To say Tracey Ullman has a distinct sense of humor would be an understatement. For more than three decades, she’s brought her signature impressions, character studies, and social commentary — all sprinkled with a few song-and-dance numbers — to the small screen. Last year, HBO picked up her BBC sketch comedy program, Tracey Ullman’s Show, which returns tonight for its second season (and is available to watch anytime on HBO Now). We got the chance to speak with Ullman about how she draws from the sometimes overwhelming amount of current events in order to fuel her comedy, and how she’s determined to keep going.
You’ve made a huge career out of the half-hour sketch comedy format. What made you want to go back to it last year with Tracey Ullman’s Show?
Just that feeling that I could and I wanted to, and I had the energy and the thoughts. When my husband died four years ago, it was a very difficult time, and we’d always worked together and had so much fun and success and, yeah, so then I was asked by the BBC if I would like to do something for [them]. In 30 years they had not asked me to do anything. I heard from that Charlotte Moore, who is the head of programming now at BBC, and just got on with her so well, and it seemed like such a change from years ago [when] it was like five guys who had fought in the Second World War in charge.
And I just love doing sketch shows. I love eclectic, multi-character, it’s just what I do, and I love. And it’s exhausting and difficult at times, but it’s very rewarding for me. And I thought, “I’m going to do what makes me happy.”
This show takes an unconventional approach, with so many recurring characters and running gags. It’s almost like you’re making a half-dozen separate sitcoms that run parallel to one another.
I did a similar thing, I guess, with Showtime, when I did State of the Union in 2007. I did a little bit of a sort of a “day in America” kind of thing, and I just always thought, “Oh, it’d be great fun to do that in England too,” you know, sort of 24-hour thing, because England is a smaller place. And at the time I started the show a couple of years ago, it was like, England was just different. Now it’s this global hub, and I thought, “Wow, I’ll come to this incredible melting pot, and it’s, you know, it’s an exciting dynamic, open place,” and in the time I’ve been doing the show, you know, things have changed politically, and we had the Brexit vote. But to keep up with all that… it’s been a really interesting time to do political characters, Angela Merkel, Theresa May, and Nicholas Sturgeon from the Scottish Nationalist Party, and there’s lots of interesting women in politics.
And people want to talk about politics, they’re concerned about world events, so I think it’s the same in America. It’s not so much a celebrity-obsessed, you know, Kardashian culture at the moment, I don’t think, thank goodness. So, this type of show, to do more politics, it’s just suiting me and so I just tried to color a broad spectrum of society.
I try and sort of inhabit characters and interpret people and tell stories as well. And I’m not a comedian, I’m a character actress. I like the sadness in people and the poignancy in people. And portraying Kay, who’s like the eternal virgin and lives with her mother and they have a flood and she has to go up to the attic and find that her mother’s been withholding all her mail all her life. You know I’ve always been drawn to some of the stories like that, and mixing that up with, then suddenly Judi Dench being a national treasure, being such an untouchable figure that she can shoplift in front of people and get away with it. I don’t think it’s all trying to get big laughs. And the people have supported me in that over the years, and they love characters like Kay and breaking into song and all sorts of things. So I’m really trying to mix it up.
Do start out with these specific situations in mind? Like Maggie Smith doing these absurd on-camera auditions, and then Dame Judi Dench as the recklessly arrogant shoplifter? Or do you sort of mix-and-match the characters to different scenarios until you match them up with one another?
Well, we have a great team of writers. And most of my writers, they work on fee. They’ve been with Armando Iannucci doing Veep for a few years in America, but they’re English writers, they kind of have worked with both countries. That really helped. Because I have such a global sensibility now. You know, I’m an American, and I’m British, and so now I have to think globally. And so I have lots of references to lots of things going on. I think that’s why the show has been working on HBO, because of that element.
So, you just try to find a hook for people. I love Maggie Smith, and I did think she was kind of tired of being in Downton Abbey, and I just imagined her like, [doing her Maggie Smith voice] “I don’t want to leave them out ever again and put a fucking corset on, so I’m going to do everything from my living room.” She told her agent, “I’ll do that blogging thing,” and then, that’s great, and it’s also easier to do than try and be in a big makeup and locations. And I love that she just shows us the content of her handbag. It just seems to suit her.
Angela Merkel, thinking she’s dead sexy, and Nicola Sturgeon as a sort of Bond villain who lives in a cave in Edinburgh and wants everything to be Scottish in the whole world. I mean, you have to find a little hook with them. And Theresa May, I’ve been doing, where she’s not in this series [on] HBO but I’ve been playing Theresa May, our current prime minister, and that’s been really interesting. She’s a fascinating character to me.
You really tend to convincingly portray these public figures and politicians, but the same can be said for the “everyman” characters you do, as well. Like the guy who works out of the coffee shop trying to sell his app.
I like being him. But it’s very hard makeup for me.
I have to admit, the first time I ever saw that sketch, I kept waiting for you to show up. It took a few minutes before I realized that was you playing him.
You know guys like that though, right? These guys, that sort of disenfranchised middle-aged white guys who now are trying to develop apps in the Starbucks. They just kill me. I see these guys, they’re like, you see them work on this all day. In the Starbucks, and it kind of breaks my heart. The sadness to him, [but] he’s a pain in the ass, you know? And when I dress up as him, the crew hate this guy; they’re like, “Oh this guy’s such a dick.” But I find it interesting.
And I filmed on the hottest day of the year, and I mean this huge sort of makeup with this bald cap and this beard and it’s 40 degrees, you know, ball boys were fainting at Wimbledon, and I’m in this crazy makeup; I think, “Why am I doing this?” Because this guy interests me. I mean, my daughter worked for somebody like that in England for a while, this dreadful man who couldn’t connect with women and got pissed off because there were so many more women in the company, and I just wanted to be that man. And I think people associate with it. In America or England, that guy is around.
Is it easy for you to observe these regular people from afar? Are you able to maintain a kind of anonymity in public?
I’m very anonymous really. Not a lot of people recognize me because I disguise myself so much. And, I don’t know, I seem to get away with it. And in England, they have no idea who I am and I haven’t been there for so long, so I had a long period of anonymity when I was first doing the show. Now they recognize me a bit more, but nobody really cares about me. It’s like they go, “Oh, I’ve got a crazy cousin like you. My sister’s nuts, like you.” They always say that they think I’m like this crazy relative, and I’m not the sort of celebrity that people would like to chase or get in awe of; they just sort of treat me like a friend. It’s rather nice.
So, I can observe people and [when] I’m noticed, it’s my audience. But people are so involved in their own worlds, and online, nobody really watching TV much anymore, and people are selecting what they want to do and watch. And everyone’s on TV nowadays. Doesn’t it seem that way?
It really does.
Now it’s like, “Yeah, I have my own show. I do what you do. I have my own YouTube channel.” Competition for me, huh? And everyone’s an entrepreneur nowadays. Everyone’s expected to promote themselves and be an entrepreneur and work for themselves. You know, years ago people were very happy just working for somebody. You don’t really do that anymore. You’re supposed to have this huge ego.
You’ve mentioned your global sensibility and how it affects your approach to comedy, but you started this show on the BBC. When it was picked up later by HBO, was there any concern over something maybe being lost in translation for a more American audience?
I have had a great relationship with HBO over the years. I mean, in the early ’90s they took a show I made with Michael Palin [Tracey Ullman: A Class Act], and that sort of set off Tracey Takes On. So yeah, of course, it was primarily a BBC show, and then HBO picked it up which is fantastic, because I love working with them and, they just have a good audience. They have an audience that likes diverse things. And then [season one] went out last year and the accumulating ratings are very good, and I have a solid fan base [who] are very curious, thank goodness, and will watch anything I come to do and get it. So it did go out very well. Hence them taking it to season two.
So no, not really. You know, like in season two there’s a character, there’s a very famous woman in England called Clare Balding. She’s a presenter, and she’s very, very earnest, and she’s on all sports shows, she does lots of things for BBC, she’ll cover royal weddings, everything. And while doing all this, she doesn’t stop doing everyone’s job, “Come on, come on, I’ll do that.” And she just is like that. And it went down very well in England because everyone knows Clare Balding. But then a girl goes up to me, “I really like the girl that wants to do everybody’s job.” Like, do you do that? She goes, “No, she was really funny.” So, it didn’t matter. And there’s been so many examples of that, that, you know, and obviously, it going out so well last year.
But yeah, it’s primarily a BBC show. But, this year I think is more international characters as well. I mean we’ve got Jerry Hall and Rupert Murdoch, and I think everybody knows them.
Like you said, there’s certainly a lot of material to be mined with everything going on across Europe politically, but have you been tempted to dip into what’s been going on here in the U.S.?
Well, I’d been talking to Anthony Atamanuik that plays Trump on The President Show. We’ve been doing sketches where he Facetimes me and I talk to him. And I think I did that in The State of the Union a few years back. But I really think that Saturday Night Live has taken the tune and is doing such an amazing job. But there is much more about America in the upcoming shows. And I’m doing another version of the show now in England where I’m sort of like shooting stuff 48 hours before the show goes out, so we can put topical things in the show. And that will incorporate more American stuff and, you know, the world perspective.
Because, I think, generally people are just focused on politics and the seriousness of what’s going on. It just feels like a tumultuous time. And coming to America, you know I’m an American, and I was here for the election stuff and have been in shock. But it’s the same in England; I went through the Brexit vote last year and I was just stunned. I mean, it’s not what I wanted, but it happened and you move on, but, and then to come here for the election last year it was just like, “Oh no, I’m getting that Brexit gut about 7:30, 8:00 p.m. when the results started coming in, and it’s been really strange, you know?
It does seem like it’s impossible to get away from.
I went on with Stephen Colbert last night, and I looked at [him] at one point, I went, “Are you okay?” And I just took his head in my hands, because think he’s… I love him. I took his head in my hands and like, “Are you okay? I’m worried about you, Stephen.” You know, your brain is just full of Trump! And I cuddled him, and it’s like, it’s just all overwhelming. It’s just omnipresent. It’s just there all the time.
I suppose an upside is that it creates no shortage of material to draw from.
Yeah. It’s not necessarily funny at times. But there is a state of panic. Everyone’s scared and worried and concerned and you know, in a state of flux, and from that comes interesting situations but they’re not necessarily funny. It’s a frightening feeling, an out of control feeling. On we go; we press on!
I’d argue that it makes shows like yours that much more necessary. It lets people be able to unplug for a little bit and just enjoy the humor where we can find it.
Somebody said — because I’ve been around for a while, “So I thought I was really scared because I just felt like, what the hell happens now but then I realized Tracey Ullman’s been on TV and I felt kind of comforted.” I thought, “Well that’s nice!” They thought I was dead, and I’m not dead! I’m still here, kid. And I’m comforting people. Isn’t that lovely? And you can play Kay or something, or Angela Merkel, and people think it’s nice. It’s just a lovely thing to be able to do. And it’s really interesting and I feel really privileged to still be able to do, and be as interested in it as I always have been. So I’ll try and keep doing it until I’m like, 80, you know?
You say it yourself in the theme song that you’ll be “doing it until the bitter end.”
That’s it! I mean I started off in my mum’s bedroom, you know? So I’m lucky that people will still let me do it.