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Click for Cover to Lily Tomlin Album - 'This is a Recording' (Polydor, 1971)Ernestine, 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."

As 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, two 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

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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