with Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton in 9 to 5 (1980), and starring with Steve Martin in Carl Reiner’s All of Me (1984). It is this period of Tomlin’s career that includes a classic appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, then only three months into its run on NBC. 

On May 19, 1982, Tomlin walked out on stage as Tommy Velour, a Las Vegas lounge lizard who embodies the vibe of post-Rat-Pack Las Vegas. Velour embodies a kind of coolness and manliness that feels hilariously dated. What is so special about this appearance is that Tomlin, after crushing as Velour, returns back on stage to be interviewed as herself. While male performers had long appeared in drag, Tomlin’s work as Velour was uncommon enough for Letterman to ask, “Did you ever at any point along the way, not with just Tommy, get any resistance for being a female doing male characters?” Tomlin describes developing the character as part of her Broadway show. “No one said anything about it,” Tomlin says with a smile. “And I did it well.” Watch for yourself below.

Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic and researcher, who first contributed to Paste in 2022. He is an assistant editor at Cineaste, a GALECA member, and since 2019 has hosted The Video Essay Podcast. You can follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter and learn more about him via his website.

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