Stage & Dance

Lily, ernestine are up-to-date

CINCINNATI — The event is called An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin, but don't expect a rehash of Laugh-In material.

"It's the characters that are classic," Tomlin said of her show, which plays Cincinnati on Friday. "I want the material to be timely and relevant. Of course, I'll do Ernestine and Edith Ann, so it depends on what you put in their mouths."

The program is somewhere between stand-up comedy and theater, she said, more structured than the former and more free-wheeling than the latter.

"I deal directly with the audience and talk about what's going on in the world ... through the mouths of my characters," she said.

"Ernestine is one of the easiest to deal with because she can roll with the punches," she said of the erstwhile telephone operator who, after losing her job at the telephone company, found other careers, most recently as the host of a reality-based Internet chat show using her Webcam.

Tomlin, 69, has taken to the Internet age in high style herself. Her site,, has an extensive archive of her material, including commercials she made before her national breakthrough on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In in 1969.

"I've kept everything," she said. "I was very big on documenting my career for the first 20 or 30 years. If I was on a television show or a radio program, I always made sure I got a copy of it."

The Internet not only allowed her to make truly classic Tomlin material available, it gave her the opportunity to preserve magnetic tapes, which degrade over time. But it's so full that she's thinking about what the next phase of the Internet would be for her.

In the meantime, she's been active in developing, Women on the Web, with a group of female entertainers including Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Ganz Cooney, Candice Bergen, Marlo Thomas and Tomlin's partner, Jane Wagner.

"It's everything," Tomlin said. "Politics, culture, all kinds of things. It's a great site for women, especially women over 40, but I think it's drawn a much broader audience."

Tomlin, whose family has roots in Kentucky, said she has always embraced and explored new media.

"I did video in my act when I first toured in the early '70s, where I could do projections and interact with myself," she said.

"It was half-inch tape in those days, but I also would put a live camera in the audience to put people on stage. I would even have my mother interview people before the show to pre-tape their reactions and roll it into the program."

She once created a television pilot of a fake reality show based on spy-camera technology.

"We built a whole set to replicate my house," she said, "and everyone in the house wore a camera."