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December 22, 2014

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Lily Tomlin, Leonard Cohen coming to Vegas

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If You Go

  • What: Lily Tomlin: “Not Playing With a Full Deck”
  • Where: Hollywood Theatre at MGM Grand
  • When: 8 p.m. tonight-Friday, 9:30 p.m. Saturday, 8 p.m. Nov. 15-1
  • Admission: $58.50-$80.50; 891-7800, mgmgrand.com

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Beyond the Sun

Who ever thought we’d see the day that brilliant comic actress Lily Tomlin, 70, and iconic singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, 75, would deign to perform in Las Vegas?

Both artists have long been above the commercial fray that brings lesser lights to the casino showrooms.

Well, that day has come and this week — at last — both are finally playing Vegas. And they’re doing it for the money.

Cohen, who makes his Strip stop Thursday at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, began his current wildly successful world tour after discovering that a former manager allegedly had mismanaged his life savings. (More on Cohen in tomorrow’s Las Vegas Sun.)

And tonight Tomlin begins her nine-day run at the Hollywood Theatre at the MGM Grand. “Years ago,” she says, “whenever everyone went to Vegas to make big money, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

The irony of the situation is not lost on Tomlin, who years ago made fun of the very idea of an artist of her caliber selling out and “going Vegas” in a TV special called “Lily: Sold Out.”

In that TV special, Tomlin is lured to bring her highbrow, pretentious, one-woman off-Broadway show to Vegas. After taking the paycheck, she finds herself being pressured to corrupt her act and make it “more commercial” — which in Vegas means singing “Born Free,” being shot out of a cannon and being dunked in a tank of water.

That 1981 special gave rise to one of Tomlin’s more vivid character creations, the louche, lizardly lounge crooner Tommy Velour, who, as many have noted, just may have been inspired by Wayne Newton.

“I might do a little bit with Tommy,” says Tomlin, speaking from a car on her way to a production meeting for her Vegas performance. “If this goes well and I come back to Vegas again, I think I’ll open for myself as Tommy.

“You’re asking, ‘why Vegas and why now?’ Well, it’s just another great place to play. And I get to play there for nine days and I can try out stuff and have more production and little surprises and stuff that I can’t necessarily have on a one-nighter.”

She says the new show, called “Not Playing With a Full Deck,” is “not unlike” her Tony Award-winning 1985 Broadway hit “The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” in that she’ll do monologues and classic characters. The intellectually and technically complex “Search” called for more than 600 sound and light cues.

“But (‘Full Deck’ is) much more freewheeling and more intimate and playful with the audience. It’s not like there’s a fourth wall or I’m doing a big theater piece, where if you violate the fourth wall they take your Equity card,” she says with a chuckle.

As always, Tomlin worked on the show with her longtime writing and life partner, Jane Wagner, who will be here for the performances.

“She loves Las Vegas!” Tomlin says, adding that she hopes to catch up with friends Cher and Bette Midler (Tomlin’s co-star in “Big Business”) while she’s in town.

“I’ll probably do eight or 10 characters,” Tomlin continues. “I’ll certainly do Ernestine and Edith.”

Tomlin says her characters, many of which were developed in the late ’60s on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in,” have grown and changed along with their creator. The tart, power-mad Ernestine, for instance, left the telephone switchboard and works for a health insurance corporation now.

“No, really! She had lots of different jobs,” Tomlin says, laughing. “She’s not gonna stick around the phone company after the divestiture. There’s no power. She’s gotta have a job where she can intimidate people.”

In 2003 Tomlin was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which has gone to such prestigious comedians as George Carlin, Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg, Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor.

When “Laugh-In” went off the air Tomlin moved on to the stage and screen, making movies with director Robert Altman (she received an Oscar nomination for her role in “Nashville”) and popping up on “The West Wing” and “Desperate Housewives.”

Later in the day of the interview Tomlin is due in New York to film a segment of “Damages.” Tomlin is one of the few actresses you can imagine going steely eye to steely eye with Glenn Close.

“I can’t tell you very much,” Tomlin says in a comical confidential hush, “but I play the matriarch of a very, very powerful New York family who would like to destroy Patty Hughes (Close). And she’d like to destroy them.” Tomlin admits to trying to make Close crack up on the set, “horsing around” with co-star Martin Short, doing takes as Ernestine and Ed Grimley.

You can catch up with Tomlin’s current train of thought via her active blog on wowOwow.com (“The Women on the Web”), which also features musings by Wagner, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Miss Manners and other prominent creative women.

And there’s always another show to do.

“I’m supposedly supposed to be winding down and stepping into the twilight,” Tomlin says.

“But I can’t do that. It’s not my style yet. Probably since I was 10 years old, I’ve had an act. As soon as I got well known on ‘Laugh-In,’ and Ernestine became such a monster character, I’ve always been able to go out, and I’ve never stopped doing dates.”

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