Lesbian performer Lily Tomlin, who came to fame as the humorously unpleasant telephone operator Ernestine, has won the Mark Twain Prize for 2003, awarded by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. "Lily Tomlin, like Mark Twain, offers her genius wholeheartedly, as she levels the playing field all across society and evokes the most healing of all responses: laughter," said Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser. The announcement said her comedy, like Twain's, expresses truths we already recognize unconsciously, and she allows us to embrace frailties without shame or embarrassment.
Over 30 years ago Tomlin, now 64, won popularity on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In with Ernestine's pompous attitude and lines like "Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?" Later stage successes included the one-woman show she cowrote with Jane Wagner, the long-running Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. One of the many characters she takes on wonders thoughtfully, "What's the good of being a hedonist if you're not having a good time?" Tomlin later starred in a film version and is currently appearing in an eight-week revival of the play, which opens Thursday at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. She recently joined the TV series The West Wing.
Previous winners of the Mark Twain Prize include Richard Pryor and Whoopi Goldberg. It includes a bronze reproduction of an 1884 bust of Mark Twain sculpted by Karl Gerhardt. Tomlin's award ceremony at the Kennedy Center is scheduled for October 26, to be recorded by PBS for later broadcast.