Lily Tomlin: The Importance of Being Ernestine


Today is the birthday of the great comic actress Lily Tomlin (b. 1939).

Tomlin is easily one of the first comedy performers who ever made an impression on my young mind, her time on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In coinciding with my first tv viewing as well as my first socializing, which was undoubtedly enlivened by playground impersonations of Tomlin’s most popular characters Ernestine and Edith Ann.

There were probably another dozen or so characters that Tomlin did regularly as well, but most of them were a little more subtle and relied on some life experience (housewives, sorority girls etc). Her most popular two characters were so hilariously broad that even a small child could understand them (and better, imitate them). The nasally, snorting telephone operator Ernestine who made a face like she was eating a lemon and said, “One ringy-dingy…two ringy-dingy…” when she place a call. And Edith Ann, the lisping toddler in an over-sized rocking chair who unknowingly said appalling things, always signing off with the pronouncement “And that’th the truth” (pronounced with a raspberry).


These early impressions were indelible. Much like fellow Laugh-In star Goldie Hawn she went on to a great body of work that was more mature, thought-provoking, and nuanced, none had the impact of this early, broad comedy.

Yet there is much memorable stuff to celebrate: her 1985 solo Broadway collaboration with her life partner Jane Wagner The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which was later made into a 1991 movie; her many roles in Robert Altman movies: Nashville (1975), Short Cuts (1993) and Prairie Home Companion (2006); feminist crowd-pleasers like Nine to Five (1980) and The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), her classic turn opposite Steve Martin in All of Me (1984), and her partnering with Dustin Hoffman in I Heart Huckabees (2004).

To learn more about the history of show business, including television variety like Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

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