Now That She's A U.S. Citizen, Tracey Ullman Turns Her Attention To Her Newly Adoptive Homeland.
By Karl J. Paloucek
She's been many different people over the years, but she's always been inimitably Ullman. Tracey Ullman, onetime star of Tracey Takes On ... and her other self-titled show that launched The Simpsons, returns to TV this month with her new series, Tracey Ullman's State of the Union. Unlike her previous excursions into sketch comedy, this venture features Ullman in a string of short, expertly segued vignettes that bring the viewer on a journey across this fair land. "I've done it in, kind of, YouTube segments, because I think people's focus is going," she explains. "They can only do, like, 30-second to 90-second pieces. And in that way, we manage to get across the nation."
What else is different is the appearance of celebrities on her show -- all mimicked by Ullman, of course. "I haven't done it for years," she says, recalling that the last time she parodied celebs was for a BBC Radio 4 program in the early '80s. "I wanted to be David Beckham and Ariana Huffington. There were some delicious voices like that I wanted to do ... like Renee Zellweger and Tony Sirico, and Helen Mirren and Judi Dench."
Ullman may be skewering the famous, but they're only part of her target that is today's media-obsessed America. "I always think that 20 or so years ago, America didn't have the ability to laugh at itself as much as Europeans, because we're so self-deprecating," she offers. "And the satire was always more acute in Europe. Do you remember when they brought over that British series, Spitting Image? ... I thought, 'This'll never last, this show -- they're not ready!' And you weren't -- and it was cancelled very quickly."
It might seem cheeky to some, a Brit-by-birth coming over here and having a go at us Colonials. But for those folks, Ullman has news: She's one of us -- officially. "I became an American last year," she explains. And while she's happy for what it means for her and her family, she does feel it also gives her a certain license she hasn't had in the past. "It gave me the confidence to go a step further in what I want to say about our country. Because I've been at parties over the years, and a couple of people have said to me [in American accent], 'Yeah, but you know, you're not American. You're British.' I'm sorry. I've lived here for 25 years. I've invested a lot of time and effort in this country, and reaped many rewards. I understand the place and have traveled all over, and I just felt, 'You know, it's time to become an American.' It's lovely to be given that option. Not many places do that."
Tracey Ullman Takes On ...
Tracey Ullman slipped into character numerous times during our discussion, so we thought we would give you a preview of some of the voices to which you can look forward in Tracey Ullman's State of the Union. Your audio tour starts here
As grateful as Ullman is for that opportunity, though, she may be almost as thankful that in the decades she has spent on these shores, America has started to catch up in the acerbic satire department. "It's brilliant, all the satire in America -- Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert," she says. "[Americans have] developed more of a sense of laughing at themselves and being more aware of the rest of the world -- not living in this bubble of patriotism."
But if freedom rings through Tracey Ullman's State of the Union, it rings loudest in her choice of characterizations, which tell us almost as much about her perspective on American life as it does about us in general. She's quick to point out that not all of them are strictly comic -- though she can't seem to help being amusing as she does so. "We have this woman called Irma Billings, who's in Plainfield, Nebraska," Ullman explains. "As we edited the show, we all went, 'I really like her. She makes you feel calm, you know?' You go, 'Where did you get your pants from?' 'They're just pants.' 'Who cuts your hair?' 'I don't know. My haircut's cut.' You know, I like that sort of quality within the show."
"I love the look of her," she says. "She looks like she has a simple life, and does her washing, and wears the same clothes. She's got blue eyes. I got some nice contact lenses, and just a boring haircut, and she's just happier, probably, than anyone in the show. I love people like that. I love being people like that. It's very relaxing. It's quite an unusual thing to be able to be all these people and dress up as all these people. It's like going into an Internet chat room and pretending you're someone else. I get to do it physically, as well, and I find it a psychological experiment."
One of her favorite "experiments" from her new series was inspired by one of the crew from The Sopranos. "I loved being Tony Sirico -- "Paulie" Walnuts -- for some reason. Because I like the way he talks," she says, shifting into appropriate Jersey-speak. "I always love it when actors say that, when they say [back into character], 'I wanna do somethin' different. I wanna show my range. I wanna play a totally different character.' ... You think, 'You can't!'"
On the other hand, playing totally different characters is what Ullman does best, and it ensures that in her projects, she gets a huge amount of screen time, a situation that apparently is motivated at least partly by marriage. "Me and my husband finance these shows, and my husband wants me onscreen a lot!," she says, amused, of her other half, coproducer Allan McKeown. "It's kind of like Andrew Lloyd Webber/Sarah Brightman, Pia Zadora -- you know, those kind of women." She knows it's always going to be this way when they work together, and she knows that somewhere out there must be a few people rolling their eyes. "I know someone's like, 'Oh, gosh, she's such a controlling @#$%,'" she laughs. "And these shows, we did them on such a budget that it's like, me, pretty much, all the time!"
As we spoke, Ullman had just returned from India, where her husband is working on a new sitcom. ("It's all about call centers.") She marvels at the country's bustling economy, and raves about the abundant sartorial opportunities she found there. "I just got some brilliant stuff in India. Brilliant," she says, reflecting a bit on her evolving fashion tastes these days. "Really different, sort of unique. It's very hard as you get older. You've got everything. I find I still am crazy about being an individual. And you have to dress age-appropriately, as you get older. You know, you can't just wear jeans and tight T-shirts -- ulchh. ... As you can imagine -- I just got back from India -- I'm in bloody saris at the moment. In the freezing rain. But I love all the colors and everything."
The woman who imitates everyone is still inimitable. And as State of the Union readies for its premiere, Ullman herself sounds relieved and energized by its possibilities. "It's nice to have a show going out again," she says. "I haven't done it for a while, and it's still as much fun."
When thinking back on her previous shows, it's hard not to ask about the one that inadvertently gave birth to one of the most successful series of all time, The Simpsons. Does she ever get sick of talking about it? "Aw, never," she assures. "It's astonishing, really. To think of what happened to it, and where it went, is quite amazing. I'm so proud of it. I do have a tiny piece of it, and it's certainly paid off more residuals than The Tracey Ullman Show ever did. I always say, you know, I wish I could get three minutes in the middle of their show."
In 1992, she did try -- unsuccessfully -- to sue for a stake in some of the hefty merchandising profits that The Simpsons had been enjoying. If there's any bitterness left over at the outcome, it's virtually indiscernible as she sings the praises of its voice talent and the show's creator. "Matt Groening is a genius," she says. "Knew it the second he came in and pitched the idea to us all those years ago." Still, she can't help but marvel at the amount of ephemera the show has spawned. "It's amazing. The bloody products of The Simpsons -- there's gonna be Simpsons Depends in a minute, as the population gets older. I mean, how many more things can they put The Simpsons on? Simpsons adult diapers," she laughs. "It'll pay for my old age, hopefully."
Tracey Ullman's State of the Union premieres on Showtime March 30.
originally published — March 2008