Article: Getting personal with the great impersonator

Peeling back the many layers of master satirist Tracey Ullman reveals hard work and heartbreak

Cracking the mask to reveal the real Tracey Ullman -- the woman behind the comedian famed for her brilliant impersonations and her ability to switch from one to the next at kaleidoscopic speed -- is hard work.

Confronted with an interview question, the English-born Ullman is as likely to go comic, speaking in accents or joking in Yiddish, as to answer it straight.

When she does, however, the picture she paints of herself is one of broad ordinariness.

"I love to play tennis and knit," Ullman says, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where she has lived for more than 25 years. "That's me, pretty boring at home. I've never been neurotic. I'm not obsessive.

"And, if something were wrong with me, I wouldn't talk about it publicly. I'd deal with it privately and have a cup of tea."

Recently returned from celebrating her 50th birthday in Jamaica -- "I didn't take my computer, it was heaven!" -- Ullman has just kicked off the third season of her sketch-comedy series, Tracey Ullman's State of the Union (which airs on Mondays at 10:30 p.m. MT on Movie Central.)

As always she is star, co-writer and co-producer, but this year, for the first time, she is also director.

Generally reticent to discuss her private life-- she is married to Allan McKeown and has two children, 18-year-old John and 22-year-old Mabel -- Ullman isn't at all reluctant to talk about her husband of 26 years, whose company produces her series.

"My life didn't begin till I met him," she says simply. "I don't like anybody as much as him. Never have. We're soulmates and all that stuff. Having him has been just wonderful."

She also appreciates McKeown's financial acumen.

"He figures out how we can own our shows and distribute them," she says. "He has my best interest at heart. I don't have to rely on agents or managers. We're a little business team together, too."

She may be renowned as a comedian -- though she prefers to be called a "social satirist" -- but Ullman insists McKeown is funnier around the house.

"He's really hilarious," she says. "The kids don't think I'm funny."

They're about the only ones.

Ullman's gift for mimicking voices and accents -- her own unevenly reflects both upscale Slough, the English town where she was born, and working-class Hackbridge, the town where she chiefly grew up -- has made her popular with television audiences from the day she burst upon the North American scene with her critically praised, ratings-challenged The Tracey Ullman Show (1987-1990). The Fox show best remembered today for its animated feature-within-a-feature, the subsequently spun-off The Simpsons.

State of the Union is Ullman's first sketch-comedy show since a series of HBO specials that appeared from 1996 to 1999.

In the interim she played a psychiatrist in five episodes of Ally McBeal (1998-1999), co-starred in Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks (2000) and John Waters's A Dirty Shame (2004), and even starred as Princess Winnifred in a 2005 television version of the 1959 Broadway musical, Once Upon a Mattress.

The State of the Union series packages Ullman's ever-expanding array of makeup-heavy characters -- male and female, young and old, white and non-white -- in a day-in-the-life-of-America theme.

A prime difference between this series and previous Ullman shows is that, for the first time, she's doing celebrity impersonations, as opposed to the everyday people who have been her specialty.

"I thought I'd give it a go," she says. "I mean, if I was going to do a day of life in America, I needed to put in a few of the more well-known people."

Some of the skits are likely to raise eyebrows.

One casts her as a guide at a Holocaust museum, showing visitors a statue of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff in "The Hall of Infamy of Crimes Against the Jewish People," standing right next to ones of Nazi leaders Heinrich Himmler and Albert Speer. Another finds her as overwhelmed "Octogranny" Angela Suleman, going AWOL rather than babysit daughter Nadya's 14 kids.

"I don't do impressions that are disrespectful or bring someone down," Ullman insists.

"That's not funny to me. I don't do anything with a mean spirit. I don't think I'll ever be mean."

The real art for Ullman, however, is not in mimicking celebrities but rather in developing her original characters, such as a jobless ex-military woman who dreams of consulting on a James Bond movie or an Indian pharmacist who breaks into Bollywood-style dance numbers. There's much more to it, she says, than simply donning a wig and doing a voice.

Sometimes she starts learning a local accent by, say, phoning a car dealership and chatting with whomever answers while taping the conversation. Each character goes well beyond his or her voice, though.

"It's knowing what the people care about, who they are and what their weaknesses are," she explains.

"The poignancy. It's getting to the underneath layers."

Ullman's own sensitive side can be traced to her father's death, following heart surgery, when she was only six.

She used humour to cheer up her sister and mother by putting on shows in front of the bedroom drapes.

Her mother, also a good mimic, encouraged Ullman to develop and display her comic gifts.

Her mother's second marriage was something of a disaster, and created a major strain in the household. Twenty years after the divorce, her former stepfather was a London taxi driver, Ullman was a star, and they happened to meet when she hailed his cab.

As she recounts it, she shook his hand and spoke to him briefly.

"Didn't life suck when we lived together?," she said. "Nice to see you again. I used to hate you. Bye."

Because she frequently does Jewish characters and her name sounds Jewish, many have speculated that Ullman is of Jewish heritage. Maybe so, she says, but maybe not.

"I honestly don't know," the comedian says.

"My mother isn't, so I guess I'm not. But 'Ullman' seems to be a Jewish name, and my father came from Poland and spoke Yiddish all the time when I was a kid.

"Last year, when I was in Israel, everyone kept asking me if I'm Jewish. Who knows? I'm a real mixture."

Closing the subject, she shifts to a New York Jewish accent.

"I'm not a Jew," she says, "but I play one on TV. Mazel tov! Oy gevalt!"



rand said…
Thank you for the great blog. I love Tracey Ullman!