One ringy-dingy

Lily Tomlin takes her classic characters on the road

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Ernestine, Edith Ann, Mrs. Beaszley, Sister Boogie Woman ...
PHOTO BY MATT HOYLE

marke@sfbg.com

STAGE "Oh, Ernestine has plenty to say about the current phone-surveillance thing," the irrepressible Lily Tomlin told me, referencing her famous "one ringy-dingy" phone operator character and the recent NSA spying revelations. (Tomlin was driving down an LA freeway on her way to do some errands, popping in and out of coverage on her hands-free.)

In fact, another classic phrase from Ernestine, who's been snooping on calls since Tomlin's 1970s days on Martin and Rowan's Laugh-In, rather appropriately sums up the civilian surveillance clusterbuck: "Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?"

"Back during the whole Bush wiretapping time, Ernestine became an emblem for political cartoonists," Tomlin continues. "But her association with government shenanigans goes back through Iran-Contra, all the way to Nixon and Watergate. In fact, during Iran-Contra in the '80s, I was performing at the Emmys — I was up for one that year — and I called up G. Gordon Liddy to do a skit with Ernestine. He was going to play Oliver North! And I would be eavesdropping on him. He agreed, but then I backed off because I thought I was making too much light of the whole thing."

The rogue's gallery in the above paragraph gives some indication of Tomlin's longevity in the biz, as well as her necessity. "I've been performing since I could basically walk," she says. "When I was growing up in Detroit, I used to hang a blanket as a curtain on my back porch and put on shows for my family and neighbors. And then, because it started to get dangerous on the streets, I immersed myself in afterschool arts programs. I started incorporating film in to my performances, as well as comedy, drama, a little of this and a whole lot of that. I think I was the original performance artist!"   

Along with Ernestine, Tomlin's essential characters like Edith Ann, Mrs. Beaszley, Sister Boogie Woman — maybe even her characters from 9 to 5 and Big Business, please? — will be in tow for "An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin" worth trekking up to Napa to catch. The show, a version of which Tomlin performs 30-50 times a year, is a a kind of constantly evolving greatest hits extravaganza. "These characters never leave me; I'm constantly playing with them in my head, like some weird kind of checkerboard," Tomlin said with a laugh. "But they have to say something, something relevant. Somehow, of course, it always seems like there's something for them to say, especially lately."

Now 73, Tomlin's coming off a season on TV as the pot-happy hillbilly grandma from Reba McEntire's sitcom Malibu Country and the Tina Fey movie Admission. She's also a regular as Lisa Kudrow's mother on web series Web Therapy, an avid social media user, and a crusader for several causes. "Darn good genes," she says when I gasp at her energy, roughly 1000 times any other human's. "I had an aunt just pass away at 91. Marke, she would have lived to 120 if the smoker's emphysema hadn't slowed her down."

And her maverick feminist spirit still shines bright. "There's more opportunity for women in this business now than when I started out. Working with Tina and Lisa was inspirational, and now with new media, the possibilities are really opening up. I mean, people used to think women did comedy only because they were too ugly to do anything else. When I first started getting better known, I can't tell you how many people came up to me saying, 'Oh, Lily, you're so much prettier than you are on television!' Ha. Can you believe that?"

"AN EVENING OF CLASSIC LILY TOMLIN"

Doors 7pm, show 8pm, $70-$85

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