Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Life, liberty and the pursuit of wackiness

If Tracey Ullman seems a bit defensive about her new project, we'll have to cut her some well-earned slack.

It has been 20 years since the legendary British comedian first charmed North American audiences with her hilarious, groundbreaking series The Tracey Ullman Show, and over 10 years since her follow-up hit Tracey Takes On ... Since her introduction to the New World, Ullman has appeared in everything from David Hare's morose period piece Plenty (alongside no less than Meryl Streep, with whom she more than held her own) to Woody Allen's last true hit Small Time Crooks and John Waters's lurid sex farce A Dirty Shame. She is also in constant demand as a voice artist and sitcom guest star.

When you mention Tracey Ullman to people old enough to remember her first foray into U.S. television, a fond smile blossoms. She is still beloved, even if she has been off the radar for a bit too long.

Story continues below advertisement

Her new sketch comedy series, Tracey Ullman's State of the Union, will probably broaden her fan base, but might cause older fans to wonder whether she is treading too-familiar waters. The show relies heavily on Ullman's considerable impersonation skills, but, in this viewer's opinion, lacks the heart of her earlier work. And while State of the Union purports to be an examination of the excesses and silliness of America's polarized culture, it indulges in some problematic politics of its own.

Arguably, that's the whole point. State of the Union may not please Ullman's long-time fans, but she deserves applause for daring to put her lovability on the line.

Here's the obvious first response: You've recently become a U.S. citizen, and the first thing you do is make a show satirizing the U.S. What an ingrate.

I don't see it as that! Ha! I've been doing this for years. I dunno, I see it as my view of America, protected by the First Amendment. I don't think I do it in a mean-spirited way. I think political satire is alive and well in America right now, thank goodness, so I don't think what I do is any more vitriolic than anybody else.

When I first came to America, it was really hard to make fun of people - not even to make fun, but to be satirical. I don't know, I've seen how well Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart's shows are doing, and the resurgence of Saturday Night Live. ... I think Americans are changed, are a bit more cynical now, more SCTV-ish.

It was tough after 9/11; there was a sort of air of McCarthyism. So, I wanted to assure my place here, in a way, and psychologically, citizenship has freed me to say a bit more than I used to say. I feel I can do it because I've lived here a long time, I've had a good career here, my kids are Americans. That makes something in your heart - you want to join in.

And now they can't kick you out.

Story continues below advertisement

No, exactly! I ain't going to Guantanamo Bay, mate! I also wanted to vote, after the last election. I wanted to have my say.

Well, Hillary or Barack - or John?

Ha! Ha! Oh, I would never talk about my voting.

What's the difference between funny and mean?

I don't know if I can define that. ... I certainly don't do things in a mean-spirited way. I impersonate people because I'm just fascinated to impersonate them. I've done it since I was a little kid. I could sit for hours and look at myself in the mirror and pretend to be smoking and having a tough life, like someone in a Ken Loach film. I never wanted to be anyone glamorous; I wanted to be someone with problems. I see myself as a character actress.

You do blackface in your new show, and there are many people in the U.S. who are uncomfortable with blackface. How did you negotiate that?

Story continues below advertisement

Well, I did it 20 years ago.

Granted, but from a British context, with completely different connotations.

I don't see it as that any more. I never did. In '87, when I first did a black character, Eddie Murphy had been a white man, so I thought, 'Why can't I be a black woman?' If I'm going to show everybody in America, a wide range of people, how could I not be black? How could I not be black, Indian, male, gay, celebrities, old people? But I don't think I've denied an African American a job! The nature of the show is that I try to play everybody.

What happens when you bump into a celebrity you've impersonated? Is it awkward?

No, no. I've not really done a lot of celebrities. I just love people like [writer]Arianna Huffington, who I do on the show - I love her voice so much, and I do know her, and I'm struck by how much she sounds like Eva Gabor. She's thrilled; she doesn't mind.

How about more temperamental celebs, like the Beckhams? Your David Beckham is pure gold.

I think they'll be fine. David Beckham is from the same place as my husband. I think I make him rather endearing, and I think I look more like Gary Oldman than David Beckham.

I just bought a $500 pair of jeans and took it from there, really.



Dec. 30, 1959, Slough, England.


Ullman's father died when she was 6, and she soon became something of a performer. She started acting school at age 12, which led to a successful career as a stage actress and impersonator.


Already a British star, she crossed over into music with retro pop tunes; the single They Don't Know was a hit in Britain and the United States.


In the late eighties, her variety show The Tracey Ullman Show included a one-minute cartoon feature called The Simpsons. She later sued the Fox network for a share of merchandise royalties from the spinoff show and reached a settlement. She is married to Allan McKeown, who's an executive producer on her new show, and they have two children.

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨