The telephone company monopoly may be long gone, but wisecracking, snorting operator Ernestine is still around — and as smugly cantankerous as ever, says her comic creator Lily Tomlin.
"Of course, Ernestine doesn't work for the phone company anymore. She wasn't about to stay any place where she couldn't have absolute power," Tomlin says with a chuckle of the character who famously proclaimed on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" that "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company."
"Since the break-up of the phone company, Ernestine's worked for other places where her oversized ego would fit in — like Wall Street. She also worked for an opinion polling company, and when she called you, you'd by God better have a good answer," Tomlin says. "Now, she's in health care. She's perfectly happy harassing policy holders and denying coverage. No telling where she'll show up next."
For starters, Ernestine will be in Wichita Monday night at the Orpheum Theatre, where Tomlin will perform her one-woman show, "An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin," featuring about a dozen of her comic alter egos, like bratty 6-year-old Edith Ann, who loves to rat on her brother and always talks like she has a bean stuck up her nose, and the Tasteful Lady, who graciously but menacingly demands decorum and propriety.
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Speaking by phone from her home in northern California, Tomlin, now 71, estimates that she's probably created about 40 distinct characters from "Laugh-In" to her various one-woman Broadway shows and TV specials.
"The Tasteful Lady was my first. She came even before 'Laugh-In' when I was doing stand-up in New York City. She is like a lot of the society women I saw while growing up in Detroit," Tomlin says. "My family were Southerners from Kentucky who came up to make a living in the auto industry, but I was socially aware. I kept seeing the Fords and their Grosse Pointe friends in the society pages and I knew that money didn't make you a better person, only more intimidating. When I decided to go into comedy, Tasteful Lady with her attitude of pained entitlement helped open the door."
That was in 1965. In 1969, she joined "Laugh-In" in its third year and introduced pint-sized philosopher Edith Ann.
"Rowan and Martin didn't like Edith Ann at first. They thought she was too bratty," Tomlin says. "But she eventually won them over and got her own oversized rocking chair to sit in on stage. I still have that chair."
Tomlin confesses that she wasn't supposed to be a comedian.
"I was going into medicine, not because I particularly wanted to be a doctor but because I had the notion I wanted to help people. Well, it was the 1960s," she says. "In college, I volunteered to help put on a charity benefit show, and I found a way I really could help."
After she left "Laugh-In" in 1971, Tomlin starred in six TV specials written by her longtime writing and life partner, Jane Wagner.
She created memorable characters for each show, such as Susie the Silent Majority Sorority Girl, Trudy the Bag Lady and street-smart Sister Boogie Woogie, and won four Emmy Awards. She was the first female comedian to don male drag, creating lounge lizard Tommy Velour and singles-bar cruiser Rick.
Are her characters just clever performance vehicles or something more personal and profound?
"They may be an extension of a value or a feeling or a philosophy that I have, but they aren't actually extensions of me," Tomlin says. "But I'm very protective toward them. More like children than intellectual property."
While people identify Tomlin mostly with her iconic turn on "Laugh-In," she was also the first woman to have a solo Broadway show, "Appearing Nitely" (1977), for which she won a special Tony Award. In 1986, she won her second Tony for "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe."
Tomlin also proved her dramatic mettle by snagging an Oscar nomination for her first movie, Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975), as an unhappily married singer. She's since made more than 25 feature films.
When asked if there's anything left on her "bucket list," Tomlin says she's happy with what she's accomplished.
"I don't have any regrets — even with things that critics didn't like — because I knew I gave it my best. I've been around so long people feel comfortable coming up to me on the street. One woman even said, 'I want to thank you for all the years of merriment.' Merriment — I love that! You can't get any better than that."
If you go
an evening of classic lily tomlin
What: The award-winning comedian/actress appears with a dozen of her famous comic characters
Where: Orpheum Theatre, First and Broadway
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday
How much: Tickets: $60 and $45; available through Select-a-Seat outlets, at 316-755-7328 or www.selectaseat.com.