Thursday, April 16, 2009

Enter the antic world of Tracey Ullman

January 1998 -

Warning: This is not a memoir. This is something far loonier.

It's a bit disconcerting, really. Either there's someone else in the room with television comedian Tracey Ullman or she thinks I know people I've never heard of.
Up until now we've been having a rather amazing phone conversation about her first book, "Tracey Takes On." It's based on her hit HBO comedy series, which begins its third season this month. In the 11 or so minutes we've been talking, she's slipped into at least three of the 16 characters she's created for the series and the book, not to mention a very funny impersonation of her mother back in England. She's told me she looks very "smart" today, with her hair pinned up and wearing a pinstripe suit, "trying to look like an affluent yuppie" so that she can impress the people at the school where she wants to send her daughter next year. She's made me laugh. Too much. And I've begun to worry about how to convey in print her astonishing gift for mimicry.

But now Tracey Ullman wants to know Nancy's last name. I have no idea who she's talking about. I'm about to offer my beloved aunt as a possibility when there is commotion at the other end of the line. Someone is with her. There is a discussion. She decides it's Nancy Allen, and I surmise her husband is the other person in her office.

There are a thousand and one reasons for her husband to be in the room. He is the producer of her show. He's gone with her to interview their daughter's school. Tracey Ullman tells me she's "addicted to laughter" and says her husband is probably the funniest person she knows. There are plenty of reasons. And I find myself wondering if Tracey Ullman isn't just a little bit shy.

"I'm not a crazy, party-going sort of person," she says. "I don't get very involved in the L.A. scene. When you do get invited out, you are expected to be on all the time. It's just wearying. I'm very happy being at home with my family. I come home, I get in bed at nine o'clock, and I read. But I do enjoy making people laugh."

Shy and deprecating about herself, maybe ("It's an inherent trait of the English," she assures me). But not about comedy. "I hate clowns," she says. "A lot of stand-up comedy is embarrassing: too many idiots doing it in orange neckties against brick walls. I find most sitcoms embarrassing too, because they seem so forced. And I never wanted to do political satire because it seems too surface to me.

"I loved the late Gilda Radner," Ullman continues, her voice dwindling to a hush. "I love Carol Burnett and Lily Tomlin. In fact, I got into a very nice professional children's school by impersonating Lily Tomlin. My influences were Peter Sellers and the great British character actors. I used to sit and talk to myself in the mirror and pretend that I was a woman whose husband was in prison and who had three kids and no money. It's the poignancy and sadness in things that gets to me."

Ullman's extraordinary ability to summon voices and accents, as well to project the poignant and the comic simultaneously, goes a long way toward explaining the success of her HBO series. The characters she has created for the series range from Rayleen Gibson, a 34-year-old stuntwoman ("she's half woman and half kangaroo") to H.R.H, a 57-year-old Royal ("I love my H.R.H. character. But I never got it. Why do we pay these people millions of pounds to be better than us?"), to the extraordinary Chic, a New York cabbie and "chick magnet" ("I remember this guy who worked in a restaurant in England who thought just the coolest thing to say was, 'Hey! You like sex?' As if you were going to say 'Oh, yes! I really, really do! I want to have sex with you right now!' Chic is the character my family least likes to see me as. It is the most uncomfortable make-up. The beard is vile. It's made of yak hair and itches horribly. . . . But, yeah, the girls fancy me when I dress up like that.")

Ullman is quick to point out that her humor, while sharp, also has heart. "I'm not making fun of these characters," she says, "and I'm not being mean about them. I'm just celebrating them. My mum always said, 'You're full of feeling.' And I am."

In fact, Ullman expresses a particular affection for the spinsterish Kay Clark, a character she based on a woman who worked in a bank in the English village where she grew up. "She used to ask me about America and Hollywood whenever I came home. She was living vicariously. 'Have you been to Hollywood?' I'd ask her. 'No, but I've seen a lot of movies,' she'd say. She was kind of sad, but she didn't feel sorry for herself. She was courageous in a way. I'm very fond of Kay."

In "Tracey Takes On" the whole cast of characters Ullman embodies in her show offer their out-of-kilter opinions on everything from sex, money and fame to health, mothers and royalty. Ullman herself chimes in with a number of humorous personal anecdotes. In place of the dead-on accuracy of her vocal imitations, Ullman gives each of her characters a graphical style that is rich and elaborate in its detail.

"I thought it would be easy to write this book," Ullman says. "I was a great fan of the [Monty] Python books. They were really fun to read. But finding the way to make this book funny on the page was a challenge. Sometimes books are too dense to be comedic. So I thought a lot about graphics and fonts and the style of it. I imagined the type of firm the characters would go to design their stationery. We put in a lot of pictures. It ended up being lovely adapting the show into book form. I did enjoy doing it."

But Ullman won't be doing another book anytime soon. "Maybe when I'm 75 and living in the south of France, after everyone I want to bitch about is already dead. Then I may want to talk about my life in Hollywood. At this time in my life I'm just not into talking about myself personally. I'm happy in what I do. And I'm as famous as I want to be."

No comments:

Post a Comment