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Like Max Headroom, Tracey Ullman seemed to materialize upon the American scene - without any warning - as a full-fledged star. Unlike Max, she wasn't pitching Coke, and she definitely wasn't the creation of a committee. She's a comedienne/actress/singer/dancer who disappears into her eccentric roles completely, who recognizes no difference between American and British senses of humor, and whose devastating portraits of modern American women could only be done by a foreigner.

Before The Tracey Ullman Show materialized on the fledgling Fox Network in 1986, American audiences had only seen her in an MTV video with Paul McCartney, and as Meryl Streep's girlfriend in Plenty. But in England she was already a cult queen. Born near London in Slough, her father died when she was six, and her mother instigated her entrance into show biz. She made her first professional stage appearance at the age of 16 in Berlin, and went on to join the Second Generation Dance Troupe, which appeared on several TV variety shows. Then came West End musicals like Grease and The Rocky Horror Show, and she eventually won the London Theater Critics Award for Most Promising New Actress of 1981. This led to two hit TV series, which led to a British Academy Award, which led to four top ten singles, which led to McCartney, which led to America, where she now lives with her husband, producer Allan McKeown, and her two year old daughter, Mable Ellen.

Her show was an unlikely bet for Fox to place, but their hesitance was certainly modified by a staff with television pedigrees up the wazoo. Producer Richard Sakai did Taxi, executive producer James Brooks did The Mary Tyler Moore Show while Jerry Belson did The Dick Van Dyke Show. With the unconventional animation of Matt Groening, and exceedingly sensitive, comical co-stars like Julie Cavner, Dan Castellaneta, Joe Malone, and Sam McMurray, how could this turn out to be anything but one of the most innovative shows on the air?

The Tracey Ullman Show is shamelessly modern. It's a consistently accurate exploration of the whole panorama of anxieties that are singular to the '80s. Imagine another decade where anyone would be concerned with the exploits of a little girl trying to cope with two gay dads. Tracey's impersonation of a current American teenager is so accurate it's frightening, and it's just one of many eclectic recurring characters on the show. Remarkably, each character seems to advance with each new sketch, even though they may be months apart, as Tracey explores new quirks and odd angles of their personalities. She's persistent in her belief that they have to grow as people or become gratuitous and worthless.

The show is a series of slices of pitiful life, full of off-kilter juxtapositions. Her approach to musical numbers is particularly unique. Who is the least likely person to break into song at any one moment of space and time, and what is the least likely song they would break into? Full scale production numbers appear from out of nowhere: a cop and a potential suicide do a dance number on the edge of a building, a thief pulls a gun on a suicidal clerk at a pharmacy who suddenly bursts into song.

TV sketch artists can have difficulty moving to the big screen because of the intrinsically different skills necessary to master both mediums. In a TV skit, it's imperative to deliver all there is to know about the character immediately, so they're inevitably painted with broad strokes. But the art of film acting is the art of gradually revealing character; show all your cards up front and the audience has no incentive to watch the rest of the film.

Which is why Tracey is such a unique television talent. She's a sketch artist who gradually reveals character, bringing sensitivity to an area that's usually as subtle as a pie in the face. She also revels in looking ugly, and openly admits that she never wanted to be Cinderella, preferring to be an ugly stepsister. She creates bizarre characters that remind you of people you would avoid in the street. Their common bond is unjustified hope, a bright-eyed optimism that usually ends up paying off the wrong way. In one exercise in futility, she goes to a plastic surgeon for "carefree breasts and a pugnacious rear," but it's obvious that it won't help. As an obnoxious, chirpy busybody sitting at a bus stop, she gets everyone to sing along with her in a hysterical version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight, only to discover they were using the song as an excuse to pick pockets.

Her portrayals are obviously derived from reality, but usually from a strata of humanity the rest of television avoids. Tracey says she always bases a character on someone she knows, which may explain why they're never surface impersonations, why she never seems to be making fun or condescending. Her genuine love of eccentrics always shines through the laughs. She celebrates the ordinary, never allowing us to laugh at her characters, but always at the traits in ourselves that we recognize in them. Jackie Gleason, Carol Burnett, the gang on Saturday Night Live, never let you forget who they really are; that way you'll be more obviously impressed by their skill. But Tracey's talent seems as egoless as you can get (at least for someone with a TV show named after them).

Whenever Meryl Streep blesses us with another stunning regional vocal impersonation, she sounds like a master classical pianist doing scales on a Steinway Grand. "Look how fast I can do triplets in Bb," she seems to be saying. I'm impressed. Now play something.

But when Tracey Ullman enters, it's jazz, an exploration of the unknown. She's grooving on a riff and seeing where it takes her. Her accents don't seem studied at all, there's no blatant technique. That's what makes the show so uniquely fascinating - she isn't making fun of these poor wretches, or trying to wring out pathos by the bucket. She isn't even trying to impress us with her dexterity by showing off with technical tricks. She's a portrait artist, inhabiting characters without commentary, like Diane Arbus as a performance artist. She's clearly fascinated by her subject matter - the lower class - but there's no condescension, no satire, she's organically clever.

I visited the set during rehearsal, but since it was the first read-through, I wasn't allowed to watch. Eventually, the whole cast got to go to the commissary to chow down on studio food, while Tracey got me in the dressing room - a one hour discussion for lunch, no yogurt, just questions, no endive salad, just another interview with a national magazine. Tracey feeds on journalists. 

I was prepared for a Robin Williams scatterbrain, a relentless mimic, a walking, talking, silly putty of a person whose main mode of expression is making fun of the modes of expressions of others. Instead, I got a serious workaholic, a relentless craftsman out to create the best television the world has ever seen.

MD: Can you trace the evolution of a piece, from the germ of the idea to its completion?
TU: Every piece is so different. Some start out as just characters, but turn into something completely the opposite. There's a workshop feel about the show. Working with the same people week after week brings out inspiration. You have to have an open discussion or you end up with actors saying fuck you to the writers and writers saying fuck you to the actors. It's a very delicate balance - to not hurt people's feelings. There are so many ideas that go into this show that don't look worthwhile at first, or seem strange, but then ultimately serve a purpose. I mean I've been proved wrong so many times. Today was a bit frustrating, but I don't mind Monday's like this at all. Sometimes they go perfectly and the whole week comes together great. If it's confusing, then we know we've got a heck of a week ahead of us. We've got one piece with an Elvis Costello song that does work. We've got very staunch Costello fans in this company, so we know we've got to do a good job. But our choreographer has the flu, so I know that I'll probably have to choreograph the whole routine. We need to cast twelve 14 year old girls, which in itself is a task, and that's just one of the pieces, just one segment. Sometimes the show is a mammoth task and I don't know how we'll get through it.
MD: If you took all the pieces involving one character and cut them together, would they tell one continuous story?
TU: I think some have definitely progressed. We've learned things about Kay, we've learned things about Francesca. The Yuppie couple. They're a mini-series on their own, that lot. They could break off and do their own series.
MD: How do you go about translating your personal experiences into comedy sketches?
TU: The dancer who goes on without any knickers, that was from a personal experience. That was Benny Hill type humor. I want to do a piece on three girls in their 30s who can't find guys. It's not from personal experience, but it's from friends, it's based on reality. Every character I do is based on someone I know. I try to justify every sketch we do. If it's not working, we find someone to talk to who it has happened to.
MD: Do you ever just start out with the song and go from there?
TU: Yeah. Jerry Belson liked Goldfinger, so I did it as a proctologist's wife. That was one of our wittier link-ups. It fell into place quite right. Right now we want to do some Crowded House stuff, but we haven't figured out how.
MD: If your show were propaganda for something what would that be?
TU: Good television. I stay away from messages.
MD: Still, there seems to be a moral quality about your show.
TU: Really? In what sense?
MD: Just the choice of subject matter. It's life as anarchy - full of surprises and completely unpredictable and challenging. It's work to watch your show. You've got to watch carefully or you may miss the punchline.
TU: Good. What I fear most is that you will know where the laughs are going to come, or that you will know a character so well that you know when they're going to sing a song. In some shows, you just know that the audience is sitting there going "Oh no, she's going to sing."
MD: Do you purposely avoid politics? Don't you think politicians are funny?
TU: I don't think I'm mature enough. Actually, it's a very dodgy area, but I'm usually put off by performers when they get political. You see them on the Today Show going (with a devastatingly dumb accent) "Yeah, it's like, you know, like President Reagan, he's got no idea what people want. Your leaders, like they just want to destroy the world, man." And after the show they drive home in their limos. Actually, we might do a piece on those women who go "Darling, we can't do lunch, I've just got to go to Cumbaya and drive an army truck." They hold onto a small child who's hungry, then go back to their homes and feel good about themselves. That's how I perceive actors getting involved in politics and charities. They want even more attention for themselves, it's in their nature.
MD: Why not make fun of that?
TU: We've done pieces about Kay where they cut off her mother's health insurance. That's as political as we get. It's an uncomfortable area. People get uptight about it, don't they. It's sometimes shocking to find out what people really believe in.
MD: Are you an American citizen?
TU: No.
MD: So you're not excited at all about tomorrow's election?
TU: Your choices are just as dreadful as ours in England, aren't they? "I don't want my taxes to go up," that's all they ever think about. I wish I could believe that one person could make a difference.
MD: You don't think actors make any difference?
TU: I don't think they do. Give me an example where they have? It's such a complex subject.
MD: Which brings us to the subject of this issue, THE FUTURE!
TU: Why does everyone think the future is space helmets, silver foil, and talking like computers, like a bad episode of Star Trek?  Because of my child, what obsesses me about the future is the environment. That began to scare me this summer. After spending two months in France where the air is great, I genuinely noticed how ill I felt returning to Los Angeles. The way we're going, if they keep building and building, there will be no space any more. We'll end up with nothing but lifestyle haciendas, with Taco Bell outlets in mini-malls. What are we going to do with all these plastic cups.
MD: What do you see yourself doing ten years from now?
TU: I've never looked ahead very much in my life. I've never had any grand plan from the outset. I had no burning ambition to do what I do. I had no idea I'd be doing this because of my embarrassment with saying I'm an actress. I don't like actors, especially in this town, where everyone just wants to be looked at.
     When I think of the future, about what I want for me, personally, I want more children, and perhaps I'll realize what it is I'm good at. I don't know if that will be a good or bad thing, so I don't know how I'll work. Work is important to me. I want to do things for principle, not just for the sake of doing them. I hope I never get so hard up I have to do advertisements. I've gotten ridiculous offers. Did you know David Letterman was offered millions of dollars to do a commercial for dog food?
     You become so encapsulated in this world of being a star. People listen to what you say, you have this voice, it becomes unreal and you become far removed from the people you came from. I worked with Paul McCartney for a while and saw what it does to you to be treated like a God for twenty years. I mean no one ever says to him "Hey, get to the back of the line," or "Shut up a minute!" The simplest little everyday rebuff that we get all the time, never happens to him. What does that do a person? How does it effect their judgment? I'm very aware, and very scared of that happening to me, because where do you get the truth from. That's why I like going to France, because no one knows who I am. No one comes up to me saying (Valley Girl) "I think you're really neat. I love your show." In France, I get "Zere is nossing I can do for you, we are closed."
MD:Are you surprised who your fans are?
TU: Yeah, but it's always been like that. The show I did in England catered to a broad range of people. I like that. I don't want nouveau cult status, though I know we've got that sort of audience in the states.
MD: Unfortunately, people have to think when they watch your show, and most Americans don't turn on their TV to think.
TU: As long as it's funny, I don't mind. Do you think we do too many think pieces?
MD: To a certain extent they all are. I never feel safe watching your show, I always have to contemplate what's going on. The point of each segment is almost never clear from the opening second, like it is in normal idiot television. Compared to Cosby, your show is work. You have to pay attention.
TU: Isn't it worth paying attention?
MD: Absolutely, but I don't think I could convince my mother to pay attention to it.
TU: Don't you think we do characters that she would recognize?
MD: She might recognize them from her real life, but they're not clearly satires of people she's already seen on TV.
TU: We never wanted to do parodies. It's been done.
MD: So you would never do a piece just to get back at someone?
TU: We're not here to laugh at people. We don't say "Let's do a piece on this person because I hate them so." I never hear premises like that on why we should do a piece. Actually, we do a bit with the yuppie couple, the me generation. But we do it because it touches us. Jim Brooks is a very sentimental man. He keeps us sensitive, but not mushy. He's got a good heart.
MD: So does your whole show. It's such a pleasure to see sketches that end with smiles instead of a poke in the ribs.
TU: We've done a lot of pokes in the ribs, a lot of black, bleak endings.
MD: How has becoming a mother effected your work?
TU: My daughter Mable has really helped. It's good to not just think about myself all the time. I had no experience with kids. I had no small brothers or sisters. I had to learn what to do with them. I had no idea when they walked, when they talked, when they got teeth, and I didn't like the books because they all contradict each other. It's hard being a working mum, but we have fun. We do shows together. We play all the parts in The Wizard of Oz. She watches the show, and does imitations of Julie Kavner. She's grown up with the show. I love them and they love my kid. It makes you more open, it gives you perspective, having a child.
MD: How do you make love last?
TU: It will always last with my daughter. It's no work at all. It's just there. There are different types of love, and my love for my child is like me and my mum. We've gone through a lot of rocky patches, but we never stop loving. I'm still that little girl who lisped and sat in the back of the car and threw vegetables at the back of her head when we drove home from the market. That never goes. Of course I say that now, but who knows when she's 13 and comes up to me and says "Why can't I try drugs? You know they just make you feel nice for a while."
MD: How about love in a more voluntary relationship?
TU: First you have to question whether you want to make it last. Ten years ago, I never believed in expressions like "you have to work at it." I just thought it either worked or it didn't. But as you get older, you realize it's work. It's that fine line between love and companionship. But passionate love? I'd love to know how to make that last.
MD: Do you think the days of eternal relationships are over?
TU: I think serial monogamy says it all.

--by Michael Dare

(originally printed in Interview Magazine, January 1989)



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