We were reminded of how much we adore Tracey Ullman (b. 1959) during the pandemic, when my wife and I whiled away the endless hours by reading to each other and listening to books-on-tape. One of these was one of my wife’s favorite books Angela Carter’s Wise Children (1991), movingly read by Ullman. Naturally, Ullman does a zillion voices — it’s what she’s always been known for. The encounter caused me to catch up with “where’s she been”, though she hasn’t really gone anywhere, her career continues to flourish. Although I will say this: given the extent of her talent and how prevalent she was when she first burst on the scene in America back in the ’80s, I’d have projected her to have been a big movie star. She’s in lots of films, though mostly in supporting parts. Her real home seems to be television, most of it on cable, whereas back in the day she seemed a bit more centrally posited.
I’ve been scratching my head this morning trying to suss out where I first saw her and knew about her. I feel like I already was a fan BEFORE her hit single “They Don’t Know” and several other songs got all that MTV airplay in 1984. And yet, The Tracey Ullman Show didn’t launch until 1987, and her first Carson and Letterman appearances were in ’84 and ’85, also after the single. She also had a cameo in Paul McCartney’s dreadful 1984 film Give My Regards to Broad Street, but of course you don’t rate a cameo until you’re already famous. Where did I first see her??? I note that she was a guest VJ on MTV as part of their build-up to her videos being played there. I almost certainly saw her there. And that MTV presence is not to be sneezed at. She was rocking a camp/retro/classic pop presence when Amy Winehouse was still in her bassinet. But where else can I have seen her? It’s making me bonkers. She had done BBC shows since 1980, cutting up with likes of other up-and-comers like Robby Coltrane and Lenny Henry and a pre-Ab Fab French and Saunders, but I don’t think that stuff got shown here.
At any rate, she was well known in the States by the mid ’80s, and had even appeared in movies like Plenty (1985) and Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986). Her TV variety sketch program launched on the nascent Fox network in 1987. It was produced and devised for her by Gracie Productions, the company of James L. Brooks, creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its many spin-offs as well as the recent smash films Terms of Endearment (1983) and Broadcast News (1987). The cornerstone of the show was Ullman’s chameleon like ability to play wildly divergent characters, including American ones, using wigs, prosthetics, make-up, black-wax, spirit gum, and the works, in the tradition of Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. She starred in sophisticated, long-form sketches with a company that included Julie Kavner (a veteran of Brooks’ sit-com Rhoda), Dan Castellaneta, Sam McMurray and Joseph Levine, with special guest stars. There were also songs and dance numbers choreographed by Paula Abdul, and a theme song by Parliament Funkadelic’s George Clinton, which set the stage aesthetically for Fox’s later variety show In Living Color, which premiered in 1989. The Tracy Ullman show was also the springboard for an even bigger monster Fox hit, The Simpsons, which began as a short segment on the show (hence, the prominence of Kavner and Castellaneta in the cast). Americans embraced Ullman just as warmly as Brits had. Back in her home country she was affectionately known as “Our Trace”, just as Gracie Fields had been known as “Our Grace”. With her working class energy and her skill at impressions and song, Tracey Ullman was MADE for music hall.
The Tracey Ullman Show ended after the fourth season in 1990, but it’s not like she’s been off television since. In addition to a series HBO comedy specials (1991-2005), she has also starred on Tracey Ullman’s Visible Panty Lines (Oxygen, 2001-2002), Tracy Ullman’s State of the Union (Showtime, 2008-2010) and more recent shows on the BBC (2016-18). She was the voice of the animated Little Lulu (1995), and had recurring roles on Ally McBeal, How I Met Your Mother, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Her movies include Lawrence Kazdan’s I Love You to Death (1990), Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), Nancy Savoca’s 1993 independent drama Household Saints, Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and Small Time Crooks (2000), Robert Altman’s Pret a Porter (1994), John Waters’ A Dirty Shame (2004), Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005), Rob Marshall’s 2014 film of Into the Woods, and Ryan Murphy’s The Prom (2020).
In 1990 she was well cast as Kate in the Public’s “wild west” take on The Taming of the Shrew opposite Morgan Freeman. I saw that production! Ullman’s a tiny slip of a thing — easy for a Petruchio to sling around! But honestly, the version of Taming of the Shrew I’d really like to see would star Ullman as Petruchio.
To find out more about the variety arts, including TV variety like The Tracey Ullman Show please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous