QUEEN OF THE SKITCOM : Tracey Ullman Has Lost Her Prized Anonymity, but Her Ratings Have Fox Grinning
SHE BLEW in like a cyclone, driven by hope and hype. A noisy, electrifying, taut, frantic Cockney she was, a bundle of instincts, nerve endings, hairpin curves and surprises, a multi-minded, multistoried, multivoiced, multi-wigged, multi-faced colossus of comedy who was going to take American TV viewers on the thrilling ride of their lives.
It’s been a year since “The Tracey Ullman Show” began on Fox Broadcasting Co. as a Sunday night half-hour of innovative sketches and a little music--and still, relatively few viewers have bothered to go along for the ride.
A brief history:
British TV comedy and recording star gets own show on new Fox network. Always interesting, frequently entertaining, more than occasionally brilliant. Sings nicely, plays amazing range of characters. High acclaim, low ratings. At 28, rising star. Few movies include “Plenty.” Several hit records. A scream on talk shows. Remarkable mimic. Wife of successful British TV producer Allan McKeown, 41. Mother of 2-year-old Mabel. Have voices, will travel. Some predict epic future.
She can be the next decade’s major star, her first TV producer, Paul Jackson, says in London. She’s “the sound you don’t know you’re missing until you’ve heard it,” her present TV producer, James L. Brooks, weighs in.
The sound is going largely unheard.
Yes, the British dubbed Tracey Ullman “Our Trace.” Yes, they went in droves to buy her pop album, “You Broke My Heart in 17 Places,” and watched the telly in droves as she broke their funny bones in 17 places. In America, though, the colossus of comedy has collided with the colossus of TV reality. Will she ever appeal to America’s masses?
“I like her show,” says Kim Le--Masters, president of CBS Entertainment. “But would I program it? No. I appreciate it in a vacuum. She’s very talented, but that doesn’t always define the large audience and appetites a network likes to have.”
“I don’t know if she will ever be a major star,” says Barbara Romen, vice president for comedy at Universal Television. “There’s a distance between her and the audience. I don’t think she exudes the warmth that Lily Tomlin does.”
“I think the format that she’s chosen inevitably will limit her success and access to a mainstream audience,” observes Bob O’Connor, former head of CBS comedy. “But put her in a half-hour comedy series. . . .”
Ullman’s first-year Nielsen ratings seem to support the skeptics. Through February, her show had averaged a tiny 3.1 rating and 5% share of the audience, reaching about 2.7 million TV households. Those audience totals rank her near the bottom of a Fox Sunday night lineup that is near the bottom of the national Nielsen rankings.
Given the newness of Fox as the nation’s so-called fourth network, however, few industry observers expected any Fox prime-time show to immediately have a major impact in the ratings. What’s more, Ullman’s Nielsens have improved in 1988, stretching to a 4.6 rating and 7% audience share on Jan. 24, its best marks since its premiere.
That’s enough to stiffen Fox’s upper lip.
“Tracey is probably where most of us expected her to be in her first (full) season,” says Jamie Kellner, Fox president and chief operating officer. “We believe as strongly as ever in Tracey as a real star. We’re too new to be discouraged by ratings.”
Kellner notes that Ullman has high appeal to the core 18-to-34 upscale age group that advertisers lust for. And he expects her exposure to grow in the 10 p.m. time slot she’s occupied since March 6, concluding a 90-minute Fox comedy bloc led off by recently acquired reruns of the hilarious Showtime series, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.”
“It’s true that it’s harder to discover Tracey on Fox than on NBC,” Kellner says. But also easier for her to survive on Fox than on NBC. Not that NBC would have been interested in a rules-bending series like Ullman’s in the first place.
Chance-taking Fox may be the ideal venue and Brooks, executive producer of her series, the ideal mentor for a performer as unconventional as Ullman. Fox surely was mainly eyeing Brooks’ glittering pedigree (his latest movie is the lauded blockbuster “Broadcast News”; he also directed the Oscar-honored “Terms of Endearment” and was instrumental in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda,” “Taxi” and “Lou Grant” on TV) when it followed its original 26-episode commitment with an order for another 30 last October. Fox has also granted Ullman creative wide-open spaces compared with what she could expect elsewhere.
She’s been called a social satirist. “It sounds really intelligent,” she says, “so I’m going to say that’s what I am, because I can’t bear being called a wacky, zany comedienne. I’m not a comedienne. I’m a character actress. I couldn’t get up and tell a joke to save my life.”
C LICK . The TV picture flickers.
After 20 minutes of playing Francesca the precocious American teen-ager, Kay the drab British secretary and Summer Storm the drugged-out heavy-metal deejay, Tracey Ullman faces the camera as herself.
She stands erect in her tailored white robe, hands clasped behind her back, her reddish-brown hair a jumble of soft curls, responding to the applause, squeals, hoots and whistles that sweep her toward the final endearing nonsense of the half-hour.
“Thank you very, very much. Oh, that’s another show ovah ,” she says while nervously examining her nails. “And I was speaking to my mum today in England. Just typical mum. She’s going: ‘Well, I don’t know what t’do . You haven’t been in the papers for about two months here. Y’know, it’s been getting really embarrassing for me.’
“I go: ‘Mum, I’m really sorry. I’m doing so well in America, though. Y’know, I’ve got my own tele- vision show and everything.’ She goes: ‘Well, that’s no good to Joan in No. 4, is it?’ I mean . . . so let’s all go together and buy bloody Joan in No. 4 a satellite dish!”
When the studio laughs fade, Ullman delivers her customary curtain-lowering command. “Go home!” she orders, bending forward and flinging her arms at the darkened, faceless audience like a cook shooing kids from her kitchen. “Thank you, very much. Thank you, very much. Go home! Go home!”
ON THE Saturday afternoon after taping, the star of “The Tracey Ullman Show” has arrived at Trumps restaurant in her blue $34,000 Range Rover, complete with toddler seat and KCRW public radio sticker mounted on the back window. A yellow stuffed rabbit rests on a folded stroller in the rear compartment, and strewn on the front seat are cassettes ranging from The Judds to Elvis Costello. Inside Trumps, Ullman is at a corner table in a red-and-black outfit by Jean Paul Gaultier, a bird’s nest of hair piled atop her head, and she’s going:
“I went to the Queen Mary with my girlfriend last weekend. What they’ve done to that thing! It’s like an upgraded Denny’s. It’s so ‘orrible. They had a big buffet lunch there, and there was a girl playing her harp, and when she went on her break she turned a switch, and her harp went on like harp Muzak. It was great to look around and see real people, though. Everyone looked like Jessica Hahn. I got approached by more Mormons from Utah than I can take.” The body shifts, the voice changes, and Ullman is a Mormon from Utah: “Gal, come here. Can we just take your picture?”
It could have been worse. A few years ago, the man with the camera would have been one of those pushy English tabloid types who don’t take prisoners. “I don’t like being fawned over and all that, but that was all part of it in London,” Ullman says. “The tabloids want to build you up in a year and knock you down. They were a nightmare. They did stuff like say I was at cocaine parties with Duran Duran (she wasn’t) or that I was having Rod Stewart’s baby (she wasn’t) or ask old boyfriends to talk about me (they did).”
Now her cherished privacy in America has vanished, too. “I’ve been recognized in England so long, it was nice to have the anonymity here, to be able to study people at Thrifty. Now I haven’t got that anymore. It will come back when I ultimately go and live in France. I’ve got this theory, and it’s very true. I’ll never be famous in France. They hate me in France. The French hate the English, particularly English people like me who laugh at themselves all the time. The French can’t take it. I’d be left alone in France.”
The last thing Fox wants for Ullman is anonymity. Despite its brave talk, Fox is desperate for strokes and positive publicity that translate into ratings. TV is about fame. Fox wants Ullman drawing crowds the way the Pope and Michael Jackson draw crowds, to be so adored and instantly recognized that she can’t sneak from her hillside Laurel Canyon house without being crushed by squealing fans and paparazzi . Fox wants Time and People covers for Ullman, photo opportunities with Mike Wallace and Barbara Walters. It wants everyone imitating Ullman the way they did Flip Wilson’s Geraldine. It wants all Americans begging Tracey Ullman, “Gal, come here. Can we just take your picture?”
It’s Ullman who takes the pictures--mental ones. Her gift of mimicry is astounding. She’s a melting pot of voices, a sponge, observing and absorbing, sifting and refining, running through her Xerox brain the impressions of a lifetime. Confronting Ullman is like confronting Sybil’s 17 personalities. She’s part invention, and just which part is sometimes undetectable. There’s her Cockney, for example. Not genuine. She acquired it at age 18 “for career reasons,” to set her apart from the suburban girls she grew up with.
The mimicry began as a child and went on and on. “She’s just brilliant--a bloodsucker of personalities,” says Ruby Wax, an American with a TV talk show in England. “You walk away, and she’s taken a little bit of your brain.”
Ullman communicates in her own brand of tongues. “You could put her in a room with almost anyone alive, and she would be able to give you a representation of that person after a while,” says Brooks. “It’s different than it is with comedians. It’s not like she’s on. She just starts to talk in voices, and suddenly she’s creating.”
Her work reveals a capacity to understand and interpret the complex, off-center character, whether it’s former junkie Summer Storm or gawky Francesca, who lisps through braces and lives happily with her gay father and his lover.
The character Ullman appears to favor is Kay, the 40ish spinster, dowdy, bulgy and thoroughly British, nearly untouched by male hands, a career steno who talks like thish , favors polyester and lives at home with “ Muvver, y’know. “ Suggest that Kay’s a bit pathetic, and Ullman snaps: “She’s not pathetic! She’s very strong, very brave!”
Kay’s pudgy body requires padding and her hair a mousy wig, but Ullman needs no makeup for the face, narrowing her eyes and twisting her mouth, then tilting her torso and starting Kay’s voice from deep in the throat. Ever been to Hollywood, Kay? “ Oooooooh , no. Seen some of those mahhhhhvelous movies, though, the older ones with Bette Davis. Mahhhhhhvelous people.”
Given her early fascination for creating characters, Ullman must have seemed a curious child in the middle-class London suburb of Hackbridge where her family lived. Her Polish emigre father died when she was 6, leaving only her mother to co-star in her fantasies. “My mum and I would put on plays together. We were always singing and dancing. We’d have games where we’d get a pistol and shoot each other and see who could die the best.” Her earliest heroines were not movie stars but bag ladies and burdened women in TV documentaries who talked about their babies with colic and the “‘usband in prison.” While other girls her age “were going around with their little Barbie dollies being super - woman,” Ullman would speak to her mirror for hours, pretending to smoke a cigarette, “just talking like a real perrrrrrr -son.”
Ullman won a scholarship to a stage school when she was 12, dropping out four years later and spending four months with “a strange group of very gay dancers” in Berlin, in part to escape dreary Hackbridge. A year later, she had her first TV job, wearing an animal head in a Heinz soup commercial, and at 21 won a London Theatre Critics award for her work in an improvisational play, “Four in a Million.” It was 1981, and Tracey Ullman was on her way.
“She was a lovely, very innocent, phenomenally talented girl,” recalls British actress Debbie Arnold, another member of the “Four in a Million” cast. “She was not aware of the quality she had. Her performance was so special that it was devastating to watch.” So devastating that TV producer Jackson was simply “knocked out” and quickly cast her in his new BBC sitcom, “Three of a Kind.” She was still living at home with her mother then, but that would soon change. When “Three of a Kind” went off the air three years later, Ullman was recognized in England as one of a kind, and she was eyeing America as her next challenge.
IT WAS Briton Lou Coulson, then Ullman’s agent, who made initial overtures here in her behalf, circulating a tape with excerpts of her British TV work in sketches, videos and talk shows. The road to Jim Brooks and Fox was curvy and bumpy, with one major stop along the way. “I don’t really dwell on it,” says Ullman. “It was nobody’s fault. Onward.”
“I could not believe my eyes,” recalls Craig Kellem about screening Ullman’s tape as vice president for comedy at Universal Television. “It was just about the most extraordinary piece of material I’d seen in a long time.” A deal was made. Universal signed Ullman to head a sitcom that was to be written by someone she admired, Anne Beatts, a former “Saturday Night Live” writer and producer of the brief CBS sitcom “Square Pegs.” “CBS offered us a deal right away that turned into a series order two weeks later,” says Kellem, now executive vice president of The Arthur Co. Harvey Shephard, then senior vice president for programming at CBS, wanted to start production immediately, Kellem says. “It wasn’t a script. It wasn’t a pilot. This man wanted to put her on the air right now.”
Shephard had already had Ullman recommended to him by O’Connor, who was then at CBS and had seen her on stage in London at the urging of Melanie Greene, a British talent manager now based in Los Angeles. “Tracey’s unique gift of humor, her ability to mimic--it was just stunning,” says O’Connor, now a partner in Hill-O’Connor Entertainment.
The name of the series Universal began creating for Ullman was “I Love New York,” and her husband of 4 1/2 years, Allan McKeown, was to be executive producer. Ullman would be a young woman from Liverpool who is forced to take menial jobs with a temporary agency after the lawyer who hires her to work for him in New York drops dead her first day on the job.
Beatts shared ideas about the story with Ullman, says Kellem, but when it came to writing the script, she secluded herself in a rented beach house in the Hamptons as Lillian Hellman did in “Julia.”
Universal liked the Beatts script. Ullman hated it. The deal fell apart. “It was not an ugly situation,” Kellem says. “Tracey just threw her hands up in the air.”
Now producing the hit NBC sitcom “A Different World,” Beatts won’t comment on Ullman. Some others at Universal don’t recall Ullman fondly. “Tracey was very difficult to deal with,” says a Universal insider who asked not to be identified. “She developed some material she wanted to do, and rather than go on in good faith, she found a way to wriggle out of the deal.”
Ullman was an “annoying experience” for Robert Harris, president of MCA Television Group, which Universal Television is a part of. “Lynn Redgrave and then this,” says Harris, referring to Redgrave’s 1981 suit against Universal claiming she was fired from her CBS series “House Calls” because she wanted to breast-feed her infant daughter during production hours. Harris: “There must be something about Englishwomen whose husbands are their managers.”
Adds Universal’s Romen: “Tracey went from ‘I love you, I love you,’ to ‘I hate you, I hate you.’ She got pregnant about that time. Maybe it had a hormonal influence on her personality.”
O’Connor, for one, doesn’t fault Ullman for being “wary” about American TV. “I think it was perfectly all right for her to say, ‘I want to go somewhere else.’ ”
“Somewhere else” turned out to be Brooks. Ullman’s new agent, Martha Luttrell, sent Ullman’s tape to Brooks, who was under contract to Fox, and like everyone else, he was wiped out. “I saw original talent, and how often does that happen to you?” says Brooks.
Brooks had no immediate plans for doing another series, but Ullman provided a strong incentive that he would act on later. Over the next year, he acquired the creative staff and supporting cast he felt he needed. And on April 12, 1987, “The Tracey Ullman Show” premiered on F1870146592Castellaneta in a series that has been labeled everything from a variety show to a “skitcom.”
It’s Ullman’s nature to continually reach and perfect. “Very often when an actress says she messed up or could have done better, you soothe her,” Brooks says. “With Tracey, you always assume she could have done better because she’s in touch with some vision of her talents that can take her higher and is very private to her.”
Brooks remembers the morning Ullman came to rehearsal “just flagellating herself” over the previous show. Recalls Ullman: “I could hear myself falling into those sitcom phrases. I knew when the audience was gonna laugh, and it panicked me like nothing on earth. I go from the house to the studio and the studio to the house in this big car with air conditioning, and I buy nice clothes, and I thought, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re losing touch.’ The life I’m portraying in my show and the life that I had up until two years ago are vastly different than the life I have now. It’s that whole thing. I know when I go somewhere, I’m not going to be treated badly. It’s just a bit unreal, too bloody easy. You lose touch with reality. That’s why I need to walk on the streets, go back to New York and England and, y’know, do all those things that you’ve heard people say millions of times before, but they’re absolutely accurate and real.”
A few cool winds appear to be blowing toward Ullman from England, where voices from her past range from deep affection to cryptic comments and outright no comments.
“She’s a nice, normal girl with her feet on the ground,” reports Ullman’s long-time friend Amanda Dickenson, a backup singer on her videos. Another friend, actress Susanna Page, calls Ullman “one of the few people who haven’t allowed success to change her. When my son’s bike was stolen, she bought him another one.”
On the other hand, “she has made it clear that she doesn’t want me involved in her life,” says old friend and fellow actress Debbie Arnold. Says Allison Thomas, another old friend and backup singer in Ullman’s videos: “I enjoyed working with her. That’s all I want to say.” Ullman’s former makeup person, Naomi Dunn, replies to questions about Ullman with a terse, “No comment.” A call to Ullman’s former agent, Lou Coulson, produced the following brief conversation.
“Would you mind answering a few questions about Tracey?”
“I think not. It’s water under the dam. I’ll leave it at that. The talent speaks for itself.”
“Did she change after becoming a star?”
According to British casting director Beth Charkan, who hired Ullman for that Heinz soup commercial when she was only 17: “Lou Coulson made Tracey. And then Tracey did what you always do when you get an agent who made you. You leave.”
Changed or not by success, Ullman can still turn her wit on herself and laugh about the burdens of fame. “It’s weird how your family reacts to your success. As soon as I became famous, an aunt of mine who I was close to as a kid asked me around to a party, and she contacted the record company I was with and got all these photographs of me so that when I walked in the door I had to sign all of them and stand there with her friends and have my picture taken. It was ‘orrible.”
Her show is sometimes ‘orrible, too, a crusher with bruising 12-hour days leading to physical exhaustion and a collapsing colossus. “Sometimes,” says Ullman, wearily, “I just want to go home and lie on the bed in the spare room and just read children’s comics and be fed scrambled eggs and just forget about this. I don’t wanna hear my voice anymore or talk or be the center of attention.”
Does the mood last long? “Sometimes it does,” she says. “Sometimes I get scared. So much stimulation and so much going on. Then, just when you think you can’t stand it anymore, it’s suddenly brilliant.”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.