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talented traceys spell it with an “e”
the comedic genius of tracey ullman
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

At 12, she attended the renowned Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in London.

She gave birth to the foundling Simpsons.

Paul McCartney appeared in her music video.

She assumes a minimum of 30 established characters, male and female, with a montage of accents, looks and attitude.

Tracey Ullman rocks, but gets no respect.

Sketch comedy is one of the hardest forms of the art. If the writing and characterization aren’t perfectly intertwined, the whole skit deflates. Sid Caesar, "Monty Python’s Flying Circus," Benny Hill and "The Carol Burnett Show" provided a working template that "Saturday Night Live," the troupe of Second City, and the "Kids in the Hall" followed. These shows relied on key ensembles that fed off one another, and while certain actors radiated star quality, it was the interactive collective that was the successful sum of its parts.

Tracey Ullman is the ensemble. Her morphic ability allows for a never-ending cast of consistent characters so individual, they often collide with each other on the street. When she personifies Kay or Sydney Kross or Linda Granger or Francesca or Trevor or Ruby Romaine, she sings, slurs, dances, camps, courts and pouts. As Chic, she’s not only male; she’s a man of unidentified Middle Eastern origin. However, she, as herself, is British. Her voice acting ability, rivaled only by June Foray, has been used for "The Simpsons" (naturally), the BBC’s now defunct radio program "Week Ending," "Little Lulu," and as an English instructor to Swedish children.

Yet Jennifer Lopez gets the magazine covers and the Primetime interview because, you know, she’s an all-around entertainer.

Tracey Ullman is like Sybil without the psychosis. To embody a character so completely is to forget your own celebrity: it’s the character’s spin on the stage, and that’s all the audience should recognize. Few actors, comedic or otherwise, dare to forget their public persona when choosing roles. They think more of image than craft. When asked in an interview last year how she knew it was time to go back to work, Tracey replied, “When I start taking the wigs out of the boxes and stroking them and speaking to them, that's when it's time. Another sign is when I put too much into the stories I tell the children.” It has nothing to do with E! or a Hollywood restaurant and everything to do with a creative muse demanding attention from the one person talented enough to provide it.

Her past two American series, "The Tracey Ullman Show" on Fox and "Tracey Takes On" on HBO, received numerous insider award nominations and awards between 1985 and 1996, but in 2000 she lost the American Comedy Award for her role in Small Time Crooks to Sandra Bullock for Miss Congeniality.

Sandra Bullock?

Nothing against Sandy, but she played type in that movie, just as she does in every role. Sure, the enhancement of cleavage with Krispy Kremes evoked a chuckle, but was that character designed to be funny, and was Bullock funny playing her?

Small Time Crooks was also a Woody Allen film. For the rest of the continental United States, it’s not worth skipping the Times Square tourist jaunt to sit through the Monday night jazz jam at the Café Carlyle to understand the man. You either get him and his comedic approach or you don’t. Therefore, his work is often a soft release, whereas Miss Congeniality continues in reruns on TBS.

Comedy is subjective – no surprise there. I laugh at both John Cleese and Jackie Chan, and I can’t tell you why. The broad range of movies labeled "comedy" demonstrates that what’s funny to some, e.g. Jackass vs. Adaptation, and the reason why it’s funny, is hard to explain. But well-written, diverse sketch comedy has a different appeal altogether, and thus, is quite rare. To actually take our funny bone out to dinner and massage it later takes more time than just tickling it. We often want that immediate gut reaction of laughter, rather than a slow, steady boil of humor. Tracey’s Cracker Jack box of characters requires a little more investment than most, but the payoff is well worth it.

While occasionally risqué, she also doesn’t base her characters on profanity, except for her profane views on pop culture. She’s not filled with Milleresque ire or constantly spitting “I’m SO edgy and politically incorrect!” like Maher. Rather, Tracey snares one snippet of pop and uses a single character to blow it completely out of proportion. She magnifies our fascination and makes us laugh at it.

Very few comediennes truly get the recognition they deserve. Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, once pioneers in a male-dominated industry, are now appreciated for their style, grace and unbelievable talent. It’s time to put Tracey Ullman in that category and make her captain of a mainstream boat ride that all will enjoy. She is a veritable spice rack of comedic delight, which is more that can be said for Reese Witherspoon.

And she spells Tracey with an “e.” A true show of brilliance, if you ask me.

Tracey's - Ullman, that is - newest work, "Trailer Tales," will air on HBO Saturday, August 9 at 8 PT Eastern and Pacific times, then at several additional times on HBO and HBO2.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

more about tracey l. kelley


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russ carr
7.30.03 @ 12:18a

I liked "They Don't Know About Us." And to be fair, Tracey appeared in Paul's not-nearly-so-good movie, "Give My Regards To Broad Street."

Character humor is nearly ignored here in the U.S. -- the only other "name" comic I can think of who's done anything similar in recent years is John Leguizamo...and that's a stretch, because not all of his stuff is meant to be particularly funny. The persons who have genuinely excelled at character humor have usually been British; Peter Sellers leaps to mind immediately. Ernie Kovacs and Jonathan Winters were probably the two best American practitioners...but who today has heard of any of those guys?

juli mccarthy
7.30.03 @ 12:43a

Very funny, Russ, that you came up with Leguizamo's name - that's exactly the name that went through my head. Whoopi used to be able to do it too, and do it well, until she got all Voice Of The Crusader on us.

However, I'm in wholehearted agreement with Tracey - no one does it like Ullman does.

mike julianelle
7.30.03 @ 1:07a

I can't deny that Ullman is talented. Her ability to sink unrecognizably into so many characters is impressive. But I don't find her the slightest bit funny. Nor do I find John Leguizamo to be funny, or particularly talented.

The caveat, as Tracey says in the column, is the subjectivity of comedy. I could sit here and go on and on about Mr. Show (God knows I have before) being the best sketch comedy show since Monty Python, but you either get it or you don't - and that's not meant in a condescending "you're not sophisticated enough" way, it's just in a funny bone way - and it's impossible to talk someone into it.

But I'll concede that Ullman gets limitied recognition, primarily from critics and insiders, but that's less about her than about the public, or more to the point, the business.

Character-based comedy doesn't sell because it's not broad enough. Not enough people are gonna take the time to learn a comedien's style and cadence and blah blah blah in order to appreciate it, and it doesn't make financial sense to wait around for people to start getting the jokes.

You don't need to get anything in Miss Congeniality, there's nothing more than what you see. It's an easier sell, and it doesn't really matter who is performing in it, Sandra Bullock or Tracey Ullman. I say be happy with the notice and acclaim Ullman does get, unless you're gonna take the time to force feed her to people who aren't interested.

matt morin
7.30.03 @ 1:45a

I'm with Mike. I just don't find Tracey funny. I've seen a lot of her stuff, and it's just too cheesy and overacted for me. I never forget for a second that it's Tracey Ullman I'm watching.

heather millen
7.30.03 @ 1:14p

I have to agree with the boys. I've never found her very funny and the word "cheese" does jump to mind. But as our Tracey recognizes here, comedy is subjective.

I must give Ullman props on her origination of The Simpsons. That show was nothing short of brilliant.


mike julianelle
7.30.03 @ 1:17p

That show was nothing short of brilliant.

How about IS.

And the early shorts on Ullman's show were creepy as hell! But she didn't create The Simpsons, she just gave them a showcase.

russ carr
7.30.03 @ 2:54p

"Gave birth to" is a reasonable metaphor to use regarding Tracey Ullman's relationship with "The Simpsons." Her show was the womb, where "The Simpsons" grew as a tube-test baby.

heather millen
7.30.03 @ 3:05p

Yesss.... and the characters looked much like a fetus- not yet developed.

And sorry, Mike, "Is... Is, Is, Is!"

mike julianelle
7.30.03 @ 3:10p

Where's Tracey to defend her namesake, anyway?

tracey kelley
8.5.03 @ 12:06p

Hi honey - thanks for noticing.

I spent some insomnia time watching Friar's Roasts last night. Talk about not funny. Chevy Chase, for example. The man is the same in everything he's ever done. While I liked him in the Paul Simon video, the rest of his work, even Lampoon stuff, any fool could have done. He just happened to be the fool at the time.

Ullman at least makes an effort to be different. And while for some, she may not be hysterical side-splitting funny, I for one consider her characterizations to be far more of an example of real talent then, say, Andrew Dice Clay.

russ carr
2.18.05 @ 1:29p

I had to resurrect this because best Internet Radio Station in the World, WOXY.com, just played the title track to Ullman's classic '80s album "You Broke My Heart in 17 Places" as part of their weekly "Back to the Future" program.

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