The Operator is Snorting

Lily Tomlin thinks Alan Greenspan looks like a Shar Pei. And Meryl Streep can kiss her ass.

Baby boomers first encountered Lily Tomlin on Laugh-In as Ernestine the telephone operator, with her ‘40-style hair and pinched face, her hand fiddling down the top of her blouse. Ever since in her one-woman comedy show, she’s been creating off-kilter characters with traits both good and bad: Edith Ann the cutesy brat, Trudy the philosophical bag lady, Agnus Angst the performance artist.

Do you remember your Spokane show two years ago? A couple of drunks in the front row kept trying to be funnier than you.

They weren’t hostile, were they? They were probably just vocal. If they’re longtime fans, they feel like they know me. They’re probably having conversations with me all the time — with the record albums, with the TV screen.

I remember in ’71, when my [comedy] album came out [This Is a Recording, with Ernestine on the cover], and some mom brings her 8-year-old son backstage, and it’s, “Do your Ernestine for Lily.” And so the kid launches into “One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingies” and “Mr. Veedle, when can we expect payment?”

Other comedians work blue or do social commentary. But you do character-based comedy, with empathy for different kinds of folks.

I grew up in inner-city Detroit, in a neighborhood with lots of blacks, but I was also raised by Southerners from Kentucky, and we would go back to Kentucky every summer, rural Kentucky. So I had a foot in both those worlds, and I think that has informed my act.

In interviews, you’ve made a distinction between “boy comedy” and “girl comedy,” between comedy that debases humanity and comedy that embraces humanity. But there’s a place for both, you said.

These were 4- and 5-year-old boys. And we were next door to Kirk Douglas’s house, and it’s a lovely, upscale party — everyone sitting around at tables with white tablecloths — and the rumor was that one of those little boys was Kirk Douglas’s grandson, who had just come over from next door to join in all the farting.

Now, I’ve done some movies with male-dominated casts — I did one just recently, though I won’t say which — and for a few days on-set, there may have been some farting contests.

I won’t say that it’s boys exclusively — but let’s just say that boys are more comfortable with that when it’s just guys standing around with each other. It’s like Alan Greenspan [former chairman of the Federal Reserve] in other strata of life — oh, boy, I’m really diggin’ myself a hole here [giggles]. Say he’s out on the golf course and suddenly he farts — with that look on his face? Oh, this is really funny to me. There was this commercial we were gonna do, aimed at the financial markets, but they would never do it — and I imagined Alan Greenspan going into a grooming place for dogs, and he brings in a Shar Pei [dissolves in laughter]. And, you know, which one is the dog?

Did you improvise a lot when you did the Altman movies?

Meryl [Streep] is so much fun, and she likes to be surprised and fool around. So we’re doing the scene in the dressing room [in A Prairie Home Companion], and we’re shooting on HD, so we can go for 20 minutes without stopping. And if you go back to that scene, you’ll see how we’re talking all over each other. But Bob welcomed that, talking over each other, like family stories.

And there was this one thing that Meryl and I would tell each other, and it goes back to my aunt Ermadee, who’s in her late 80s now. She has emphysema but she still smokes. I visit her at Christmas, and she’s coughing in the night, and I remind her that she shouldn’t smoke, and in this raspy voice that’s part southern Kentucky, part Polish, and part Detroit, she’ll wave away the smoke and say, “It’s OK, it’s OK.”

So she’s smoking Newports — do they still make those? — and she’s got her hair in curlers, and she’s flicking ashes, and this other relative of ours, Theresa, is bragging about her kids, saying, “My son Bill is such a handsome guy, and so smart” — that whole part of the family thinks they’re going to be in Mensa — and how he’s a big developer in Farmington Hills, and on and on, and Ermadee is sitting there, squinting at her, and suddenly she says, “Ah, kiss my ass!”

Well, in the movie, my character runs off with a yodeler, and Meryl [playing Tomlin’s sister] disapproves, and in an improv, I’d say, in Ermadee’s voice, “Ah, kiss my ass!”
And Meryl would be rolling on the floor….

Lily Tomlin on Sunday, April 25, at 7 pm at Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights, Wash. Tickets: $50-$60. Visit or call (877) 871-NQRC or (800) 325-SEAT.

Mel McCuddin @ Art Spirit Gallery

Through Nov. 7, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.