Life & Liberty: Schiz-Com Star


Each week Tracey Ullman opens her show from her dressing room, usually dressed in a pink chenille bathrobe. She chats informally with the audience, dispelling from the outset any theatrical illusions. In one opening sequence, an off-camera intelligence agent gives her a fistful of bills to buy her help in locating U.S. military installations. He figures that as a fabulously successful television star Ullman would receive mail from soldiers and sailors worldwide. His organization could then use the return addresses to locate targets for espionage operations.

Ullman, this time dressed in a slinky black gown, surprises him. The British-born comedian says that when she began her show she might have supported his cause, but now Americans are too important to her. She has come to love them. She takes a gun from her dressing table and kills the agent. Then she turns to her audience and says, "Enjoy the show."

Viewers will find Tracey Ullman as unpredictable, as surprising, as the deceased agent must have. The difference is that for us, the surprises are almost always pleasant.

Ullman has said of her program, "This is a show that's never been done before on a network that doesn't exist," a reference to the fledgling Fox Broadcasting Co. Hugely popular on British television, Ullman was spotted on David Letterman's show by writer-director-producer James L. Brooks. Brooks, an Oscar winner for Terms of Endearment and the creator of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Taxi," checked out Ullman's British performances, then developed an American showcase for her.

Now beginning her third season, Ullman is the brightest spot in Fox's Sunday evening offerings. Winner of a Golden Globe Award last year and nominated for Emmys both last and this year, she almost single-handedly justifies Fox's existence. Seeing her perform is a little like watching Robin Williams if somebody made him stick to the script.

"The Tracey Ullman Show" has been labeled a "skit-com," a reference to its format—two or three unrelated skits a week, interspersed with cartoons by Matt Groening. It has also been called a "schiz-com," because even regular viewers have trouble predicting where Ullman and her regular supporting cast (Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Joseph Malone, and Sam McMurray) will go with any given plot.

The split-personality parallel is accurate. One of Ullman's many talents is her ability to take on persona after persona—an aging flower-child deejay, a yuppie mom who pages her child over the bedroom intercom, a man-hungry postal worker, an Aussie golf pro—and make each as believable and as unaffected as the next.

Playing Angel, the female half of an over-the-hill husband-wife singing duo, Ullman looks and sounds a little like Tammy Bakker doing Cher. Angel and husband Marty (Castellaneta) are booked for an audience of prisoners expecting Johnny Cash.

To make matters worse, Angel has had it with Marty and the marriage. There have been affairs, drugs, booze—you expect to hear the words "Betty Ford Clinic" at any moment. When they take the stage in the prison cafeteria, their failed dreams echo loudly in the opening number, Sonny and Cher's "I Got You, Babe."

But what looks like a funny statement on show biz with a subplot on prison life turns into something altogether different. A disappointed prisoner jumps from the audience and holds "America's Sweethearts" hostage. His demand? A rendition of "I Got You, Babe" that shows they really mean the words they sing. They changed his life with such a performance in Reno years ago, just after he'd knocked off a liquor store. He wants something to believe in.

He gets it. Angel and Marty experience emotions they haven't felt in years, the prisoners get drawn in, sing along, clap and cheer, and guards wrestle the "terrorist" offstage as he vows it was all worth it as long as the singers really meant it. They did.

Ullman's command of voices and gestures and her insight into the basic nature of a broad spectrum of society make her characters valid, be they the repressed and angry divorcee mugged as she leaves a restaurant after a disappointing date; Kay, the overweight secretary who usually spends Tuesday evenings bathing Mummy's left side; or the topless dancer at her wedding reception, celebrating the marriage and her aged husband's wealth with equally engaging believability.

Her talent alone might be considered an embarrassment of riches in a medium often deemed a wasteland. Still, it is important to consider the possible failure of an enormous talent let loose without adequate support. Think of Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters trying to make art of "Mork and Mindy." Watch "Dolly" one time.

It is, then, fortunate that for Brooks television comedy is practically synonymous with ensemble work. The show's creative team also includes executive producer Jerry Belson, who won an Emmy for "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and Heide Perlman, a writer-producer whose credits include "Cheers." Kavner is also an Emmy winner (for "Rhoda").

Surrounded by creative production, writing, and direction (usually by Ted Bessell, who played Donald, Mario Thomas's boyfriend, on "That Girl") and playing off talented and innovative actors, Ullman's genius for characterization and for song, dance, and satire comes to full bloom.

As the only female member of a road crew, Ullman questions her femininity after a disgruntled motorist challenges her to a fist fight. Her fellow workers assure her that she's totally feminine (one admits that he thinks only of her while using the pneumatic drill), then they become back-up singers and dancers in a production number, there on the roadside, of Carole King's "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman."

Playing Francesca, the adolescent daughter of a gay couple about to go out of town and leave her alone for the first time, Ullman invites a boy over for the evening and tells her diary the next entry will be written by a woman. The evening ends when Francesca and her date negotiate his getting to second base: under coat, over blouse, over bra, left side only, with your eyes closed. Ullman's Francesca, who actually looks and sounds like a teenager, substitutes a sofa cushion for her breast after he closes his eyes. They both feel satisfied.

After winning the Golden Globe, Ullman closed the show in the Betty Boop dress she wore to the ceremony. It was striking and zany, but she admitted that it made standing, sitting, going to the toilet, or exiting a limo without disturbing the toupee of some studio exec impossible. The next week she would come out in her usual ratty bathrobe to tell her audience to go home. Part of Ullman's charm is that you believe she'll do just that herself—go home and wait till next week to be brilliant again.

Jane B. Hill is an editor at Longstreet Press in Atlanta.