When Lily Tomlin appears onstage at the Kennedy Center next week, she won’t be alone. “I do about 10 to 12 characters,” the veteran comedian and actor says. “I bill it as an evening of classic Lily Tomlin.” Those characters may include some of her best-known personalities, such as Ernestine the telephone operator (“one ringy dingy… two ringy dingies…”) and perpetual moppet Edith Ann. That’s not all Tomlin will be doing. “I talk to the audience, I use video to sort of ridicule myself,” she says. “It’s about the world and it’s about the human condition and about everything else that goes on. If you can imagine that.” It’s easy to imagine Tomlin doing anything. As a writer and performer, she’s won six Primetime Emmy awards, the first three of which date back to her mid-’70s variety specials, and she’s been nominated in each of the past four years for her current role on the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie.” She’s also won a Grammy and been nominated for an Oscar. And she still had time to take our call after just one or two ringy dingies.
When you do these live shows, do you feel that the audience is waiting for you to bust out one of your greatest hits?
Maybe a little bit. They might be waiting for Ernestine or something, but I think there’s a lot of other stuff that goes on that they find very engaging.
Have the characters that you’ve done for so long changed at all? Has your approach to them changed?
Some of them live in a certain time frame, but some stay current. Even though Edith is maybe pushing 50, she’s still 5½ years old. She’s just 5½ in this world. The characters live on their own, in a kind of way, but I’m always trying to make them better. I’m always working on the language.
What do you still want to do that you haven’t done?
I’d like to live forever. I think there’s maybe an outside chance that could happen. I saw a picture of Catherine Deneuve’s mother; she’s 107. Her hair was white and lovely and she looked reasonably attractive and I thought, “Wow. I could aim for Catherine Deneuve’s mother’s aura.”
What inspires you to keep working?
I don’t do nearly as many shows as I would normally do because “Grace and Frankie” takes up half the year. I think about relaxing and stopping and laying back — and I do a fair amount of that. I just want to keep my hand in the game. I want to be dealt in now and then.
But you could be sitting on a private island somewhere!
I don’t want to sit on a private island! I have to do “Grace and Frankie”!
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Wed., 8 p.m., $39-$129.