TO CALL LILY TOMLIN a brilliant performer is a waste of breath. With a career spanning over 30 years and virtually every entertainment medium, Tomlin has so distinguished herself in her field that, like Mohammed Ali or Bob Dylan, she now exists in a category all her own. From the toddler Edith Ann spewing raspberries from her jumbo rocking chair on Laugh-In, to the hesitant adulteress Linnea seduced by a crooning Keith Carradine in Robert Altman's Nashville, to the numerous film and television roles that continue to keep her in the public eye, Tomlin has forged so many indelible characters that her stature is now almost mythic, her appeal stunningly widespread. Upon learning of my upcoming interview, people's responses ranged from "Oh my God!" (spoken by my 58-year-old mother) to "Oh my fucking God!" (spoken by my 30-year-old punk rock performance art friend).

However, unlike my two previous "comedy interview" subjects--Ellen DeGeneres and Fran Lebowitz, two funnywomen who've spent their careers honing their personal schticks--Lily Tomlin has no ready-to-wear persona. Her adoring public knows her not so much for who she is, but for what she does. Never content with mere mimicry, Tomlin built a career on her ability to thoroughly embody characters that lesser artists would merely typify. And just as there are no simple "types" in a Lily Tomlin show, there are no simple answers in a Lily Tomlin interview. The question "Who makes you laugh?" kicks off a whirlwind narrative tour through the neighborhood plays she presented as a girl, to her childhood days spent accompanying her father to the racetrack, to a blow-by-blow reenactment of Imogene Coca's comedy striptease on The Show of Shows. The effect is charming, and perfectly illustrates the perpetual openness (and rigorous attention to detail) that makes Tomlin's work so resonant and unique.

By the time you read this, Lily Tomlin will have begun her run of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written and directed by Jane Wagner, at the Seattle Rep. It's a brilliant show, and a tour de force for Tomlin, who won a Tony for Best Actress in a Play during the show's original Broadway run. Don't miss it.

So what's it like to be revisiting The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe in the year 2000?

Well, to me the themes of this show are timeless--failed dreams and idealism and disillusionment, people becoming cynical. Of course, the bar has been raised and raised over these 15 years, but things are not radically different. I mean, for example, I've done many teenaged characters over the years, and they all have a similar thread--they're a little bit out of control, they're a little bit nuts, they're hellishly rebellious, they try to push the envelope and do whatever is current at that time. But things haven't changed that much--their costumes are different, maybe.

Their weapons.

Yeah, now instead of just slapping somebody in the ladies room, maybe you stab 'em. I'm being facetious. Still, no matter how much the technology evolves, we have advanced very little in our human relationships and behavior. We try. For me, the play is about realizing our possibility and connectedness. One of my favorite things that anyone's ever said about the show came from a reviewer, who said, "We were on our feet, applauding our higher selves."

We should mention that the show's written and directed by Jane Wagner, one of the smartest, funniest women on Earth.

Yes, I agree!

You guys have been collaborating forever.

Thirty years living and working together. But don't use the word "collaboration," say "alliance" or something like that. No one believes, or they can't accept, that I don't write the material, or at least write a big part of it. But I don't. I'm a very good editor, I'm a very good perceiver of material, and I'm Jane's typist.

So how does this alliance work? Do you come up with the characters, which Jane fleshes out with words, or vice versa?

Well, one example I can give is the character Trudy, who appears in The Search, but who first appeared in my 1977 show Appearing Nitely. I had been wanting to do a bag lady for a couple of years. I'd work on the physical character, but I could not get Jane's attention to write me a monologue. I'd go up to her and improvise Trudy and I'd say, "Look, this could be so great, you have to write something!" And finally, just to shut me up, she'd write me a monologue. Sometimes that's how stuff comes about. Other times, something comes about completely on the page first. And in the end, the word is what is really important. I mean, I could do Trudy and talk about kooky stuff and you might get a kick out of it, but it's not going to move you or elevate my performance unless I have this wonderful writing that I'm solidly standing on. The word is what transforms everything for me. I follow Jane around and pick up every little scrap of paper. I look through everything I can find, because she's totally careless with her material and stuff. I'll find a notebook and it'll have the most bizarre random assortment of stuff in it, and then I'll find some great little scene she's written.

That's true intimacy, going through your partner's rough drafts.

Honestly, I have boxes--I go through it all the time. I'm looking to salvage whatever I can.

Has The Search been updated for the new production?

Jane and I haven't consciously tried to suggest the change in time, because we quickly discovered that it was absolutely not the right thing to do. It was a betrayal of the play. Certainly I'm always trying to refine my performance and compress it and find some new revelation for myself, but we have not made any significant rewrites. We considered. If we were to make any really significant changes, it wouldn't be The Search, it would be a new play.

Over the past few months I've talked to a number of professional funny people and picked their brains about the current state of comedy. Now it's your turn. Who makes you laugh?

Oh, there's so many. Lucy. I adored Lucy. I adored Bea Lillie and Imogene Coca--I stole material from both of them. I was always a huge fan of Richard Pryor. I loved Gilda [Radner], and I love Ellen [DeGeneres], I think she's very charmingly and innately funny in that kind of overwhelmed, perplexed way. Name some more people--there's so many people, I don't even know who I like anymore.

Well, Ellen picked Jon Stewart as her new favorite, and Fran Lebowitz picked Chris Rock.

Chris is very funny, he does some really great, inventive things. It's so wild--there are so many people doing comedy these days. When I started out, there were very few people doing comedy and very few women. One of my favorite stories about that is when I was working in New York in a revue, this would be like '68 or something, and I wasn't even knowledgeable enough to know that there's an ingenue, a leading lady, and a character woman. I thought, if you're an actor, you can do anything; and it was a long time before I realized I was supposed to be the character woman in the show. Anyway, in this revue, there was a leading lady and there was an ingenue. And the ingenue was so boring onstage it was unbelievable, but in the dressing room she was hilarious! She'd be acting things out and I'd be screaming, "That is so funny, you've got to do that on stage!" And she'd pull herself together and say, "Oh, I wouldn't want anyone to think I was unattractive." That's just how it was in those days. Everybody would say, "Oh, a woman can't do comedy, she'd have to lose her femininity." Back then, women in comedy either had to be fat, scatterbrained, stupid, or ugly. You had to buy that persona for yourself, rather than just being who you were and doing whatever you wanted and having fun with it.

Over the years, what skit or performance has gotten you in the most trouble?

I remember once I was playing at Ball State University in Indiana--this was in the early to mid '70s--and they weren't going to pay me because I said "fuck" on stage. It was a huge thing to them. And all the stuff I've done on television, all the specials--the networks were always coming down on us. The first special I taped, the war was still on in Vietnam, so I taped a piece called "War Games" where the character, Mrs. Beasley, goes out to call her kids for supper and there's a war going on in her backyard. Bombs are flying and she's diving out of the way and stepping over kids' bodies, saying, "Who are these kids anyway??" Finally she sees her kid over the fence and says, "Where have you been? I've been... [scolding angrily] where is your leg?" And it was really a wonderful black piece, very funny and black and wonderful. Anyway, we filmed it in the first show, and oh, the network just hit the ceiling. They made me get rid of "War Games."

Do you think there are topics beyond the reach of humor?

No. I mean, well, possibly yes. You know, it just depends on how you come at it. The worst thing I can think of is a heinous murder, and yeah, it's possible to be funny about murder. I remember one of my favorite things Pryor ever said. This was at a time when it was not fashionable to suggest that people should stay in prison, and he must've played at a prison or something, because afterwards he said, "You know, I'm glad some of those guys are in prison. I talked to this one dude and I said 'Man how could you do that?' He was in Kansas and he killed a whole family in a farmhouse--he killed the mother and the father, and, like, six children, and the grandmother and two neighbors and just a whole bunch of people. And I said, 'Man, how could you do that? You just walked into the house and killed all those people?' And the guy said, 'Well, they was home.'"

Speaking of funny, what's funnier: a witty bon mot, or someone slipping on a banana peel?

[Long pause.] It depends on who's doing the slipping, and who's delivering the quip. Because somebody might have a really bad delivery and somebody might have a great slip-and-fall. So I don't know. Artistry comes into this.

Both Ellen DeGeneres and Fran Lebowitz immediately chose "falling down."

They did?

Don't fret, they're obviously worse people than you. Hey, I have to tell you that I just watched Nashville again, and you were so damn great in that movie.

Well, thank you. I was nominated for an Oscar.

I know. Who beat you?

Lee Grant beat me for Shampoo.

That's a crime. I'm going to write a letter.

You should.

How does your experience acting on film compare with your work in theater?

Well, it's like what Trudy says at the end of The Search, about the space aliens and their emphasis on theater--how they get goose bumps from watching the audience instead of the play. That's the essence of the theatrical experience. You have a bunch of people sitting in the dark together, watching something live that they're all participating in in that moment, something that will never be exactly the same again. And that's what I mean when I say theater is beautiful--that's what theater is about for me. There are times it just takes your breath away. It's like seeing God or something.