the Operator - Celebrity pseudonym of comedienne Lily Tomlin when she portrayed
"Ernestine, the telephone operator" on the comedy variety program ROWAN AND
MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN/NBC/1968-73. Seated behind an antique switchboard, looking
like a fourth Andrew Sister, Ernestine played havoc with the Phone Company
customer. Unofficially, her motto might be "Reach out and BUG someone."
she waited for her phone call to go through to her customers, she listened
to the phone ringing at the other end of the line and counted "one ringy-dingy,
When someone answered, she nasally continued with "A gracious good
morning to you...Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?" From
then on, all "Bell" broke loose as Ernestine abused her phone customers,
intermittently laughing like a pig (snort! snort!).
"Here at the Phone Company we handle eighty-four billion calls a year.
Serving everyone from presidents and kings to scum of the earth. (snort) We
realize that every so often you can't get an operator, for no apparent
reason your phone goes out of order [snatches plug out of switchboard], or
perhaps you get charged for a call you didn't make. We don't care. Watch
this [bangs on a switch panel like a cheap piano] just lost Peoria. (snort)
You see, this phone system consists of a multibillion-dollar matrix of
space-age technology that is so sophisticated, even we can't handle it. But
that's your problem, isn't it ? Next time you complain about your phone
service, why don't you try using two Dixie cups with a string. We don't
care. We don't have to. (snort) We're the Phone Company!"
-- Lily Tomlin
from "Saturday Night Live: The First 20 Years" (1994 Cader Company).
Lily Tomlin's sharp-tongued satires of such a "sacred cow" as the Phone
Company, especially in the rebellious years of the late 1960s endeared her
to millions of viewers.
In January 1970, California telephone operators made Miss Tomlin an
honorary member of their union, and presented her with a special Cracked
Bell award. Subsequently, the Bell System offered Tomlin $500,000 to do a
series of Ernestine commercials. She turned down their substantial offer,
reportedly because she feared losing artistic control of her character.
Lily's first comedy album "This Is A Recording" (Polydor, 1971) was recorded
live at the Icehouse in Pasadena. The album features bits with Ernestine
dealing with problems from an "Obscene Phone Call"; mistaking a phone call
from mafia boss for the Pope; calling actress Joan Crawford (then head of
the Pepsi Company) to demand her dime back because the Pepsi machine didn't
dispense her pop; butting head with J. Edgar Hoover of the "F.B.I."; and a
conversation with writer Gore Vidal as Ernestine says "Mr. Veedle, you owe
us a balance of $23.64. When may we expect payment? Pardon? When what
freezes over? I don't see why you're kicking up such a ruckus when
according to our files your present bank balance, plus stocks, securities,
and other holdings, amounts to exactly ... Pardon? Privileged information?
Oh! (snort, snort) Mr. Veedle, that's so cute! No, no, no, you're dealing
with the telephone company. We are not subject to city, state, or federal
legislation. We are omnipotent."
Ernestine the operator also appeared on "In a New Light '93," an ABC
awareness special about HIV transmission where she dispensed comedic dirt on
an AIDS hot line.
In 1994, Ernestine accidentally rang up the Vice-President
of the United States in the middle of his address to the Information
Superhighway Summit at UCLA when her ancient switchboard wires got crossed
and rang up Gore by mistake. She proceeded to inquire "Is this Little
Albert?" When Gore asked Ernestine if she would leave her old switchboard to
come to work for the White House She quickly responded "And have access to
your telephone calls? In a heartbeat!"
As the millennium turned and more modern ways have replaced the old
fashioned switchboard, Lily Tomlin as Ernestine confessed in an article
(11/12/2001) for TechTV.com, "I gave the best years of my life to Ma Bell
and what did it get me? When she went to pieces, so did I. I've got
operator's hump from plugging and unplugging, I've got carpal tunnel from
all those years dialing. Oh sure, everything in the workplace, now, is
ergonomically correct. They worked out the kinks on me. Look at this hand: I
can't even flip anybody off anymore."
TRIVIA NOTE: As an homage to the Ernestine character, the Communication
Services at the University of California Santa Barbara named their campus
speech recognition call routing system "Ernestine." The system enables
callers to UCSB's main information line (893-8000) to reach the person or
department they want simply by pronouncing the name. Ernestine will ask for
confirmation of the requested name or department, provide the caller with
the telephone number, and then transfer the call.
In 2003, San Jose Web
communications company WebEx hired Lily Tomlin and her character Ernestine
for their advertising campaign (developed by San Francisco-based advertising
firm BigMouth) entitled "The New Ringy Dingy" for their online meetings
products from WebEx.
In the ad spots Ernestine interrogates and educates an
executive named Mr. Van Winkle "Winkie" about how his company can lower
costs and increase profits by using WebEx.
According to Web Ex "While Tomlin's original character symbolized what
was wrong with impersonal telephone giants, in these ads she is a thoroughly
modern Ernestine, one who understands and empathizes with the on-the-go
employee who relies on travel to make sales calls or to finalize contracts."
Also in 2003, Lily Tomlin won the prestigious "Mark Twain Humor Award" at
the Kennedy Center" for her lifetime achievement as a comedian as well as a
recurring role as assistant to the President in a recurring role on the
popular prime-time TV show "West Wing."
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