"I'm proud to be here today and get this award," Lily Tomlin told her audience. "I once did a 'Laugh-In' with Jack Benny. I watched him as a youngster, just like kids later watched Ernestine and dressed like her. But I never dressed up like Jack Benny."
Dressed in a rose-colored pants suit, comedienne Tomlin paid her tribute Wednesday to the late comedy great as she received UCLA's "Jack Benny Award for Excellence in Entertainment." Previous winners of the prestigious award have included Johnny Carson, Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Rodney Dangerfield, George Burns, Joan Rivers, David Letterman and Bill Murray.
Benny, Tomlin said, "was one of the funniest people in the world. I am indeed honored."
Judging by the standing ovation she received from a packed Royce Hall, it could not have been a more popular choice.
She rewarded the audience with a compilation of film clips that included her characters Edith Ann, Bobby Jeanine (the cocktail lounge organist), Tommy Velour (the Vegas showroom singer) and Ernestine, among others. They revealed her one of those rare talents whose broad physical comedy is laced with genuine wit.
The award is given annually by the university's Campus Events Commission. Tomlin gave a brief thank-you speech after receiving it and stood for a question and answer session.
Asked about her start in show business, she said, "Theater was my first passion. I never thought of being in movies or television. The stage was always my foundation. To me, it's the freest form of expression. If you can get the audience to suspend disbelief, you can ask them to go anywhere at all."
To another question about her favorite comedians today, she listed Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Joan Rivers, the cast of SCTV (particularly Catherine O'Hara "whose career I'm watching with great interest"), Christopher Guest and Billy Crystal.
She mentioned Lucille Ball and Imogene Coca as early influences, as well as Jean Carroll. "I was influenced foremost by Ruth Draper, who was a monologuist," Tomlin said. "Mike Nichols and Elaine May also had a big impact on me," she added, noting that Nichols and May elevated the tenor of jokes.
"The '50s had mostly debasing jokes with no content or relevance to people's lives," she said. "It was 'My wife is so fat that when she sits around the house, she really sits around the house.' They debased women. They debased humanity."
In her One Small Step For Getting Even, Tomlin cited a Jean Carroll joke: "I'll never forget the sight of my husband standing on a hill, the wind blowing his hair, and he too proud to run after it."
The joke had been lifted from one of Carroll's Ed Sullivan Show routine, which Tomlin, who was still a young girl, unconscionably purloined and performed in her Detroit neighborhood, undaunted by the knowledge that everyone else had seen the routine on television, too and already knew the jokes.
Asked if she thought anything out of bounds for humor, she pondered a moment and replied "It's the sensibility with which the subject is treated. My own intuition is to make a connection with the audience, not to create a division but a healing comedy. (In that spirit) I don't think anything is taboo."
On being a "serious" actress: "I don't fantasize doing 'A Doll's House' with Jeremy Irons. I am an actress and I have done serious roles, but I don't have any fantasy for something special. Any ideas?" (Next spring, Tomlin will be making a sequel to "9 To 5" with Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda).
She attempted to describe her upcoming show, "The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," which was written for Tomlin by Jane Wagner, who directs (it recently closed a year-long run on Broadway and opens at the James A. Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood Nov. 5).
Tomlin said the show deals with a group of extra-terrestrial aliens who hire Trudy, a bag lady, as a creative consultant and how she leads them to a variety of differing characters, all of whom become connected in the course of the play.
Someone asked her to give an Ernestine snort. " 'Laugh-In' went off in '73," she said. "A little girl of three did Ernestine for me in '75--meaning she had to be 18 months old when she saw Ernestine. It was amazing. Of course I'll snort for you." She snorted. It sounded like a pig cozying up to a meal.
She mentioned how she had recently sat for a body cast for Ernestine. (The full figure is on display in her brother's Kentucky museum, called Chez Tomlin, which is devoted to her career). "My mother was afraid I'd never get out of the cast. I'd never seen Ernestine in full figure before. There was something attractive about her. And sensitive." Brief pause. "And deeply sexual."
As the session began breaking up, she said. "Most of you are how old? Eighteen? Twenty?" The crowd murmured yes. "I should say something inspirational or uplifting, shouldn't I?" She thought for a few seconds and sighed.
It was the first time through the entire event that she found herself at a loss for words.