Tuesday, April 27, 2010 | 4:52 p.m.
The phone is to blare at the top of the hour, with Lily Tomlin on the other line, and it does.
You pluck the receiver from its cradle, and as you answer you hear two quick clicks, then a dial tone.
Five minutes later, the phone chimes again. You answer. This time the familiar voice of Lily Tomlin is on the other end, and she apologizes.
“I don’t know what happened there,” she says, a little nonplussed. “We got cut off. My fault.”
The irony of Lily Tomlin, in real life, botching a simple phone call is pointed out.
“This is like one of your characters,” you say.
“I know which one!” she says, “but it’s not going to be in the act.”
More than 40 years ago, on the landmark sketch show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” Tomlin’s daffy, unaffected Ernestine was known in just about every living room in the country. “One ringy-dingy,” was her trademark phrase, or one of them. When the American populace faced regular customer-service issues with a single phone service, Ernestine spat such rejoinders as, “We’re the phone company. We don’t care. We don’t have to,” and “You've angered me and when you anger me you anger me and all the power necessary to tie up your lines for the next 50 years!" Ernestine’s unique phrases, including, “How may I, in all humble servitude, be of assistance?” have become popular ringtones for Baby Boomers, or at least Baby Boomers who care to customize their ringtones.
Tomlin laughs as she remembers the early days of “Laugh-In,” the actual first days the show became a national hit.
“I’d be at the grocery store and people would come up to me, ‘You’re the new girl on “Laugh-In, aren’t you? You know who we really love? That Ernestine. Who plays her?’ ” Tomlin says. “Ernestine made me famous.”
Tomlin is back for her third swing through the MGM Grand's Hollywood Theatre, performing in, “Lily Tomlin: Not Playing With a Full Deck.” Her one-woman show borrows from her famous characters and is tagged by an interactive conversation (what used to be known as a “Q&A”) with the audience.
“One night I had a woman climb onstage with me,” she says. “I said, ‘Oh, hello. You want to play?’ Then she started talking to Edith.”
This is Tomlin’s third set of dates in Las Vegas, a city she had never played until debuting at MGM Grand in November at age 70.
“I had been to Lake Tahoe, with Rowan & Martin, years ago. But I like Las Vegas. It’s fun, you draw from so many different regions of the country,” she says. “It’s a universal audience that comes to Las Vegas. Plus, I found out I’m on a slot machine during my first visit. I had no idea! It’s Ernestine on ‘Laugh-In.’ What an honor!”
A few more noteworthy nuggets from Tomlin:
• She is not a gambler because her father was. “He used to bet the trotters at Northfield Downs (near Tomlin’s hometown of Detroit). I just remember how much I hated when he lost money. I’d go the track, book bets. I’ve played a little, but it’s always been, if I lost $20, I’m heading upstairs.”
• On her political views: “I’m not fostering the progress of people I don’t agree with. I was raised Southern Baptist and was raised on scripture, so I’ve always had one foot in one world and one in another, but I’m not in favor of foisting your own believes on everybody else. We have a lot of politicians who give lip service to those who vote their religion, whose views are narrow and rigid, and I’m not in favor of that. I’m not even certain they believe their own lip service, actually.”
• On female comics she admires: “Tracey Ullman, still, is brilliant of course. I like Wanda Sykes, too. Many others.”
• The state of satire is not necessarily better or worst than it was in the days of “Laugh-In.” It is merely “different.” “It’s a whole other terrain. Everyone has a monologue now – there are so many talk shows, there is Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. There’s talk radio. There are just a lot more avenues to reach an audience than there were in the late-’60 and early ‘70s. Today, so many people think they can do it, but not everyone can.”
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.