Comic, Actor Lily Tomlin Discusses Career, Kentucky Connections

Feb 27, 2014

"One ringy dingy." Lily's classic character from TV's "Laugh In," Ernestine the telephone operator

One of America’s most recognizable comedians and actresses for over four decades is continuing to entertain audiences on the big screen and stage. Lily Tomlin, who's bringing her act to Springfield Ohio next month, discusses her career and her connections to the Bluegrass State with reporter Cheri Lawson


In the 1970s, Lily Tomlin achieved instant success on the weekly comedy series Laugh-In, as the snarky telephone operator Ernestine. Tomlin says she thinks what people respond to in Ernestine is an undercurrent of sexuality.

Lily: "You know she’s just squeezing herself together. Then her hand went independently into her shirt and she was fondling herself. You know she was such a repressed kind of character. It was all this repressed sexuality."

(from a show clip: "A gracious good afternoon. This is Miss Tomlin of the telephone company. Do I have the party to whom I am speaking?"

Lily: "Everybody knew who Ernestine was. They didn’t even associate me with Ernestine."

Another fan favorite among Tomlin's characters is 6-year-old Edith Ann who’s known for sitting in an oversized rocker that Tomlin has in her home right now.

Cheri: "Can we expect to see these two characters in your upcoming show in Springfield?"

Lily: "Oh yeah, sure.  If I didn’t do Ernestine or Edith, I think I’d get mugged in the parking lot. Of course Ernestine has had lots of different jobs since the divestiture. For a long time, she had a reality-based webcast chat show. And, during Bush’s administration,  George W, you know,  she tried to broker peace at one point. But she would say things to George W. when he was running against Kerry like, 'You don’t have to worry about Senator Kerry, he only served in a war, you actually started one.'"

Cheri: "What’s been difficult about such a huge range? You seem so comfortable with everything from "Nashville" to "9 to 5" to "The Incredible Shrinking Woman," "West Wing" and of course, "Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe." Has anything about that been hard or is it as easy as it looks for you?"

Lily:  "No I don’t know if it’s easy or hard. It’s all challenging in a way. I mean you want it to be good. The excitement is trying to create something. Do you watch 'Web Therapy' where I play Lisa Kudrow’s mother?"

In the Showtime series, Lily plays Putsy Hodge, the narcissistic mother of psychotherapist Fiona played by Lisa Kudrow.

Lily: "Anyway I just love the show myself because it’s crazy. "It’s off the wall and Putsy’s really been fun to do."

The comedian and actress is in an elite group with a variety of prestigious awards, including multiple Emmys,  Grammys and Tony Awards.

Cheri: "What award haven’t you won?"

Lily: "I haven’t won an Oscar..."

Cheri: "That’s it. You haven’t won an Oscar?"

Lily: "I was nominated for Nashville but, I never got nominated again."

But, who makes Lily Tomlin laugh?"

She mentions Bill Maher and Wanda Sykes. She doesn’t discount anyone when it comes to her best teachers but she did talk about Meryl Streep being very present. And, she's certainly gleaned material from her family. She recalls one year when more than 90 relatives traveled from Kentucky to see her show in Missouri. Her mom specifically asked her not to talk about sex or body parts.

Lily: "And of course, it was a college so as soon as I hit the stage I completely forget that my family was there. And of course my mother was horrified. So when we left, all my relatives come filing past me, a big string of ‘em. 'Well, we enjoyed it. We enjoyed the show.'"

And the next day, one of the cousins who was at the show calls Lily’s mom.

Lily: "I hear her on the phone with my mother, 'Well, we know that Mary Jean, my real name’s Mary Jean, my mother’s name is Lily, now we know Mary Jean’s not like that but how does everybody else know it?'"

Cheri, "Lily Tomlin, thank you, thank you so much for talking with me. So grateful and really looking forward to the show in Springfield, Ohio.

Lily: "It may not be as good as this conversation. Ha ha hah. Don’t count on it."

Cheri: "Lily, thanks, really appreciate it"

Lily; "OK, talk to you later, Cheri."

Lily Tomlin brings her show to Springfield, Ohio's Kuss Auditorium on Saturday evening, March 8th.