December 22, 2014

Lily Tomlin rocks the house

These days Lily Tomlin’s character Ernestine, the gossipy telephone operator who used to parody the AT&T monopoly, works for an insurance firm, “denying health care to everybody.” She told me this during a phone interview in March, 2012, for a Press Democrat story. Tomlin was warm, funny and genuine in our conversation, just as she is on stage. For the full story, click here, or see the text below:

By MICHAEL SHAPIRO

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Lily Tomlin hasn’t stopped taking shots at targets she feels deserve it. Remember her character Ernestine, the gossipy telephone operator who used to parody the AT&T monopoly by saying “We don’t care, we don’t have to; we’re the phone company.”

Today Ernestine works for an insurance firm, “denying health care to everybody,” Tomlin said during a phone interview this month from her home in Los Angeles.

And she fired away at recent Republican candidates for president.

Michelle Bachman said she attended Oral Roberts University after God told her to go to law school. This led Tomlin to quip: “Don’t you think if God told you to go to law school he’d have told you to go to Harvard?”

Tomlin said she’s not trying to make it personal.

“You’re not just going to take a flat-on cranial shot at somebody,” she said. The goal is “not to destroy them as an individual but kind of what they represent and how that impacts on our lives.”

But here’s the thing: whether or not you agree with Tomlin’s liberal politics, it’s hard not to like her, especially when seeing her live.

She has a knack for getting people on her side. When she winks or nods or gives you a deadpan look or sly smile, you feel like she’s connecting just with you.

“I talk about all of us on Spaceship Earth together trying to hack it,” she said. “I feel like we’re in the bomb shelter. We want to laugh in some way – we don’t want to sit there and be in misery. We’re all in this together.”

Tomlin, who grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Detroit, got an early break when she joined the comedy variety show, “Laugh-in,” in 1969.

That’s where she created Ernestine and the whip-smart little girl Edith Ann, who’d sit in a gigantic chair and often end her bits by saying “And that’s the truth!”

Her characters remain a key element of her 90-minute show, which she’ll bring to Santa Rosa’s Wells Fargo Center tomorrow night <3/24/12>.  There won’t be any huge chairs on stage, but Tomlin will play the characters with voice and body language, and there will be film clips of the characters on screen.

Tomlin, whom Time magazine once called “the woman with the kaleidoscopic face,” converses with her characters in an ongoing dialogue as the show progresses. She plans to allow time for a question-and-answer at the end of the show.

Tomlin’s resume ranges from Robert Altman classics like “Nashville” to 1980’s wildly popular “Nine to Five” with Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda.

More recently, Tomlin, 72, has appeared in “The West Wing,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Damages.”

She’s won four Emmy awards, two Peabody awards for her TV work, and a Grammy for a comedy album.

But it’s in front of an audience that she feels most alive. “Just the intimacy and being in a house in that moment with those people and somehow making it work on the stage,” she said.

She develops her shows with her life partner, the writer Jane Wagner, but she’s frustrated about Wagner not getting enough credit for her writing.

One line from the Wagner-penned show, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” is often used by Ted Koppel, who credits Tomlin for saying: “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.”

Tomlin has contacted Koppel and asked him to credit Wagner, but she says it’s no use.

Asked if it’s a challenge to work so closely with her life partner, Tomlin said, “Of course it is – we overlap tremendously; that’s why we’re so close.”

They’ve been together since the 1970s when Tomlin lured Wagner to the West coast to help her produce a comedy album.

“I was crazy about her, and I was trying to get to live on the same coast because I wanted to be with her,” Tomlin said. “She was a little harder to get than I was.”

Though Tomlin doesn’t miss George W. Bush’s presidency, she does miss him as a comic target.

Back in 2004 she had some consoling words for him: Tomlin’s Ernestine called him and said: “You don’t have to worry about Senator Kerry – he just served in a war; you actually started one.”

 

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