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Lily Tomlin, character actor
Sustaining a remarkable career with the help of multiple personalities

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"One ringy-dingy" was a sensation in my childhood. Lily Tomlin used that catchphrase as Ernestine the telephone operator, who held one-way conversations on the sketch-comedy series Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. I went wild for it every week, along with the rest of the country. Tomlin wore a huge black wig and spoke in a weirdly pinched voice, peppered with snorting laughs. You couldn't make a phone call back then without thinking of that one-of-a-kind delivery: "One ringy-dingy...two ringy-dingys...."

It's astonishing that, 40 years later, the ringy-dingys still matter. Tomlin didn't go the way of Laugh-In stars who faded soon after the series ended in 1973. She's a comic institution who continues to appear in significant movies and TV series. She also tours big theaters with her one-woman show, where Ernestine works the switchboard in that same black wig. But, as you'll see in Tomlin's March 24 performance at the Overture Center, my favorite telephone operator has changed with the times.

What explains Tomlin's longevity? In a word: range. After leaving Laugh-In, she co-wrote a series of Emmy-winning TV specials, produced a Grammy-winning comedy album, and became the first woman to appear solo in a Broadway show. She got an Oscar nomination for her work in Robert Altman's Nashville, the first great role in a movie career that spans farce (All of Me), mystery (The Late Show), fantasy (The Incredible Shrinking Woman), issue-oriented comedy (Nine to Five) and edgy dramedy (Short Cuts, Flirting with Disaster, A Prairie Home Companion).

Laugh-In introduced Ernestine and the mischievous 5-year-old Edith Ann, and Tomlin has been creating idiosyncratic characters ever since. On TV, she's had recurring roles on Murphy Brown, Will & Grace, The West Wing, Desperate Housewives and, most recently, Damages. In a Tony-winning performance, she crowded multiple personalities onto one stage in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by her longtime companion, Jane Wagner.

Tomlin has never been shy about identifying as a lesbian and a progressive. She's come a long way from her early years in Detroit, where she grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist family transplanted from the South. Still, her childhood remains an important touchstone, particularly her experience living in an apartment building with a broad range of humanity. This is where she began to observe people and to turn her quirky observations into art.

In 1977, Time magazine proclaimed Tomlin "America's New Queen of Comedy." Now, at 70, she's "America's Old Queen of Comedy," but don't go to the Overture Center expecting Tomlin to act her age. Expect Ernestine-level silliness and a lot of snorting laughs.

For our interview, Tomlin called me from her home in Los Angeles. You can imagine how I felt when I heard the phone: one ringy-dingy...two ringy-dingys....

What do you have planned for your Madison show?

Lily Tomlin: I'll do a bunch of characters. When I perform this way, it's informal and interactive. I usually improv with Edith and have the audience ask her questions. I want it to be a roller-coaster ride, not knowing where I'm going to go. I often do a Q&A at the end. It's pretty intimate.

I'll also comment on the culture through the characters' voices or through mine. I want people to really laugh and, occasionally, reflect on something.

What's the nature of your cultural commentary?

Ernestine has been working at a big insurance corporation lately, denying health care. There are those kinds of monologues and bits. Other than that, it's trying to represent some kind of humanity on the stage that unifies all of us.

Ernestine is denying health care?! Your characters have obviously changed over the years.

Yes, some of them have changed in terms of something topical, like that. But they're not always associated with an issue. They represent a little hunk of humanity and express where they are in their lives.

Does the show have a political point of view, then?

I have a political point of view, so I'm sure it's reflected in the material. It wouldn't be like a polemic of any kind. It would be more like a kind of worldview - where I wish the country would be. For example, doing a better job of including humanity in the equation rather than the dollar. I'm certainly not a sophisticated political thinker, but as an artist I have my inclinations.

Did you come from a family with similar progressive views?

No - it was a working-class, Southern family that came to Detroit to work in the factories.

Do you consider that a good environment to have grown up in?

I think it was a lucky, lucky thing, growing up in our apartment house. I saw into the lives of so many different kinds of people. There were people who were teachers, and people who were completely uneducated, and people who were radical, and people who were very conservative - just everything you can imagine. There really wasn't a handful of beans between any of them, in terms of their humanity.

So I just grew in affection and compassion for a lot of different kinds of people. I went from apartment to apartment, seeing people fighting, and people making up, and people being good, and people being very cruel, and people being stupid, and people being inspired. Each apartment had its own little cosmos, and I got to experience all of it, every day, for years and years.

When did you take to the stage?

I think I've had an act since I was 10. I always put on shows in the old apartment house, and I tried to get the people to buy tickets. I would also go hang out at the bars with my dad when I was just a kid, 2 or 3 years old. He would put me up on the bar and teach me a song to sing. So all that stuff gets mixed up with daddy's approval and people's amazement that this little thing is singing, sitting on a bar.

What comedians influenced you in those days?

In those days I heard radio. We didn't get a TV until I was 10. On radio there were a lot of little character shows, like "Fibber McGee and Molly" and Fred Allen. Now that I'm talking to you, I imagine it had to be an influence. There were catchphrases that made people laugh. It'd be like Ernestine saying, "Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?"

Anything based in character appealed to me. And I guess it still does.

Does your interest in character help explain your success as a dramatic actress as well as a comedian?

I'm on Damages now, and people are forever asking, "How does a comedian play drama?" Most people who do comedy don't see much difference in doing drama. It's just another style, another degree. Just as with comedy, you can take it very far or it can be very subtle, but it has to have something that works humanly. It's true in some way, no matter how broad it is.

Has your political point of view affected the roles you've taken over the years?

Definitely. I wouldn't take anything that debased women. But anything that debased the species I really didn't want to be a part of, either. I've had opportunities to do some things with interesting directors, but I never could kill someone onscreen.

I've been offered a couple of CSIs, and one was really intriguing, but there were two female deaths on that one show that were so gruesome. I wanted to do the part, but I just couldn't. Even though I know it's a part of life that exists, I'm not keen to be a part of showing it in graphic detail.

Have you evolved politically?

When I was young I was really rigid in my political views. I'm not so much anymore. On Laugh-In, I wouldn't have my picture taken with John Wayne [laughs]! Then I did a bit with Martha Mitchell [wife of Attorney General John Mitchell] before she was treated so badly by the Nixon administration. Before that, she was just a big mouthpiece for Nixon. We were in the middle of the Vietnam War, and we were all against that. I didn't go and greet her - I was just a little snot. I consider it ridiculous now.

Have you experienced discrimination yourself in show business?

The things I can identify are just subtle, everyday things. Like being in meetings where a woman will speak an idea, and nobody hears it in a room mostly full of men. Then a guy in the room will speak the same idea, and suddenly everybody hears it. I've certainly experienced that.

At 70, you don't seem to be anywhere close to retiring.

I certainly don't feel like retiring. Sometimes I do in terms of, like, being lazy. You know, wanting to lie on a hammock.

What projects do you have coming up?

What I most want to do is go back to Broadway with another show, which Jane [Wagner] and I are always thinking about. But The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe was such a success for us that you don't want to replicate it, but you want to take another leap.

Do you think your skill in creating characters helps explain your exceptionally long and rich career?

I would think so, because it almost gives you several careers. Ernestine has a career; Edith has a career. On stage, I always wanted to be as varied as possible, because that's what intrigued me.

When I first opened The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe in the '80s, [actress] Helen Hayes came backstage and said, "Lily, I haven't envied an actress in years." And I know what she meant, because I had the opportunity every night to play 12 characters.

Take it back to the apartment house. There were 40 apartments, so I probably won't be satisfied until I do 40 characters in a night.

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