The queen of comic characters

We give Lily Tomlin a ringy-dingy before her Saturday appearance at St. Kate's to find out what she's been up to lately.

Lily Tomlin sits in an oversized chair at Clift Hotel in San Francisco in 2001.

Photo: Randi Lynn Beach,

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On the big screen, Lily Tomlin will next be seen with Steve Martin in "Pink Panther II." If you can't wait that long, she's in town Saturday for a show at the O'Shaughnessy, where she will call up several of the characters made famous from her days on "Laugh-In" through her stage show "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," written by her partner, Jane Wagner.

We caught up with Tomlin last week in her Los Angeles office. Her telephone voice -- when she's not channeling Ernestine the bossy telephone operator, Edith Ann the child philosopher or Trudy the bag lady -- is surprisingly soft, delicate and ageless.

Q What characters will you be trotting out Saturday night in St. Paul?

A Whoever I can summon up that night. All of them together are probably a reflection of the neighborhood I grew up in, in Detroit.

Q Do your classic characters ever go on any new journeys?

A Some monologues are timeless, but Ernestine is one of the easiest to get into new things, she's so domineering. She goes where the power is. Most recently she's been working at a big HMO, denying health care to everyone. She has also modeled in a fashion show, ankling around in a coat that gets caught on her big bracelet when she tries to flamboyantly fling it off. Then she has a tantrum onstage. That's one of the secrets of her popularity -- everyone's id lives through her because she's not intimidated by anyone or anything. We can all misbehave vicariously.

Q How much time do you spend contributing to wowowow.com, the new blog you're a part of with several other notable women?

A As much as I can give it. I've done three or four of those conversations they have every day. I don't know how people do it, keeping up with all these websites. I've never even been entirely through my own website [www.lilytomlin.com].

Q Besides you, who's funny working in comedy now? How about It Girl Tina Fey?

A She's a very good comedienne, but she's more of a creator. More in the mode of what I'm attracted to, Tracey Ullman is brilliant, all the characters and the commenting on culture.

Q So, despite the opinion of Christopher Hitchens, women can be funny?

A [Laughs] He's not the first to say that. There was a big fracas about Jerry Lewis doing it, too. That's been going on since the beginning of comedy. Here's one of my favorite stories from back in the early '60s, when I was working at the New York cabaret Upstairs at the Downstairs. Backstage in the dressing room, this actress who played the beautiful ingenue had me doubled over with her stories. So funny. She could make her hair expand by her own will. When I asked her why she didn't put it into her acting, she said, "I wouldn't want anyone to think I was unattractive." That was the thing, you couldn't be both funny and pretty.

Q What about Allison Janney playing Violet Newstead, the role you made famous onscreen, in the upcoming stage-musical version of "9 to 5"?

A Allison is terrific; I worked with her on "The West Wing." I don't think I would do a musical. It's hard to step into someone else's project. Even in the original "9 to 5" movie, I was used to doing my own characters, so the only way I could do it was to pretend I was really some woman named Violet Newstead who had been hired to make an instructive film for office workers.

Q HBO canceled the show "12 Miles of Bad Road," in which you played a Texas matriarch, before even giving it an on-air try. What gives?

A It's not perfect, but it didn't deserve to not be aired. I think the show got caught in the middle of internal fighting at the network.

Q You've been widely quoted as saying, "Ninety-eight percent of the adults in this country are decent, hardworking, honest Americans. It's the other lousy 2 percent that get all the publicity. But then, we elected them." Is that apropos of your feelings in the current political climate?

A How about my other one, "No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up." In the beginning I gave money to Hillary, but I can't let go of my desire to have both her and Obama.

Q What was it like working with Garrison Keillor on "A Prairie Home Companion"?

A That was a sublime shoot; you've got Altman and Keillor. And Meryl Streep. Altman was in the middle of his next film when he died, but he was going through chemo during our shoot, so you did have that sense of mortality. Now Garrison, when I've gone to the Hollywood Bowl to see the show live, I see that dour face of his and it's 10 times funnier than on the radio. It tickles me to death. That "Prairie Home Companion" persona is so much a part of him, he almost doesn't want to violate it himself. He's just very dry, and Meryl -- well, she's like a bad kid in some ways, you'd never believe it about her. Always up for a little foolishness. Once in a while he would give her a line reading, or put his two cents in on what she should do in a scene, and she would turn and do exactly the opposite to rile him up. We were always trying to get a rise out of him; we liked to tease him.

Q Any other fun memories of filming in St. Paul?

A When Meryl and I were rehearsing our singing, we went out for a break and the sky turned red and the air was really still. We thought it was just beautiful until someone yelled, "Get back inside, there might be a tornado coming!" Lindsay Lohan's fans were always on the street ogling. Meryl and I would just step over them.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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  • LILY TOMLIN

    When: 8 p.m. Sat.

    Where: O'Shaughnessy Auditorium, College of St. Catherine, 2004 Randolph Av., St. Paul. Free parking in lot by Fairview Av. entrance just south of Randolph Av.

    Tickets: $35-$75. 651-690-6700 or www. ticketmaster.com.

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