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Lily Tomlin brings act to Northern Quest Sunday

Fri., April 23, 2010, midnight

Lily Tomlin is a two-time Tony-winning actress and movie/TV star – and she’s also one of the true comedy innovators of her generation, right up there with Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Steve Martin.

And she has the censorship battle scars to prove it, back from her days playing Ernestine the telephone operator on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”

“I couldn’t dial the phone with my middle finger,” said Tomlin, laughing. “And when we talked about the phone itself, we couldn’t use the term either ‘equipment’ or ‘instrument.’

“I can’t remember which – they both seem the same to me. (Slipping into Ernestine’s voice) ‘We understand you put sequins on your instrument. Or on your equipment.’ ”

Tomlin, who comes to Northern Quest Casino on Sunday night, said her “Laugh-In” collaborators were like “the mischievous kids getting something into the school play that the teacher didn’t want.”

She came of age during the 1960s, when her kind of comedy was still mainly underground.

“Comedy was at a kind of a crossroads,” she said in a phone interview. “The old-time comedy, the ‘take my wife, please’ kind of guys, they were all on TV. The younger generation really hadn’t broken through yet.”

So Tomlin didn’t do jokes, didn’t do stand-up. She was doing character monologues from the beginning.

“I was living in New York and didn’t really want to be on TV,” she said. “I wanted to be a stage actress, and I wasn’t keen to be famous.

“I thought you sacrificed a lot as an artist if you were famous or on television. This was back in my innocent days.”

So she had parts in small shows and worked on creating a stable of characters. Even back then, she had Ernestine.

Her first break came when Merv Griffin, known for supporting unknown comics, booked her on his talk show a few times.

George Schlatter, the producer of “Laugh-In,” saw her and made her an offer in 1969.

“Laugh-In” was already a huge hit, a “cultural watermark,” said Tomlin.

But she was still in her innocent days and instead, decided to do a new show, “Music Scene,” which featured the hippest musicians of the time, including the Beatles and Janis Joplin.

Turns out, she said, the nation’s parents did not approve of “watching long-haired dopers in prime time.”

“So that lasted only half a season,” said Tomlin. “Then I went to ‘Laugh-In.’ ”

She became one of the biggest stars on a show full of household names. She stayed on “Laugh-In” until 1973 – by which time the entire country became well acquainted with Ernestine.

Tomlin cemented her reputation with several Emmy-winning comedy specials, then returned to her roots as an actress.

She went to Broadway, winning a Tony Award in 1977 for her one-woman show “Appearing Nitely” and another in 1986 for her brilliant one-woman play, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” written by her partner, Jane Wagner.

Meanwhile, she has established a reputation as a film actress, appearing in a list of memorable movies including:

• “Nashville” (1975)

• “9 to 5” (1980)

• “All of Me” (1984)

• “Shadows and Fog” (1992)

• “I Heart Huckabees” (2004)

• “A Prairie Home Companion” (2006)

Her TV roles have been equally notable:

• The presidential secretary Deborah Fiderer on “The West Wing.”

• Kay Carter-Shepley on “Murphy Brown.”

• Roberta Simmons on “Desperate Housewives.”

• And, most recently as Marilyn Tobin on the Glenn Close drama, “Damages.”

So Tomlin started out wanting to be an artist and actress – and that’s exactly what she became.

Even when she does her solo comedy show at Northern Quest, you’ll still be seeing Lily Tomlin, actress.

Ernestine, Edith Ann, Mrs. Beasley are all, essentially, character roles developed over a long and impressive career.

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