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Lily Tomlin Finds A Parking Place, And Other Comedic Insights

Lily Tomlin calls for our interview just before lunchtime.

She's on the road, driving through Beverly Hills. I ask her to park before we start in on the questions, because I don't want to be the guy who distracted Lily Tomlin while she was behind the wheel.

"OK, here I am!" she says into her phone, after about 90 seconds of searching for a place to put her car.

This scene is not unusual. Tomlin, 74, is usually on the go. In 2015, she'll appear with Jane Fonda in a new Netflix series called "Grace and Frankie." And her one-woman show, "Lily Tomlin Live," plays Friday and Saturday at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. 

The show features the myriad of characters for which Tomlin is famous: Ernestine the operator, Trudy the Bag Lady and little Edith Ann, to name a few. She's been creating characters since she was a little girl in Detroit, not much older than Edith Ann.

"I put on shows, always, on my back porch," Tomlin said. "I was forever imitating the neighbors or relatives or my mother and father, making up skits and things to do."

She tap danced. She did magic. She did ballet — "I learned that at the Department of Recreation" — and wore her mother's slips as evening dresses.

"I'd go to every apartment in the building, or try to get in," she said. "I was fascinated by everybody."

The characters she would create throughout her career became famous through "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," a series of TV specials, appearances on "Saturday Night Live" and more. 

Her characters have changed through the years. Ernestine the Operator, once a power-hungry and unflappable agent of Ma Bell, is still making phone calls, but now for a health insurance company "denying coverage to everybody," Tomlin said. 

Ernestine, in particular, addresses issues of the day. In the 1980s, she poked fun at President Reagan and the nuclear arms race ("because I'm against anything that endangers my career," she said during an in-character interview with Joan Rivers). More recently, Ernestine's sharp wit was aimed at President George W. Bush. Her comedy is also commentary.

"Even if it's saying something that unites us: 'Look, this is what we're all sharing,"' Tomlin said. "This is a common human experience, and the familiarity of it is funny, or the understanding of it, or the compassion of it."

Performing comedy has taught Tomlin to have more compassion for herself, and for others, she says. It's an instinct born out of her childhood in Detroit.

"There were rich people and really poor people, and the rich people were constantly moving, to get away from the poor people," she said. 

The Tomlin from back then would be surprised to see the path her life took.

"I didn't have any great expectation," she said. "I found out that I loved doing it, and thinking about it, and trying to come up with stuff, and that was all it took. How fortunate is that?"

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.