- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

Lily Tomlin counts a life-size puppet of Edith Ann among her prized possessions. . Fans the world over, in turn, consider the

raspberry-spitting moppet a cherished childhood pal.

That indefinable connection is just one reason why Miss Tomlin will be handed the Mark Twain prize for humor Sunday at the Kennedy Center. The program will be telecast Nov. 26 on WETA-TV (Channel 26).

The 64-year-old comedienne’s repertoire of characters encompasses far more than her childlike alter ego. Her affection for all her characters, from Edith Ann to Ernestine the snorting operator, explains why her humor resonates across demographic lines.

Miss Tomlin’s comic persona sprang from her humble roots. She grew up in the working class outskirts of Detroit.

The city, she says, doesn’t tell the whole story.

“I come from a Southern family,” she says, Kentucky to be specific. “Any kind of regional or more ethnic kind of group is always more quirky or [has] more eccentricities. People are much less flattened out or homogenized.”

Her mother stood out among her witty clan.

“She’s so pleasing and fun, socially, without being ‘on,’” says Miss Tomlin.

Growing up as Mary Jean Tomlin, the budding star performed plays for friends and neighbors, going so far as to sell tickets to her performances.

Making an adult living as a clown, though, was another matter.

“I was a working class kid,” says Miss Tomlin, who cites Imogene Coca and Lucille Ball as crucial influences. “You think you have to have a real job. I wanted to have a career.”

That mind-set led her to Wayne State University in Detroit, where she studied medicine. On the side, she performed with her university’s theater department. She eventually took the plunge, entertaining strangers at coffee shops before moving to New York to perform comedy wherever she could, including “The Merv Griffin Show’s” amateur segment.

Her work caught the attention of George Schlatter, the force behind “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.”

“I had not wanted to go on television,” she says. “I just wanted to be a New York actor. Back in those days I thought ‘Laugh-In’ was square; that’s how hip I was.”

Mr. Schlatter “made me feel comfortable,” Miss Tomlin recalls, letting her bring her inventory of characters, including Ernestine — the prying Bronx telephone operator with the perpetual snort — on the show. Ernestine became one of the show’s signature characters … and a calling card for a young Miss Tomlin.

More than a career starter, “Laugh-In” also made her feel accepted. Supermarket shoppers began recognizing her from the show, and neighbors began leaving congratulatory notes on her door. “Laugh-In” also begat a series of television projects created with Jane Wagner, her longtime partner and collaborator, who would help Miss Tomlin create her signature work, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.”

Miss Tomlin earned three of six Emmys for those small screen specials, but she also made her mark at the movies. Her 1975 screen debut in Robert Altman’s “Nashville” drew raves (and earned an Oscar bid for best supporting actress), as did her work opposite Art Carney in “The Late Show” two years later. Her splashiest hits — “Nine to Five” (1980) and “All of Me” (1984) — showcased her dizzying skills, while 1978’s “Moment by Moment” proved that even a talent like Miss Tomlin can flop.

These days, a new generation has been introduced to Miss Tomlin through her vocal work as science teacher Ms. Frizzle on the animated children’s show “The Magic School Bus,” for which she earned an Emmy. She can also be seen on “The West Wing” as White House secretary Deborah Fidere. On the big screen, she just wrapped “I Love Huckabee’s” a new film co-starring Jude Law, Naomi Watts, Dustin Hoffman and Mark Wahlberg. And she’s now in talks to co-star in the film adaptation of “A Confederacy of Dunces” with Will Ferrell.

Miss Tomlin warmly recalls the curious paths her career took, but stumbles when pressed to define her appeal.

“They feel affectionately toward a lot of people who do comedy,” she says of her audience.

Recalling her extended family’s reaction to one of her television specials years ago — in which she played a country music singer — Miss Tomlin noticed they didn’t laugh much while watching the program, which earned two Emmys.

Her mother sensed her disappointment.

“She said, ‘Even when people don’t laugh they’re getting something,’” Miss Tomlin says. “‘They sense you’re doing something special for them.’ I thought that was wonderful that she would perceive that and say it to me.”

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