Lily Tomlin's Comic Cast of Characters

Building Character in ADMISSION

In ADMISSION, Lily Tomlin plays Susannah, the feminist writer who is Tina Fey’s somewhat detached mother. For Tomlin, while the character took her back to her own 70s roots, it was also a new challenge. “Lately, I’ve played a lot of mothers – but not a character like Susannah,” Tomlin remarks. “I was pleased to be able to play her. Susannah was a celebrated feminist at one point; years have passed, but she still has her principles and ideals – and a mythology that she’s created for herself.” While the character was on the page, Tomlin also conjured her own special magic to bring Susannah to life, to make her comic and real at the same time. For her co-stars, Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, working with Lily Tomlin was like getting a masterclass from an American comic icon. For Paul Rudd, “It was great to be able to see Lily’s process, to watch her work – she will mold and sculpt a scene like clay, trying different line readings and coming up with new things.” Perhaps no female comic has created such a rich repertoire of characters as Lily Tomlin has in her nearly half century on stage, film and television, and also as a recording artist. We look at a few members of her very funny family in the following slideshow.

Ernestine: "One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy!"

Ernestine seeks payment in a Laugh-In skit

Ernestine, the snarky, snorting telephone operator who Lily Tomlin created for the comedy show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, has become one of her most endearing, and enduring, characters. Not only was Ernestine a hit on Laugh-In, but she became the subject of Tomlin’s first comedy album, Polydor Records’ 1971 This Is a Recording. In 1970, AT&T attempted to capitalize on her popularity, offering Tomlin $500,000 to recreate her for a phone company commercial. She declined, although she brought her back to chide AT&T in a fake Saturday Night Live commercial in which Ernestine exclaimed, “We don't care, we don't have to...we're the phone company." While Ernestine originally was a telephone operator, Tomlin evolved her character over time. Tomlin recounts how “For a long time, she served in the Bush Administration, and her tag line was 'Ernestine calls you on it, and you have to answer.' She called Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld; she even called Saddam Hussein before he died. Now she works for a health care insurance company, denying insurance to anyone and everyone.” As Ernestine says now, “And you thought 'HMO' stood for 'Help Me Out'!”

Edith Ann: "And that’s the truth”

Edith Ann reads a story and answers audience questions

Next to Ernestine, Edith Ann is one of Lily Tomlin’s most beloved characters. The 5½-year-old girl, rocking in the poetically oversized rocker, provides inspired insights that she caps with the line, “And that's the truth,” followed by a raspberry exclamation point. Originally featuring on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, Edith Ann reappeared on stage and on Sesame Street. Through her various sketches Edith Ann slowly revealed aspects of her world, including her punk-rock older sister, her baby brother, her recovering alcoholic father and her dog Buster, who is her best friend. In 1994, ABC gave the character an animated show, and most recently Edith Ann has gone digital with her own app.

Mrs. Judy Beasley: The Humorous Housewife

60s parody commercial with Mrs. Judy Beasley for Gr-r-r Detergent

One of Lily Tomlin’s oldest characters, Mrs. Judy Beasley, is also one of her most adaptable. The mild-mannered, careful suburban housewife returns endlessly in Tomlin’s work to provide commentary on life in general and on Ms. Tomlin in particular. Tomlin recounts how in the 70s, when she and her partner Jane Wagner were putting on their first Broadway show, Appearing Nitely, Mrs. Judy Beasley appeared in a Red Cross outfit, handing out coffee and donuts, to fans who’d sleep overnight to get tickets: “Mrs. Beasley would give them Kleenex to blow their noses. And she was watching out for them because she knew that Lily didn’t give a damn. She just luckily happened to be in the city when the box office opened so that she could help. She’s not a fan of Lily’s, but she is concerned about the young people.” In the above video, Mrs. Judy Beasley has been cast to talk about a new detergent, only to find out more than she is willing to clean.

Tommy Velour: Lounge Lizard

Special performance of Tommy Velour for Elizabeth Taylor’s 60th birthday

While Lily Tomlin is best known for her wild range of female characters, she has a great arsenal of male creatures as well. Interestingly, many of them are performers. Her character Purvis Hawkins, for example, is a smooth-taking black R&B singer. “The best word I can think of to describe Purvis is luscious,'' Tomlin told the New York Times. “Purvis is expansive, elevated, easy, real smooth in a wholesome way.” For Tomlin, many of these characters are discovered rather than created: “They have a life of their own. It's more like I imitate an essence.'' At times, her characters’ identities seemed to overwhelm her own persona. When she first did Tommy Velour in the early 80s for a Las Vegas Show called Lily Sold Out, some viewers didn’t even know it was her. Years later she recounted to the Nashville Scene how the next day “someone says, 'but who's that guy on the show?' [laughing] And I think, 'How can they not see that it's me?' I don't wear prosthetics.” In the above video, Tommy Velour serenades both Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson.

Kate, the Socialite: A Commentator on Lily Tomlin

Kate fills in for Tomlin on Night After Night with Allan Harvey

While Lily Tomlin often presented her characters in traditional venues (on comedy variety shows like Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, sketch shows like Saturday Night Live or even in her own stage performance The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe), she never lost touch with her street performer sensibility and willingness to show up in character in unexpected ways. On the groundbreaking Comedy Central talk show Night After Night with Allan Harvey, Lily Tomlin was supposed to show up to promote The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, but instead Kate, a rich socialite who backed the filmed version of the show, replaced her, often bashing the star in the process.

Sister Boogie Woman: The Gospel According to Lily Tomlin

Sister Boogie Woman

On her 1975 comedy album, Modern Scream, Lily Tomlin showcased for the first time some of her great characters, including Sister Boogie Woman, a 77-year old blues-singing evangelist.  Sister Boogie Woman was such a hit that Tomlin worked her into many of her theater shows, and she continues to be one of her most requested characters. 

Bobbi-Jeanine: Always an Entertainer

Tomlin’s ethereal entertainer plays the departure lounge

Like many of Lily Tomlin’s cabaret characters, creations who are also professional entertainers, Bobbi-Jeanine is one that is both perfectly dated and yet easily updatable. Bobbi-Jeanine, from her over-hairsprayed coif to her off-color eye shade and gowns to her use of a pedal organ, seems to come straight out of the 70s. But her routine of mixing song with personal philosophy permits her to continually update her act for any time period. In the above video, Tomlin’s lounge lady is working the airport when she meets up with the famous Lily Tomlin.

Trudy, The Bag Lady: Crazy Smart

Special version of Trudy with Tomlin’s 9 to 5 costars Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton

One of Lily Tomlin’s most memorable characters is Trudy, a bag lady who gives wise, offbeat observations to people who pass her on, as she would put it, the intersection of “Walk, Don’t Walk.” Trudy is so popular that she has her own Twitter account (@TrudytheBagLady) and her own Facebook page. In Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Trudy stands in as a sort of emcee guiding viewers through her various characters, as well as the person the aliens have sought out to help them find “intelligent life.” In the above video, Tomlin brings her 9 to 5 costars Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton into Trudy’s world.

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