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Lily Tomlin: Queen of Characters

Courtney Eckerle | Wednesday, September 29, 2010


“Spelling has nothing to do with intelligence,” comedian and actress Lily Tomlin said. She was making a jab at the recent South Bend public school billboard spelling faux pas (hint: the advertisement misspelled “public”).

The audience roared with laughter, and it didn’t stop for the rest of her time onstage at Saint Mary’s O’Laughlin Auditorium Monday night.

Earlier in the day, Tomlin, 71, spoke with Saint Mary’s theater students, talking about her career, answering their questions and even critiquing a few monologues performed by students in a Characterization class. Dressed down in a jean jacket, black pants and high top sneakers, with her hair up in clips, Tomlin looked more like a college student than a winner of two Tonys, two Peabodys, a Grammy and six Emmys.

While speaking to the students, Tomlin seamlessly slipped into several of her famous characters, such as prune-faced, power-hungry phone company worker Ernestine, popular in the 1960s on the television series “Laugh In.”

Also making an appearance was the character of six-year-old Edith Ann. Tomlin said she once found a box full of tapes of her practicing and perfecting that voice.

“Half of doing something is working the process,” she said.

Asked by students how she came up with Ernestine, or any of her many characters, Tomlin said, “Sometimes it’s just serendipitous.”

She went on to explain how Ernestine started out as a tough Bronx operator, who would do things like tape incriminating telephone conversations, or threaten to send over Vito the repair guy, and say things like, “Lock up the liquor, he’s a mean drunk.”

Tomlin worked further on the character, and Ernestine is still being perfected all these years later. Ernestine even had a web cast during the Bush administration, and Tomlin’s character is now working diligently denying people health care, a manifestation which appeared in Monday night’s show.

“Astounding and revelatory is the kind of thing I love to do,” Tomlin told the acting class.

She gave the students a little something to drop their jaws at by talking about working on accents with Meryl Streep on the movie, “A Prairie Home Companion,” and casually throwing out, “Of course, Meryl is brilliant at accents.”

Physicality is something Tomlin emphasized to the students, and embodied later Monday night in her show. She advised students who performed for her not to be afraid to be more physical, or even to use movement as a lead in or inspiration for a character.

Tomlin, at 71, as lithe and energetic as ever, seamlessly jumped from one side of the stage to another, and rolled around on O’Laughlin’s stage floor as Edith Ann.

Hugely popular with the older “Laugh In” generation, she gained a few younger fans with her apologetically salacious jokes.

“When you’re at a party and you’ve had too much to drink, the way you can tell is your friends stop talking to you, and start talking about you,” Tomlin joked during her performance. “[They are] saying things like, ‘Did she have a purse?'”

She imparted valuable wisdom to the audience with quips such as, “One of the most valuable survival tools we have is the ability to delude ourselves,” or as Edith Ann, she said, “I’m not bossy, my ideas are just better.”

Finally, as her most famous character, Ernestine, she said, “Remember, an apple a day keeps the doctor away — but so does being uninsured.”