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Entertainer Tracey Ullman

Tracey Ullman Takes On a New Television Show.

Comedienne and actress Tracey Ullman. Earlier this week her HBO series "Tracy Takes On" (Sundays at 10 PM ET/PT) began it's third season. Each week she features a gallery of her characters talking about a topic, such as families, sex, money and crime. She also has a companion book "Tracey Takes On" (Hyperion), and there's a HBO home video release of her previous shows. Ullman is a native of England. She got her start in the U.S. with The Tracey Ullman Show, and has since won several Emmys and Cable Ace awards. She's also appeared in the films "Ready to Wear." "Bullets Over Broadway", and "Plenty."

45:15

Other segments from the episode on January 14, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 14, 1998: Interview with Tracey Ullman; Review of Garth Brooks' album "Sevens."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 14, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011401NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Tracey Ullman
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It may seem as if I have many guests today, but all the voices you will hear, with the exception of mine of course, are from the mouth of one person: Tracey Ullman. She's back on HBO with the third season of her series "Tracey Takes On."

In each episode, Ullman takes on a different subject, such as marriage, Hollywood, smoking and loss. Each program is a series of comic sketches and monologues in which the character she's created, with the help of guest stars, deal with the subject at hand. At the end of the month, her series will be available on home video.

Tracey Ullman's latest characters also appear in her new book "Tracey Takes On." You're about to meet several of Tracey Ullman's characters.

Tracey Ullman, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

TRACEY ULLMAN, COMEDIENNE AND ACTRESS, AUTHOR "TRACEY TAKES ON": It's lovely to be back. Hello, Terry.

GROSS: I'd love for you to introduce us to some of the characters that you're doing now in your series and in your new book, both called "Tracey Takes On."

ULLMAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Let's start maybe with Linda Granger, a kind of washed up actress and professional victim.

ULLMAN: Well, darling I love Linda Granger. Linda loves being on National Public Radio. Linda's the kind of person that goes on public television fund drives. And she says things like: "you know, public television is a wonderful thing for all of us."

You know, and it's the type -- I-- don't you love those pledge drives when people like Linda Granger get to go on public television? And normally, she's doing complete dross infomercials, but then she gets to go and do a pledge drive.

LAUGHTER

I see Lindas around L.A. all the time, you know...

GROSS: Just describe her for us.

ULLMAN: ... pretending to be 39 and they're 55, and she's had a little collagen in her lips and "my cosmetic surgeon is an artist." And as long as they're doing infomercials or they're appearing on "Gay Talk" on public access with her solid homosexual fan base, she's in show business, Terry. She's an inspirational speaker. She's an author. She's had cancer. She's a cancer survivor.

And she's -- she has a daughter called "Marmalade" because that's what they served on the muffins when I signed the adoption papers.

And Linda's very glamorous. Her dream is to be in a Quentin Tarantino movie, though...

LAUGHTER

... even if they just used a picture, an old VIP picture of Linda that was in the background pinned up in a booth in a coffee shop, in a Quentin Tarantino movie, she'd consider that a major comeback.

GROSS: Does she seem like a cautionary tale to you of what an actress is capable of becoming if she's not careful?

ULLMAN: She's a certain type of actress. She's -- she would do theater. "Oh, theater is my first love, Terry."

GROSS: Right.

ULLMAN: And I'm -- she's always doing love letters with Hank Brinkley from the Channel Five News. You know, it's the "Love Letters" pairings, Terry, got really terrible...

GROSS: Oh, I know.

ULLMAN: ... they had to just put a stop to them.

GROSS: For our listeners who don't know Love Letters, it's a two-person show that started off, you know, with I think Eli Wallach...

ULLMAN: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ... and his wife, and then as it got kind of -- went around the country, the stars got lesser -- less and less stellar.

ULLMAN: Yeah, with Joe Namath and Phyllis Diller in Love Letters. I know, it just -- the combos got kind of -- but it was that sort of -- you didn't have to learn the lines. You could just sit and read it, you know. And I imagine Linda, you know, doing that show somewhere in the wilds with a pair of reading glasses from a pharmacy. You know, dinner theater.

GROSS: Another character you're doing now is Sidney Cross (ph), who is a lawyer. Describe what kind of lawyer she is.

ULLMAN: When I started doing this show three years ago, I wanted to play, like, an aggressive, ambitious career woman, and living in Los Angeles. And I thought, well, an agent was a little passe. And Sidney Cross -- at that time, it was the OJ Simpson trial and we had all these lawyers going on TV every night. And I thought: ah, do a lawyer. And the physicalities of Leslie Abramson (ph) were fascinating to me. So physically, it's a little like Leslie Abramson.

I did my own sharky, gappy, baby teeth, which really give me the character. And it's the voice of an agent of mine who was like crazed: "hi Tracey, how ya doin'? You want to win an Oscar? We're gonna win an Oscar."

She used to call me up every day. I thought: oh, this woman's going to drive me crazy. And she's a relentlessly charmless litigator, and relentlessly ambitious and charmless litigator -- that's how she's described. And -- but now, she's kind of become endearing to me, Terry. This is the funny things about my characters. They -- as gross as Sidney Cross is, I realize she's lonely. She can't get laid. You know, she's so ugly.

GROSS: Not even by your cabbie character.

ULLMAN: And she's so ambitious. No, exactly. Even Chick (ph) won't -- can't do it. And she's the sort of person that lives in a very sterile sort of apartment, with a -- some unassembled Nautilus equipment in the corner that never got -- you know, and pot noodles. And she's never home. And I just -- you know, now I feel sorry for her. And as soon as I feel sorry for them, I can work on them even more.

GROSS: Tracey Ullman is my guest, and her HBO series Tracey Takes On is in its new season. And she also has a companion book called Tracey Takes On in which she -- all her characters are pictured and described, and there's little sketches with them -- graphic sketches and situation sketches.

ULLMAN: Hmm.

GROSS: Another character that you do is Trevor Ayless (ph), who is a gay airline -- what? -- not "steward." What's the word now?

ULLMAN: Uh, yeah he's a steward. You don't have to say "hostess" -- you can say "hostess" for woman.

GROSS: Flight attendant. Flight...

ULLMAN: (Unintelligible)

GROSS: Flight attendant is the word.

ULLMAN: I think he's still called the stewards at British Airways -- you know, that wear those hats that say "To Fly, To Serve." They still wear those at British Airways.

This is based on a very nice, now retired, British Airways steward. And I've -- 'cause I've logged lots of transatlantic flights every year going back and forth to my home in London and in Los Angeles, I used to see this guy. And very professional, kind, smart, mid-40s man who was, you know, like:

"Very, very -- yes, can I get you a cocktail? A hot towel? Now, I'll show you what the entree will be" -- to all the passengers, you know. Then when he'd see me back in the galley, it would get like:

"Ooh, God, you know, ooh, I've had such trouble with that bitch in 3B."

LAUGHTER

And he would be able to be who he is, you know, and he was gay and he was like -- you know, telling me about his fella. And lovely man. And when I'm on airplanes actually, I'm very frightened of flying -- I sort of imagine Trevor or try to be Trevor, then I don't get so scared. I remember being on the flight, actually, when he -- his last flight on the Concorde. And he asked me if I wanted -- he was told he could take the jump seat in the cockpit and land -- in the Concorde cockpit.

And he was so sweet to me. He said: "I'd like you to have that on. I'd like you to be the one." I said: "no, all these years -- you've got to do it." "No, no, it would give me great pleasure." I said: "no, no, no." So he did land, in the cockpit of the Concorde. Very nice man.

GROSS: What scares you about flying?

ULLMAN: Oh, it's lack of control. I'm a control freak. If I could fly the bloody plane -- so I've always got to drive the car, you know. I just -- Meryl Streep and I were on a flight back from Tunisia years ago when we just finished the film "Plenty." I remember being in mid-air coming back from Tunisia, laughing, drinking champagne -- and bang, an engine went. And we literally started to go down. It went very quiet -- and it's a terrifying experience. And we just got very, very quiet.

And Meryl, who -- some horrible tabloidy book was out about her at the time, and she said: "oh dammit, this woman's got a wonderful ending."

LAUGHTER

But we didn't die. Me and Meryl are still here and we still talk about it. And our husbands go: "oh, here they go again."

GROSS: Did you see your life or your character's lives flash before you?

LAUGHTER

ULLMAN: Oh, God. I just -- that's interesting. It was horrible.

GROSS: Oh, I can imagine.

ULLMAN: And I've never been the same since, Terry.

GROSS: Gosh. Did it change your life to feel like you'd nearly died?

ULLMAN: Yeah, I mean it really was awful. And they had to start the engine -- and I knew it was bad, Terry, because one of the stewardesses -- they called them stewardess -- "hostesses" in those days -- was crying. It was like "pull yourself together, would you?" God, you know, you're supposed to be -- she was like sit -- you know, at the end of the aisle and sob. It's like -- oh, dear.

GROSS: My guest is Tracey Ullman. Her HBO series Tracey Takes On begins its new -- has begun its new season and she has a new book called Tracey Takes On. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Tracey Ullman.

You know, you say you like to be in control and you like to be the one who's driving the car. Another character that you do is Chick the cabbie.

ULLMAN: Right.

GROSS: And I'm wondering how often you actually have taken cabs in New York.

ULLMAN: Oh, well -- a lot.

GROSS: Yeah.

ULLMAN: And was always bumping into people like Chick, who seem to have just no sense of humor. And if you say: "where are you from?" You know, trying to -- "what are you? Secret police?" You know, one of those guys, they're immediately uptight and no humor and very aggressive -- driving aggressively and -- "hey, come on, what's the matter with you? C'mon (unintelligible)."

And it would just -- it would always go -- I remember I was in a cab one day with some guy like this, and he's going: "the man, this morning I get my cab from him, and he called me up, he start shooting -- I'm goin' to kill him. Tonight, I go -- I blow his brains out." I was like: "ohhh -- wonder if I could go to my appointment or just call the police?" You know, so aggressive and driving so aggressively.

I always say to these guys: "can you slow down?" You know, "got two children. I don't want to die." And the smell of English Leather aftershave that wafts through the vents of the cab.

GROSS: What happens when they find out you're in show business?

ULLMAN: "You know, I got the movie. You know, I had that" -- they always say this (Unintelligible). "You know Martin Scorsese? When he was using my cab, I said to him why don't you do a movie about Vegas and the gambling and he makes "Casino." What do I get from it, eh? Eh?"

It's always like it was their idea. "And I had Andrew Lloyd Webber in the cab, and I said -- Phantom of the Opera -- maybe you should do? What is it -- what does he give to Chick, eh?"

Those guys -- it was always their idea.

GROSS: He is of indeterminate Middle Eastern origin, and I'm wondering if you ever get any flak for -- you know, when you do somebody who is of a different ethnic group than you are. I have been told by several satirists that it's a very difficult time to do satire, because everybody is so kind of defensive about -- about somebody representing or stereotyping their ethnic group or...

ULLMAN: Yes, political correctness is just so -- it's just inhibiting and it's just strangling this country. You know, I mean if you do it with the right energy and spirit, we are different. Some people do talk like this. Some people do wear clothes like this. Some people do eat foods like this.

I mean, you know, you have to be -- I know, you have to be so cautious and I don't -- I'm not a racist. I'm not doing caricatures. I'm just impersonating people I see. And I do research my characters very thoroughly. And I know that I got a bit of flak initially for the Asian character that I do -- indeterminate Asian. There you go. See, you don't see where she's from either -- Mrs. Nonanine (ph).

GROSS: She's the owner of a donut shop.

ULLMAN: Yeah, she sell them -- I sell donut. And" -- I've seen this -- I know this woman. I get donuts when we're doing our writers meetings. And I just -- I think it's difficult -- shocking for the Asians 'cause they don't have a lot of representation in the comedy world, on television. And -- but we -- so there was a bit of an outcry about that. And HBO defended me and said: "look, she does it in the right spirit. It's with the right energy. And she has the right to do it."

And then I began to get letters from teenage Asian kids, and they'd say: "this is great, and you're like my grandma." And you know, "we don't have anyone on TV that actually is Asian. At least we've got you."

And we just -- now she's a very -- you know, because my criteria for doing a character, Terry, is: do they exist?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

ULLMAN: Do people talk like this? Do they look like this? And you know, I can impersonate them. I want to.

GROSS: Did you ever run into this kind of criticism in England?

ULLMAN: No, no. I have a new character in the show, the black lady, and that's great fun. And it was about time I did a black character. It was just difficult to do the makeup. You know, it's always -- it's time-consuming and -- but that went out in my first show, and I've got a lot of response...

GROSS: This is the character who works at the airport?

ULLMAN: ... people thinking it's great fun. Yeah, Shenisha (ph).

GROSS: Yeah, she works at the airport at the -- not the X-ray...

ULLMAN: That's right.

GROSS: ... what do you call it? With the security thing.

ULLMAN: 'Cause every time I go through those things, they -- the woman always say to me, she look at me -- they look at me, they go: "y'all on TV?"

There's always that moment, they look at me: "she's on TV." And I just thought -- I love those -- the airports. It's totally run by these incredible black women with fabulous hairstyles. And they have a moment of supreme power when you go through that security check.

"I've stopped that Steven Spielberg. I say: hey, you stand still. You want get on that plane? You want to get on that plane? This plane could blow up. I'm security. Everybody, they don't have time for security."

You know, and they just get mad 'cause you don't want to stop. You want me to search your bag? Put y'all keys in a bowl and walk fru' again."

LAUGHTER

And Adele Givens (ph) came and joined me as Helura (ph). And Adele Givens is a brilliant comedienne. I'd seen a lot of her on "Def Comedy Jam" on HBO. And she was so great with me. I mean, that's what really helped me to do that character, 'cause she was totally relaxed about me, even when I began to melt under the lights. You know, and suddenly this white woman starts appearing, you know, with my makeup melted off.

And she gave me this brilliant crash course in African-American.

GROSS: What kind of tips did she give you?

ULLMAN: And corrected me -- just stuff, and was giving me line readings during the day, and -- I love stuff when she gets all excited: "it's on! It's on!" When I say I'm getting this book deal -- "It's on. It's go, girl."

And we had a wonderful time. And it was tough. You know, I go out there. I'm covered in black makeup. I've got these bull-body (ph) padding on -- all sorts of things; a wig. And there's -- I'm standing there amongst, you know, 10 black people. I'm thinking: "what am I going to do here? I'm going to join in." And so, I started shaking my booty.

And I had a great time. And they -- they -- you know, they accepted me, and I just do it. And I love it. I get into these fevered sort of state where I don't know who I am anymore. And that's heaven to me.

GROSS: Well, do you ever really not know who you are anymore? I mean, I see all your characters and they're all so convincing. And I think: "gee, did you go through an identity crisis? Do you look in the mirror and think: I could be anybody, depending on what accent I put on or what -- how I do my hair.

I mean, you could -- you could pass for anybody.

ULLMAN: It's weird. I -- I guess I -- if I was a Buddhist, which is the religion I'm most interested in -- is -- I suppose I'm reincarnated many, many times. And I have been all these people. That might be an explanation for it. The Buddhists seem to know exactly why I'm like this.

GROSS: Let me stop you because I don't think that's true, because Fern Rosenthal didn't live centuries ago.

LAUGHTER

ULLMAN: I know, she's such -- she is so -- "I did, Terry, but I couldn't get my hair done. There was no good dye. There was this awful inky stuff they'd put on it down by the river there. It was henna. Ugh, it was awful. Thank God for L'Oreal."

Yeah, I know. She's so -- "and acrylic -- we couldn't get the acrylic nails. We did it with porcelain, hundreds of years ago, Terry. It was awful. It would break. It would shatter."

GROSS: She's one of my favorite characters of yours. She's the housewife from Long Island.

ULLMAN: Close -- Are you a Jew? Terry, are you Jewish?

GROSS: I think I'm good for the Jews.

ULLMAN: Are you a Jew?

LAUGHTER

I'm asking you a question, darling. Are you a Jew?

GROSS: Yeah, Fern, yeah.

ULLMAN: You're a Jew. You have any family like Fern?

GROSS: Not exactly, but I've had neighbors...

ULLMAN: C'mon...

GROSS: ... no.

ULLMAN: "I've had neighbors." Jews never admit there's someone like Fern in their family. You go to Florida, Terry? You have any family in Florida?

GROSS: I have family in Florida, yes. I know many "Ferns" in Florida.

ULLMAN: Where Terry? Tell me? Talk to me. You like to go to the theater in Florida? You like to go to the big theaters?

LAUGHTER

GROSS: It's all dinner theater.

LAUGHTER

ULLMAN: I know, like, they go down there to die and they make them go to the theater. All these poor old Jews in Florida -- it's so sad. And they're dragging them around to see "Dreamgirls" and stuff, you know.

"Ugh, he wants to see as show with a lot of schwartzes (ph)"

And they try -- it's like, let him die. Don't make him go to the theater.

GROSS: Is there anyone who's the...

ULLMAN: It's terrible.

GROSS: Did you meet -- ever meet anyone who's the equivalent of Fern Rosenthal in Florida? I mean in...

ULLMAN: Pfew -- what a -- just it's all right stating the obvious...

GROSS: I mean in England.

ULLMAN: Oh, no, no -- it was really hard

LAUGHTER

And I'd be talking to them and say: "oooh, oooh" Another one's died. They're going past the corner "oooh, oooh." It's all you hear down there.

GROSS: I meant to say in England.

ULLMAN: In England, there's a -- it's the Jews -- live in Gulder's Green (ph) and Dulles Hill (ph). And I'm thinking of Americanizing them, but they're very "oh darling, listen. They're very Jewish -- that -- this Jew -- it's the same thing."

They've got -- but it's American Jews -- English Jews, they got off the boat too early. They missed out. When my friend Gail Parent (ph) meets English Jews -- "oh, you got off the boat too early."

So...

GROSS: Are there a lot of types you've been exposed to in America that you didn't have in England?

ULLMAN: New York Jews, seriously, to me are incredibly funny. I love them. And they're just -- they love the "Fern" character and they're very accepting of me and -- I mean, you know, I feel like I'm an honorary Jew.

Yeah -- no -- there's -- I always see equivalents in England. I mean, there's fabulous people to impersonate in England. You know, my class system is rich. And I -- "of course, you know that I do HRH -- the royal character that I do. One feels that one is terribly inclined to have a webpage nowadays."

I love that the Queen is actually on the Web now.

GROSS: Oh is she? I didn't know that.

ULLMAN: Oh, she -- the royal -- what did I say in my book about the Queen? I must read what I said about it. Well, no, it's not "the Queen," by the way. "HRH" is a conglomeration of: it's the Queen's voice, I suppose, and it's Princess Margaret's lifestyle and the Duchess of Kent's hats and Princess Anne's teeth. Age 57, she has two birthdays: the day she was born and her official birthday, a day that allows her subjects to rejoice.

She has been very active recently in raising funds for a new royal yacht -- something she believes is awfully important to the man in the street, even though he'll never be allowed to set foot in it.

"Please send much-needed contributions to any one of the 14 royal houses, or contact www.hrh.commoners."

LAUGHTER

So, the book is full of little bits like that, and information on the Queen, HRH.

GROSS: And my guest is Tracey Ullman. Her new book is called Tracey Takes On and it's a companion to her HBO series, Tracey Takes On.

And this season she is taking on, let's see, music and politics and religion, I think?

ULLMAN: Religion...

GROSS: Smoking.

ULLMAN: Marriage -- smoking, that's a good show. That's nice.

GROSS: Do you smoke?

ULLMAN: I used to.

GROSS: Did you give it up?

ULLMAN: I used to. But that was a -- yeah, yeah, yeah. If I live 'til 80, I'll start again 'cause I still miss it.

GROSS: Do you still have dreams about smoking?

ULLMAN: Yeah. It was so much fun.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: What happens in your smoking dreams?

ULLMAN: Oh, I'm just at a party in the '70s again, and -- I just -- it's funny. I'll have a great meal. I'll have a cup of coffee. And I think: oh, I'm missing something. I'm missing -- you know, I've given up for 15 years. But what was a good show, actually -- that -- that was a really good subject. For all the characters, that was terrific -- smoking.

I've got a nice character that -- 'cause I think taking on National Public Radio or taking on public television or something might be funny: 'cause my character, Birdie Godflynn (ph) -- she's age 42, devout Christian, married to Bob, a tobacco industry executive. They live on Van Quell (ph) Drive, within a graceful, gated, guarded community, with their seven home-schooled children. And I think she just hates public radio. She says "I think it's the tool of the devil. I really do, Miss Gross."

LAUGHTER

She's a lovely -- she's a -- she's -- actually, she's my most beautiful character: she's got flipped up hair and the white teeth and the blue eyes.

GROSS: I think she's always wearing red and white.

ULLMAN: That's right -- ain't that great?

LAUGHTER

... petites?

GROSS: Tracey Ullman -- her series Tracey Takes On is on HBO Sunday nights. She also has a new companion book called Tracey Takes On. She'll be back with us in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tracey Ullman.

She's created a gallery of characters and she puts them into action in her HBO series Tracey Takes On, which has started a new season on HBO. In each episode, her characters appear in a series of monologues and comic sketches related to one subject, such as smoking, marriage, music, or money.

Tracey Ullman also has a new companion book called Tracey Takes on.

You had a hit record in England, which I believe is the same record that's your theme song for the HBO series.

ULLMAN: Yes. Yes, it's nice to use that again.

GROSS: Yeah, it's a good record. It's very, very pop. It's more...

ULLMAN: It's a very pop, girlie tune, kind of...

GROSS: Yeah.

ULLMAN: ... Phil Specter, "Wall-of-Sound" (ph) -- but I never get sick of hearing it.

GROSS: Right. I know. It's...

ULLMAN: Maybe people -- other people do. No, it was -- it got to number eight in the Billboard charts here in '84.

GROSS: Now, did you ever want...

ULLMAN: And it's a lovely song.

GROSS: ... like a serious pop music career?

ULLMAN: No, it was just a bit of a lark, really.

GROSS: Oh, was it.

ULLMAN: That was a particularly good song, that. It was written by Kirsty McCall (ph), whose dad was Ewen (ph) McCall, who wrote "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and he's -- he passed on his wonderful songwriting gifts to his daughter.

She's married to Steve Lilywhite (ph), who produces U-2. And it was just a lark, really. I mean, I was -- what? -- 22 years old and I was doing a TV comedy show in England. And he said: "oh, you sing? Why don't you make a pop record."

And I did, for a joke, and I went on all the TV shows like, you know, Bandstand-type shows in England. I sang into my hairbrush, 'cause it was so obvious I was miming. 'Cause you know, you sing into your hairbrush when you're a kid looking in the mirror.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

ULLMAN: And so it caught on, and I think -- I got a gold album and I -- it was an introduction to this country, actually, 'cause I came -- I was number eight in the charts and I came over and I was a MTV VJ for a couple of weeks.

GROSS: Oh, I didn't realize that.

ULLMAN: Well, it was like a guest VJ. Oh, it was -- oh, God, so long ago when they were on 10th Avenue -- MTV in their infancy. And everyone remembers the video, 'cause Paul McCartney was in it.

GROSS: Did you ever feel that you had too much of a choice? For example, what I mean is, because you can sing, you can dance -- you started off as a dancer. You can act. Did you not know what direction to go in? Where your niche would be when you were starting? Before you found, like, the Tracey Ullman niche?

ULLMAN: I only really act competently. I mean, I -- dancing...

GROSS: You were particularly good at -- in...

ULLMAN: ... was a way to get my union card, and I wasn't a great dancer. I certainly wasn't, you know -- I mean, what future is there for a dancer? You've got to be really good and join a wonderful ballet company or Merce Cunningham or, you know, be a great jazz dancer. And I wasn't at that standard. I mean, I can use it within the shows I do now -- and singing, as I've mentioned, is just -- I can sing in tune, but you know -- acting is the only thing I do really well.

And -- I always -- I always wanted to be a character actress. I've never done standup comedy. I mean, that was suggested. I don't -- most of the time, I just -- I really don't like standup comedy. I don't like the rhythms and the -- it just got so boring, especially in the early '80s.

GROSS: Well how did you end up creating so many of your own characters instead of being a character actress...

ULLMAN: 'Cause no one knows what to do with me...

GROSS: ... in other people's movies?

ULLMAN: Nobody knows what to do with me. And I -- I like doing my own thing. I like writing my own stuff. And I have wonderful writers, but I like doing my own thing. I've never been very good as part of someone else's vision, apart from Woody Allen. I'd be part of his vision any day. I just like to create my own thing.

That's what I'm -- I've realized early on that, you know, it's difficult to cast me, so I should do my own thing.

GROSS: Do you think that working as a dancer early in your career helped you get into the right posture for the different characters that you do? 'Cause you really kind of get what their body shape...

ULLMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ... what their body positions would be. And as a dancer, you probably learned how to move muscles that I wouldn't know I even had.

ULLMAN: Yes. Yes. Yes, probably. Yeah, that does help. And -- but that is really important, as you just mentioned -- the body posture of people and -- yeah -- the walk is -- the type of shoes they wear and the types of cars they drive.

I know that goes off body posture, but yeah, there's all sorts of things. And slowing yourself down if you're being old or -- I didn't really have a lot of acting lessons. And I just didn't have time for it. I didn't -- you know, it was like: "I know that bit -- I know that bit already" -- you know.

And I hated all that sort of alternative method type of acting. We had some crazy teacher -- used to come into this stage, go to work and go: "good morning, darlings. Let's all be dustbins." Oh, please. I'm not gonna -- you know, my arm is my lid. And I couldn't bear all that, you know, going to the zoo and studying animals stuff. I found that sort of pretentious and -- you know, I left school at 16 and got cracking.

I find -- I'm -- amazing, people don't come out of school 'til they're like 25, and they want to sort of start acting or go into any business. I think, gosh, you know, you need a -- should have been out there years ago. You're so cosseted.

GROSS: You must have just had this, like, genetic ability to mimic other people that -- you got -- kind of key into the essential traits that another person has and do them.

ULLMAN: It -- it was just something I could always do. I did it for my mother in her bedroom, standing on the window sill, doing the Tracey Ullman Show, impersonating the lady that lived next door, and the milkman and wear my mother's negligees and cheering her up. And I did it then, and I still think I'm doing an advanced form of that now.

It's -- the what -- was a way of expressing myself and communicating and I've always done it. But I'm very much aware of who I am and who I am at home and with my children and my husband. And there's no, you know, I'm not the sort of person that has to be "on" all the time.

I read John Lahr's book about his father Bert Lahr, and it was so sort of sad -- this very funny man, you know, and he was sort of at home being funny to people and having applause. You know, he was like sad at home, and "when can I get back to work"-type feeling. And I read that book -- oh, gosh, if I was like that, it would be so sad.

GROSS: Are you very extroverted when you're, you know, not -- not on stage on not on mike?

ULLMAN: Hmm -- I can be. I mean, I love to laugh. My husband makes me laugh. We have a lot of fun. My children have got great sense of humor. And that is our -- sort of our thing -- laughing. I've got, you know, energy. But I like -- I'm very quiet. I like to go to bed and read at night. I don't want -- I don't go out. I don't like watching films or TV, unless it's funny TV like infomercials and religious stuff.

LAUGHTER

I'm very -- I need to -- I need to always take time and relax and be very quiet and be on my own. I go on retreats and things. And I don't talk and stuff like that.

GROSS: Now is it harder for you to spend time just observing people now? Now that you're well-known?

ULLMAN: No, no. I mean, you don't need to literally be looking at them on the street. I -- I get -- I love documentaries, especially the ones made at HBO by a brilliant lady -- Sheila Nevin (ph) commissions these great documentaries on HBO. I watch those. And I listen to NPR a lot. You have so much -- many interviews from all 'round the country; all your stations. I listen to accents.

It's -- and it is difficult if I say to somebody: "oh, I really want to do your voice. Can you make a tape for me?" And they go: "oh, you want to sound like me?" And then they become different, and so I don't do that directly. If I want to impersonate somebody from somewhere, I just do it anonymously and call somebody that works -- a library in that town or something.

But no, no -- and people don't recognize me that much. They recognize my voice. They don't recognize me. I mean, I'm not that -- "ooh, here she comes," you know. "Let's tear her panties off" -- type of celebrity.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: When you're...

ULLMAN: People are very nice to me.

GROSS: ... when you're learning somebody's voice, do you -- do you have -- does it come to you, like, in one piece? Or do you have to break it down to its elements and learn it slowly?

ULLMAN: Depends. No, it comes -- yeah, it comes to me in one piece. I like -- as I say, I can't listen to these Julliard-trained voice coaches or something. I mean, it's not the way I can do it, because he's not the real thing or she's not the real thing talking. You know, I can't -- I've never been able to do it that way. These dialect coaches don't do it for me.

I have to listen to the person, and then I pick up more from the real person. But it's just something -- you know, it's like being able to write music. You know, somebody can sit down at piano and play it. I can just do an accent or, you know, impersonate someone and just get their mannerisms and the inside of them as well -- not just the superficial stuff.

GROSS: How often do you use prosthetics?

ULLMAN: Oh, too often, really, and that is a misery to me.

GROSS: Why?

ULLMAN: That's the worst part of my job -- gluing on that rubber, and wearing beards -- Chick's beard is so unbearably itchy. I just -- every time I do that character, I think: "I will never do this again." Then it -- you know, and then I feel I let the character down, so I'm -- I do it. But it's murder. And by the end of a, you know, 10 week shoot, my skin is just -- it's just full of glue.

And I go to this French facialist, and she's like: "I don't know what is coming out of your skin! Is that -- oh, my goodness, it smell -- is it a fish -- fish glue?"

And they can't believe what I put on myself. That is the worst part of it. It's claustrophobic and it's irritating, and I try to find ways of just making a wig, teeth, glasses -- for instance with Fern, that works. And I think let that be the main part of the character and don't try and do all this aging and everything, 'cause it really doesn't count for much on the screen -- a small screen, as well, which is TV, what I'm doing.

GROSS: Now, how does it affect you when you get a prosthetic on your face and you maybe look in the mirror and you see yourself transformed? Does that help you get into the character?

ULLMAN: Oh, yes. It's great. I mean, like when I first put on the black makeup -- gave myself, you know, a different nose and different lips and a different text -- you know, a bigger neck and chin. Oh, it's fantastic. I mean, it's great fun when you first put it on. And teeth, as I said, they help enormously.

GROSS: My guest is Tracey Ullman. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Tracey Ullman. Her series Tracey Takes On has started a new season on HBO.

Now what's it like for you to interact with the writers on your show? Are you all in the same room at the same time writing?

ULLMAN: Yes. We meet every week, and I assign -- I'm sort of the head writer. I sit at the top of the table and -- probably because I can stop them all going to the toilet and making phone calls all the time, 'cause writers tend to do that.

We meet every Wednesday, and I assign stuff for everybody, and we come back the following Wednesday. And obviously, I sit -- I can read it all through, and I'm going to be the one performing it. And it gives us a good, you know, sense of what's going on. And we have a great love. I have a great group of writers, and I write with various combinations of them all, or on my own during the week.

GROSS: And are the characters that you write yourself?

ULLMAN: All the characters I create, and I presented them to them. And I tell them -- I give them -- I demonstrate and I go into character and say this is how they -- and while I'm in character, sometime, dressed up during the season, I can come up with plot ideas 'cause I can imagine how to further the characters' lives and -- but I have great writers. I mean, I got Jerry Belsen (ph) who was on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" back in the '60s, and you know, he's been on everything. You know, when he got nominated for the Tracey Ullman Show, he said: "it's my first nomination in color."

LAUGHTER

And he's just a brilliant person to have 'cause he's just a brilliant one-liner man. And he's got a million plots: "it didn't work in 1963. I'll use it now." And I have two English gentlemen called Ian Frenay (ph) and Dick Cleven (ph) who are superb -- superb writers, story writers. I have George McGrath who used to be on "Pee Wee Herman's Playhouse." And I have women -- I have Molly Newman (ph) and Gail Parent (ph) and Genji Cohen (ph). I mean, I'm one of the only people that has one of these shows that does -- have women writers in equal numbers.

GROSS: Who -- who were -- what were the comedies or who were the comic figures that you really liked when you were young?

ULLMAN: I loved all the old healing comedies. I loved Alec Guiness and Peter Sellers in "I'm All Right, Jack." And -- I mean, I'm very inspired by people like Vanessa Redgrave. I think she's just the most incredible actress, not necessarily in the comic sense, but you know, just great acting like that.

And I used to see Gilda Radner in the late '70s. They started showing "Saturday Night Live" in England. Oh, wow, what a great thing to do. That looks like so much fun. I'd do that. I can do that.

And I'd say Carol Burnett, when I was a kid growing up; and Lucille Ball. I mean, we were very Americanized. All the television in England when I was a kid was very American.

GROSS: I think your father was lawyer and passed away when you were six.

ULLMAN: That's right. Yeah.

GROSS: So did your mother remarry, or...

ULLMAN: Yes, yes -- disastrously.

GROSS: Oh, really?

ULLMAN: Now we come to the sad part.

LAUGHTER

"Terry" -- if this were a Barbara Walters interview, this is the point where you'd make me cry -- "and it was just all so terrible."

Nah, it wasn't -- it wasn't very -- wasn't very much fun. I didn't have much fun, really, 'til I left home.

GROSS: At 16?

ULLMAN: My mum's great, but it was kind of tough. You lose your dad and then, you know, you were always -- there was no money. And it's like "hurry up and get a job and get out of the house." And it was -- it was kind of hard work.

GROSS: So you left home when you were what, 16?

ULLMAN: Yeah, yeah. Went to Berlin.

GROSS: Oh, with a dance group.

ULLMAN: With a dance group. And you know, and then I just took various jobs -- never really came home again.

GROSS: Did anyone think that you had any chance in show business?

ULLMAN: No, 'cause they said I wasn't pretty enough. My uncles used to say: "you look like a troll. She's funny, but she looks like a troll, doesn't she?"

GROSS: That's a real confidence-booster.

ULLMAN: I know. Do you remember those trolls? You'd comb their long hair and...

GROSS: Oh, I -- yes, absolutely.

ULLMAN: ... you know, yeah. So -- no, no. They -- I'm being harsh. We weren't that -- they weren't that nasty about me. No, they always encouraged -- my mum really encouraged me and could see that I was humorous and -- but I was -- as I said, I wasn't a conventional look. I was an odd-looking little thing and they, you know, so they sort of -- they said: "oh, you're like Beatrice Lillie, maybe."

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Well, do you think -- think that that was an obstacle early on before you really found yourself as a performer, that you weren't, you know, beautiful in the classic Hollywood sense.

ULLMAN: Yeah. I mean, that's always a thing for an actress. I mean, because there is a great onus sometimes put on a woman's looks if you're gonna be in film and TV. And you know, I'm not a dog, but I'm not, as I say, you know. So I was kind of aware of that, but then you just play to your strengths, and you know, all the pretty girls couldn't do all these characters and weren't half the actress I was. I mean, there's always a place for a good comic actress, good character actress -- and that's me.

GROSS: Are you still doing any work in England?

ULLMAN: The show's have just started to be shown on Channel Five in England, and I'm very glad about that. And they get a sort of -- they've gotten a good response -- a kind of "oh, you know, it's too American for us maybe" response, but I think we're likely to make some more shows in England. And I think it would be a nice idea, if I did, maybe, three or four of the takes on shows in England, you know -- takes on the society season; takes on the French; takes on the Edinburgh Festival. I mean, there's some good English subjects.

GROSS: Let me ask you -- you spoof the royal family in your performances. What impact did it have on your ability to satirize the royal family when Princess Diana was killed? Did that -- did that make you feel like you had to, like, stop for a little while or...

ULLMAN: Yeah, I mean, it was just a horrible time, that. You know, it was -- and I did have a piece on my show, in the royalty show, where Sidney Cross sends a video to Princess Diana, saying, you know: "let me represent you in your divorce. You know, this guy was no prince. I'm gonna get you half of Wales."

LAUGHTER

And it was very funny when we showed it, you know -- and became, you know, sort of not apt when the princess died. And I had sent that show to the Princess of Wales, when she was alive, obviously. And I sent it to Kensington Palace and I said -- I wrote her a letter and I said: "look, I really admire you. I think you need a few laughs. I will not use your response as any sort of publicity and best regards."

And she watched it and got her Lady in Waiting or secretary to call back and say how much she'd enjoyed it. And I -- I would never have mentioned that while she was alive, but it was -- that was -- 'cause I do admire her. I liked that she stood up and said: "look, there's something wrong here." You know, she didn't sort of sit back and accept the -- I mean, I really was a great admirer of hers. I liked her. I met her a couple of times and she was nice to my children.

GROSS: Oh, well that's great.

ULLMAN: Hmm.

GROSS: Were you kind of enamored by royalty when you were young?

ULLMAN: No. Never. I didn't understand it. I didn't know what example they were setting to us. I used to go to the Royal Windsor Horse Show and everyone would crowd around and watch the Queen go 'round in a carriage, in one of those dreadful hats that looked like they'd been designed in Moscow.

And I don't know -- what is it? Why are they better than us? What have they done -- well, I just didn't get it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

ULLMAN: And I still don't. I mean, it's just -- I don't know, you know. It's just a very -- they set the precedent as the pinnacle of our class system, which is, you know, at times very inhibiting and very destructive in England. And I'm not -- you know, I'm not happy with that.

And since Diana's death, it has -- these questions have been raised more and more with the British public. And things that I was talking about 10 years ago that seemed inappropriate and were, you know, condemned by the press in England -- now, it's very acceptable.

And I just hope that within the next century, we can dismantle the House of Lords, this hereditary peerage thing in England. And wouldn't it be nice to have a -- you know, if not a republic, just a bicycling monarchy like they have in Holland and Scandinavia, where they aren't paid millions and millions and millions of pounds to be better than us.

And that's just how I feel, you know. I don't want to line 'em up and shoot 'em. You know, I'm not -- because I just don't -- I don't get it, you know. And what can I say?

GROSS: Tracey Ullman, it's just been a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much for joining us.

ULLMAN: It's lovely to talk to you. It really is.

GROSS: Tracey Ullman's HBO series Tracey Takes On is shown Sunday nights. Later this month, the programs will be available on home video. Ullman also have a new book called Tracey Takes On.

Here's her record "They Don't Know" which was a hit in England in the mid-'80s and is now the theme to her HBO series.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "THEY DON'T KNOW")

ULLMAN SINGING: Baby, there's no need for living in the past
Now I've found your love and gonna make it last
I tell the others don't bother me
'Cause when they look at you
They don't see what I see
No I don't
Listen to their voices
(unintelligible)
Took my eyes wide open
And see the signs
'Cause they don't know about us
They've never heard of love

UNIDENTIFIED VOICES: Good night, Trace.

ULLMAN: Go home. Go home.

GROSS: Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Garth Brooks' latest recording.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Tracey Ullman
High: Comedienne and actress Tracey Ullman. Earlier this week her HBO series "Tracy Takes On" began it's third season. Each week she features a gallery of her characters talking about a topic, such as families, sex, money and crime. She also has a companion book "Tracey Takes On," and there's a HBO home video release of her previous shows. Ullman is a native of England. She got her start in the U.S. with The Tracey Ullman Show, and has since won several Emmys and Cable Ace awards. She's also appeared in the films "Ready to Wear." "Bullets Over Broadway", and "Plenty."
Spec: Movie Industry; Television; Tracey Ullman
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Tracey Ullman
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 14, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011402NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Sevens
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Garth Brooks' latest collection called "Sevens" is a country music crossover success. It was number one on the Billboard pop charts for five weeks in a row -- the first time anyone's done that in more than two years. This week it slipped to number two.

Rock critic Ken Tucker says that Brooks is the country superstar most intent on being a pop star, and he thinks Sevens is a shrewd, but problematic move.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "SEVENS")

GARTH BROOKS, SINGER, SINGING:
That old wind that's whippin' out there
It's whistlin' your tune
That wind blew pyramids to Egypt
And footprints to the moon

And that old star that you've been wishin' on
It's shinin' mighty bright
It's the fire inside your heart
That's gonna lead you into the light

How you ever gonna know
What it's like to...

KEN TUCKER, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Sevens is the album that reorganized a record company. Early last year, Garth Brooks had completed his new album, but was feuding with his label, Capitol Records in Nashville, over when and how to release it. On stage, the key to Brooks' appeal is to make himself look like a very aggressive guy who's also a very sensitive guy. In his business dealings, he apparently drops the sensitive part.

Dissatisfied with the marketing campaign Capitol-Nashville had come up with, Brooks withheld the album from them, and insisted on dealing with Capitol's New York office, which he felt better appreciated his country-transcending status.

Sevens was supposed to be released to coincide with the free concert in New York's Central Park that Brooks had scheduled for August. That concert proved a big success, attracting an urban audience of hundreds of thousands that ratified Brooks' crossover appeal. But his willful delay has thrown off the production schedule of Sevens, and it wasn't in the stores to capitalize on the concert.

It finally came out last month, with a first single that sounded like a stubborn guy's manifesto.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "SEVENS")

GARTH BROOKS, SINGING: Sometimes, you've got to take the heat
If you're going to walk down on the Main Street
You take the heat
And you see it grow
'Cause sometimes it comes down to
Do what you gotta do

TUCKER: It's a measure of Garth Brooks' drawing power that even after the corporate temper tantrum he threw -- one that resulted in a round of executive replacements down in Nashville -- his album still went through the roof, streaking to number one despite competition from albums by Celine Dion, LeAnne Rimes, and Barbara Streisand -- precisely the sort of middle-of-the-road power players that Brooks wants to compete with.

And this is where I must say I admire Brooks' grandiose ambitions. Unlike the competition, his big overblown songs are meticulous in their details and imagery. They build emotions with some subtlety, as in this prime example.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "SEVENS")

BROOKS SINGING: Drove to the church
In my suit and tie
But I just couldn't bring myself
To go inside

So I sat alone
In my truck across the street
Watched that chauffeur smoking cigarettes
By that long white limousine

I could just imagine
What was going on in there
Sunlight streamin' through the stained glass
On those flowers in your hair

And in less time than it takes a tear to fall
Those bells rang loud as thunder
As they opened up the door
Now I don't have to wonder
Anymore

TUCKER: Garth Brooks' country music is as much influenced by Billy Joel and the Eagles as it is by Hank Williams and George Jones. Designed for mass compromise, it's not the kind of country I usually like. Add to this lyrics that frequently come across as rhymed glosses on the collected wisdom of self-help guru Tony Robbins, and there's a lot of stuff here, melodramatic and banal, that I don't have any use for.

But for an over-reaching egomaniac, he manufacturers an awfully well-crafted product. And I don't begrudge Garth Brooks the millions of consumers that he satisfies.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly.

Dateline: Ken Tucker; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Rock Critic Ken Tucker reviews the new Garth Brooks album "Sevens."
High:
Spec: Music Industry; Garth Brooks; Sevens
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Sevens
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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