It's all a laughing matter for Tomlin

April 02, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,

Lily Tomlin plans to bring a lot of old friends with her to Baltimore's Lyric Opera House tomorrow night, including a precocious little kid named Edith Ann, a haughty telephone operator who goes by the name Ernestine, even Madame Lupe, the world's oldest living beauty expert.

Of course, they're all her. In the course of more than 40 years making people laugh, Tomlin has taken on a lot of personas. And unlike some comics, who live to constantly reinvent themselves and move on, the 69-year-old comedian is glad to bring her past along with her. Ernestine may not be saying the same things she was saying in 1971, when television audiences first encountered her on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, but she's still very alive and kicking.

"Ernestine works at a health care insurance corporation, denying health care to everyone," Tomlin says over the phone from her Los Angeles home. "She's got to be in a place of power. That's why the insurance corporation is a good place for her, because they have the upper hand over sick people."

Still, Tomlin promises that Friday's appearance will be more than just a trip down memory lane. Her humor remains topical and current. And while it would be easier to depend on all the tried-and-true workhorses to make people laugh - just get Ernestine to snort or Edith Ann to say, "And that's the truth," and the audience will love it - Tomlin prefers comedy that keeps her on her toes.

"Really, really topical stuff has a very short shelf life," she says. "You have to constantly talk, and then two days later, it has no relevancy at all. I try to always deal with social issues. ... I think audiences love the mix of it."

Trying times like these, Tomlin adds, are perfect for the sort of observational comedy she has always specialized in. It's not always easy finding the humor in a struggling economy or a polarized political climate. But Tomlin finds the search exhilarating.

"It's kind of hard, with the state we're in," she says. "I think people like to see the deeper, more human things, the little kinds of idiosyncrasies that go on in our personal lives, the stuff we do. You know, we're all in this together, trying to ... give some kind of meaning to life."

Tomlin says she also likes to add a little hometown humor, a few jokes tailored to the crowd at hand. As of early this week, she was still looking for some Baltimore material.

"I don't know if I know too much," she says. "I have to study up. What's going on there?"

Told that the city has a mayor who's under indictment, Tomlin pauses for a moment.

"Oh," she says, her voice softening for conspiratorial effect. "Oh, that's good."

if you go

Lily Tomlin performs at 8 p.m. Friday at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $39.50-$59.50. Call 410-547-7328 or go to

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