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The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

4.28  ·  Rating Details ·  999 Ratings  ·  53 Reviews
Jane Wagner's masterpiece--The first play in more than 20 years to become a national bestseller--is now a motion picture!

In this satire, a form all too lacking in American theater, Trudy the bag lady, Wagner's central character, tries to explain modern American material society to an alien (i.e., interstellar) committee.
Paperback, 240 pages
Published February 27th 1991 by Harper Perennial (first published 1986)
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Hamlet by William ShakespeareMacbeth by William ShakespeareThe Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar WildeRomeo and Juliet by William ShakespeareThe Crucible by Arthur Miller
Best Play Ever
192nd out of 441 books — 396 voters
Hamlet by William ShakespeareMacbeth by William ShakespeareThe Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar WildeWaiting for Godot by Samuel BeckettRomeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Goodreads Top 100 Stage Plays of All Time
156th out of 335 books — 313 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Sep 14, 2014 Holden rated it really liked it
Shelves: plays
Excellent play. Allow me to gush over the closing paragraphs:

[Context: Trudy, a bag lady and narrator of the play, shows aliens around Earth (or that's what she thinks -- she may just be crazy). They have many goals. One is to define "art", which Trudy tries to illustrate by showing them a can of Cambell's Soup and then the famous painting. "Soup...Art...Soup...Art," she says, but the aliens don't understand. Then she tries to describe what it's like to be human, another goal of the aliens. She
Aug 23, 2007 Jill rated it really liked it
F-ing nuts.

"Here we are, standing on the corner of 'Walk, Don't Walk.' You look away from me, tryin' not to catch my eye, but you didn't turn fast enough, did you?"
Jan 28, 2011 Jessica rated it liked it
I read this because when you hear so many women pulling monologues from it (the same one really) you feel the need to read the actual play. I really wish I could have seen this show performed by Lily Tomlin. I think her as the actress would be a lot of what makes it, but I did like it. Considering when it was written and when it was on Broadway, it is no wonder it was the smash it was. I will say this however: actresses who pull that same Trudy monologue for auditions need to pick different ...more
Jul 16, 2015 J.M. rated it really liked it
Shelves: drama, borrowed, feminist
Pretty rich. Gleefully subversive.

I enjoyed this more than I expected, especially after skimming through and seeing all the photos of Lily Tomlin, which made it seem goofy as hell. It takes the starting-point acceptance of a lot of feminist principles for granted, which I liked. It's filled with witty one-liners, many of which have since circulated to the point of saturation, but it's also powered by wide-eyed curiosity about, and compassion for, the human animal. Only, foe all of its reveals a
Janet Gardner
Nov 19, 2013 Janet Gardner rated it really liked it
Shelves: plays
I've always enjoyed reading plays, which I know is a little unusual, and I also remember my friend Melanie praising this book when it was new, back in the eighties. Still, I didn't quite know what to expect from this it. (I guess it was made into a movie, but I never saw it and don't know if I will.) It's meant for one actress playing many characters, the lead role being Trudy, a certified crazy bag lady in New York who begins the play "standing at the corner of 'Walk, Don't Walk,' waiting for ...more
Aug 02, 2009 Kate rated it really liked it
A random used-book-store find-- it looked interesting, so I picked it up. I don't usually read plays, and honestly didn't expect to really get into this once I'd looked at it more carefully, so I was really pleasantly surprised. The writing is witty, every character is at least interesting, and the various stories snap along and come at least partially full-circle. There's a lot of open-endedness, true, but that's life, which is what this play is about. The themes are heavily feminist, of ...more
Malia Crowe
May 31, 2012 Malia Crowe rated it really liked it
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is a hysterical work of literature. Although it is performed by only one person, it is still written as though there are many people. As a book, it doesn't seem to be a one-woman show. There are so many things about our society that are simply made even more humorous in the play. It is supposed to be satire and comedy.Even reading it showed how it could be watching Lily Tomlin performing it live.
The themes clearly show a more feminist app
Angayla Maxwell
Apr 27, 2016 Angayla Maxwell rated it it was amazing
This is a review I would suggest you read if you are curious about interesting spiritual concepts that can be hidden in this beautiful cosmos. I am intrigued by both Lily Tomlinson and Jane Wagner, making the book even more enjoyable. I must say this opened my eyes to a new perspective and allowed me to see things in a much more fun and less serious way. The characters have deep meanings that if you truly wish, you can explore, because the thoughts being put into these intricate characters have ...more
Nov 08, 2007 Linda rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
I absolutely loved the play. I got to see it at the Kennedy Center back when I was in college. Lilly Tomlin was brilliant! I also enjoyed the movie adaptation though it lost a bit compared to the play. Still, when I stumbled across the text of the play in print, I jumped at it.

This isn't quite the text that was performed, but it's pretty close and the printed word lacks the energy that Lilly Tomlin brought to the performance, but Jane Wagner's writing is wonderful and if you enjoyed the play, yo
Apr 27, 2010 Jeff rated it it was amazing
I love this book. I was not lucky enough to see Lily Tomlin perform this live but i did see the film version. I can't read this without hearing that voice deliver every line, so i've no idea how this would read to anyone who has not seen Lily perform it, but i imagine it would hold its own very well. In some ways it's a topical play and it was written a couple of decades ago so it is a bit dated in places, but timelessness is overrated anyway. This is one that i've kept through periods of ...more
Jun 26, 2008 sab rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: people who like to envision Lily Tomlin. A lot.
Recommended to sab by: Kim P.
I think I would have enjoyed seeing the play more than reading it. I liked the ending (don't worry, it's NOT a spoiler) with the found suicide note the best. The play makes a thorough comment on our crazy world through a "crazy" main character's perspective. Sad how the same sexism, homophobia and "Rich People's Burn Out" are still going strong today. Kind of wish my copy didn't have a gezillion pictures of Lily Tomlin acting the parts throughout the book. Kind of force-fed the image and didn't ...more
Lisa Vegan
Jun 09, 2007 Lisa Vegan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, reviewed, plays
This is a hilarious and emotionally moving play. There is a large cast of very diverse characters, who are brilliantly interconnected. This play shows great insight about the human condition. Content a bit dated to the culture of the 1970s, but the understanding shown applies to all of human nature. Exceptionally perceptive work.

I also saw Lily Tomlin perform this live several times when it played in San Francisco. Amazing experience!

Sep 12, 2008 Maureen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
Shelves: play
Jane Wagner had to have had Lily Tomlin in mind when she wrote Signs, because so many facets of Tomlin's personality are reflected in this brilliant play. The characters are loosely interwoven, diverse in nature, and absolutely unforgettable. I really came to love this play when my daughter used different monologues from it as audition pieces, and I got to hear the language and hear the characters develop over and over. Kudos to Wagner: she did a splendid job.
Jun 25, 2016 Elaine rated it it was amazing
I saw Lily Tomlin performs this show twice - the first time was in New York City. It was amazing.

The book remains true to the original play... it is not as exciting as watching Lily morph into each of the characters, but it is a close second. It also gives the dialogue. I have used snippets from this play/book in speeches and workshops. It makes you really think as she challenges our thinking and the status quo.

Love it!
Aug 25, 2009 Letitia rated it it was amazing
Glorious, touching, witty, funny. All things a show ought to be, and all the more amazing for the fact that it is acted by one woman. I really miss the clever wit that used to show up on Broadway with greater frequency, and this play is a revival of it. Read my full review of the Seattle production with Terri WEagant:
Josh Lewis
Jan 15, 2015 Josh Lewis rated it liked it
A clever Absurdist perspective on life. Wagner effortlessly ties a handful of lives together in classic Tarantino fashion through the extreme stresses with which life hits people and causes them to act a little insane. Narrated by the typically ironic vehicle of a character whom society classifies as clinically insane yet whose hallucinations present a more correct perspective than our reality. Overall, fun read.
Sep 28, 2015 Marilyn rated it it was amazing
Even if dementia sets in, I will NEVER forget the brilliance of this play, written for & performed (no, come to life) by the one & only Lily Tomlin. The book reads flat by comparison to her inspired delivery of all the characters, all the truisms, all the wit and absurdity of life captured in this one woman play. But read the book anyway, and take what you can get from perhaps my favorite play.
Jul 21, 2016 Rhiannon rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2016
I love this play so much. The Search is magical and moving in the ways it is both timeless and a fascinating snapshot of a particular landscape of New Age and feminist discourse. Seeing as it is very much written to be performed by Lily, the photos and inserts in this edition are wonderful additions!
Sep 02, 2008 Elizabeth rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: Lily Tomlin lovers
I would love to see the play. It very much has Lily Tomlin's voice imprinted in the book. It reads like a play. It IS a play. It's a bunch of nonsequitors strung together.

My lack of love for this bit of lit may reflect my feelings for the genre more than for the work itself.

I wouldn't recommend reading it unless you LOVED Lily Tomlin. Even then, why not rent the movie?
Ayne Ray
Sep 24, 2009 Ayne Ray rated it really liked it
A phenomenally hilarious one-woman-show following the exploits of Trudy, a bag lady in New York, as she tries to explain American culture to aliens. Wonderfully satirical, the play also allows the actress to play a wide range of other characters in addition to Trudy, presenting a unique artistic challenge that pays off immensely for the audience.
Feb 29, 2016 J rated it liked it
Subversive hilarity that I can absolutely imagine Lily Tomlin delivering. Today, it all seems done, but I can imagine in the 80's when it came out that a little applause for and jeer at the times came across well. The play is an existential, feminist, organic, extra-terrestrial romp through an array of women's their best at their worst and at their most ironic.
i think i enjoyed the theater work more than reading the written play... but good nevertheless, of course.

someone had give the book to a friend, who passed it on to me. should i have continued the chain?
Not a new title, but wry intelligent humor. Wish I could have seen Lily Tomlin perform this. So interesting to see her observations in 1985 knowing how things have played out, including her coming out.
Andrew Kline
May 13, 2016 Andrew Kline rated it really liked it
I really hope to find a copy of the video of this play. While I enjoyed reading it, it was definitely meant to be seen. The book was great, though. Chock full of great pictures of Lily and some fun formatting. Worth seeking out.
Nov 16, 2013 William rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: forensics, theatre
Whoa! Time travel, but the one-liners still zing. The cultural references remind me of how old I've grown. for kids, some of this needs explaining. The Manhattan dystopia of Rent and all has left us -- we have other concerns today.
Jan 20, 2009 Alecia rated it it was amazing
Reality is just a method of crowd control that got out of hand.

I may be paraphrasing because I keep buying this, lending it out and never getting it back! It's that good. Insightful, fun, populated with a perfect cast of characters that are a slice of life from the 80s.
☼♄Jülie 
Apr 08, 2016 ☼♄Jülie  rated it it was amazing
Shelves: plays, comedy, humour, satire

...."Here we are, standing at the corner of Walk, Don't Walk..."

Loved it. I only wish I could have seen the play as well...Lily Tomlin is perfect for this character and very convincing! If I were ever to become a bag lady this character would be right up my to speak ;-)
Jan 24, 2015 Laurie rated it really liked it
Brilliantly written, it helps to know of Lily Tomlin's skills and presence. Not always easy to follow, but the intertwined humor and words of wisdom work beautifully.
Kelly Collins
Jul 24, 2010 Kelly Collins rated it it was amazing
I saw this amazing, hysterical, brilliant one woman show in Washington in the 80's and the book reads just as well many years later. Timeless!
Sarah Jan
Jan 04, 2010 Sarah Jan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I bought this book and read it after I'd seen the play. Wonderful - full of Lily Tomlin, whom I love. I felt her throughout this book.
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Jane Wagner is an American writer, director and producer. Wagner is best known as Lily Tomlin's comedy writer, collaborator and life partner.

She is the author of The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, The Incredible Shrinking Woman and other Tomlin vehicles.
More about Jane Wagner...

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“I personally believe we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain.” 403 likes
“Did I tell you what happened at the play? We were at the back of the theatre, standing there in the dark, when all of a sudden I feel one of 'em tug at my sleeve, whispers, "Trudy look!" I said, "Yeah, goosebumps. You definitely got goosebumps. You like the play that much?" They said it wasn't the play that gave 'em goosebumps, it was the audience!

I'd forgot to tell them to watch the play; they'd been watching the audience! Yeah, to see a group of people sitting together in the dark, laughing and crying at the same things...well that just knocked 'em out! They said, "Trudy, the play was soup, the audience, art."

So they're taking goosbumps back with 'em into space. Goosebumps! Quite a souvenir. I like to think of them out there in the dark, watching us. Sometimes we'll do something and they'll laugh. Sometimes we'll do something and they'll cry. And maybe, one day we'll do something so magnificent, the whole universe will get goosebumps.”
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