Skip to main content

Tracy Ullman Takes on the 'State of the Union'

British comedienne and actress Tracy Ullman returns to American television Sunday with the debut of her new Showtime series, Tracy Ullman's State of the Union. Ullman plays fictional characters as well as a host of notable personalities, including Cameron Diaz, David Beckham and Nancy Pelosi.

36:05

Other segments from the episode on March 25, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 25, 2008: Interview with Tracey Ullman; Review of the CD collection "The Brit Box;" Review of the DVD collection "Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 2."

Transcript

DATE March 25, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Tracey Ullman discusses her life and show "State of the
Union"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Tracey Ullman is coming back to TV with a new sketch comedy series called
"State of the Union." This five-part series premiers Sunday on Showtime.
Tracey Ullman is a genius at doing characters. In her new series, she does a
lot of original character, but she also impersonates real people like Nancy
Pelosi, Renee Zellweger, David Beckham and Tony Sirico, who played Paulie
Walnuts on "The Sopranos." Each episode is supposed to be a compressed collage
of 24 hours in the life of America, with brief sketches of what people are
doing from Beverly Hills to farms and small towns, from movie stars and news
anchors to undocumented workers.

In this early morning scene, Ullman plays two characters, Jamaican caregiver
Marion Churchill, and the woman she works for, octogenarian Ruth Katzman.
Churchill has just entered Katzman's Manhattan apartment.

(Soundbite of "State of the Union")

Ms. TRACEY ULLMAN: (As Marion Churchill) Morning, Mrs. Katzman.

Ms. ULLMAN: (As Ruth Katzman) Irving, is that you?

Ms. ULLMAN: (As Marion Churchill) No, darling. Your husband, Irving, he
died in 1979. You want a pudding pop for breakfast?

Ms. ULLMAN: (As Ruth Katzman) Why doesn't my daughter come to see me?

Ms. ULLMAN: (As Marion Churchill) She coming to see you today, darling. She
going to take you to see the Mama Mia ABBA show with your grandson Ryan.

Ms. ULLMAN: (As Ruth Katzman) That kid's a fegelah.

Ms. ULLMAN: (As Marion Churchill) Oh, now, Mrs. K. You know you love that
boy. You got that picture of him and Ryan Seacrest by your bed. Now, Mrs.
K., you want to go out today, we're going to have to cut your toenails so we
can get your shoes on. Come here, darling.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Tracey Ullman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, you do several real
people in the show. You do Laurie David, the environmental activist, and, as
you put it, soon-to-be ex-wife of writer Larry David. You do Arianna
Huffington...

Ms. ULLMAN: Yes.

GROSS: ...the political blogger.

Ms. ULLMAN: (with accent) But isn't she wonderful? Terry, I have to tell
you that I really, really wanted to be Arianna because she sounds like Zsa Zsa
Gabor...

GROSS: She does!

Ms. ULLMAN: (with accent) ...or Eva Gabor from "Green Acres." That's right.

GROSS: Right. I'm so glad you pointed that out.

Ms. ULLMAN: (with accent) I love to listen to your show, Terry Gross,
because I am on "Left, Right and Center" at KCLW, and I love when I hear her
say things like "water," and I think it's a real litmus test.

I love her voice so much.

GROSS: Now, did you tell her and did you tell Laurie David or Nancy Pelosi,
who you're less likely to know, that you were going to do them in your show?

Ms. ULLMAN: No. Arianna knows because she lives near me, and she invites me
to some of her terrific evenings when she has authors and politicians, all
sorts of people. She has like a salon in her house. I mean, she's got
permanent caterers, that woman, and so she knows. She's thrilled, actually.
I think she likes it, you know. She's very confident, curious woman, and I
think I portray her in a very positive light in the show. She's a wonderful
person to have comment about America that day because (with accent) she's
blogging the whole time, she likes to blog. (normal voice) And she can be a
character that's talking about what's going on in America in the morning.
(with accent) And then late that night when she's watching "Charlie Rose," in
her silk lingerie, (normal voice) she can talk about, you know, bring the day
to and end and talk about what went on that day. So she's a great device for
me, a good character for this type of show.

GROSS: Now, you do several real actors in your show. One of them in Tony
Sirico, who played Paulie Walnuts on "The Sopranos."

Ms. ULLMAN: Mm.

GROSS: And you look so right in it with that like silver and black wig that
you're wearing and the expression that you have on your face. Of all the
people in the world, why did you want to do him?

Ms. ULLMAN: Mm-hmm. (With accent) I got this thing about him, Terry. I
watched him one night on "The Sopranos," and he was saying this thing about,
`Hey, Tone, you want to kid to go out and get something from
the...(unintelligible)?' (Normal accent) And it's his little mouth and stuff,
and I thought it would be a nice device to have during the course of a day in
America every week, we see a celebrity publicizing their latest project
because it's just something we always watch every day in America because
there's always "ET" and "Extra." And it was a nice way to impersonate real
people, so I chose Tony Sirico. I chose Renee Zellweger, Cameron Diaz--it was
hard to look as pretty as her, but I just, I had a go. I've got these
fabulous makeup and hair people, and we just have so much fun trying. And
Renee Zellweger was, (with higher voice) how can I be Renee Zellweger? And I
just took some really, really thick eyelashes and stuck them on my eyes and
didn't open my eyes, so I kind of look like--remember Shari Lewis and Lamb
Chop?

GROSS: Yes.

Ms. ULLMAN: I think if they ever do the movie of Lamb Chop, Renee will play
the part.

GROSS: Now, you take a couple of digs at Botox and cosmetic surgery.

Ms. ULLMAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you do this really funny sketch called "Dignity Village." Say
something about what Dignity Village is.

Ms. ULLMAN: Well, Dignity Village is a place that we decided to invent,
myself and one of my writers, Gil Perrin. It's a place where women over 35
can retire and never be seen in public again. Yeah, it's something--I'm, you
know, 48 now. You start to get aware of this aging, and how women panic about
it. It's very hard for women to age with dignity in America, I think,
particularly. It gets easier in Europe.

GROSS: Well, do you feel those pressures yourself because you're an actress?

Ms. ULLMAN: I haven't got looks to lose, you know. And I was sick of being
a sex symbol, Terry, so for me it's just a relief, you know. I don't know,
I've got this funny little sort of olive skin and troll-like face, and I seem
to have aged quite well. I couldn't be bothered with all that stuff. Can you
imagine? You can't take bits of your ass and put it in your lip. It looks
horrible.

Well, I mean, I'm not saying I wouldn't ever have little bits done, but most
of the people that have it done, it just looks horrid. And people don't seem
to say anything, and I don't know, I couldn't even be bothered to go every
four weeks, have the roots of my hair done, let alone go and have needles put
in my face.

I don't know, right? I think it's a tricky issue, and I know people get
tempted to do it. But a lot of the time I look at them and they just look sad
and in pain with it. I just wish there was more respect for age.

GROSS: You probably know a lot of people who've felt that they had to go
through with it in order to have a career.

Ms. ULLMAN: Mm. Yeah. I was having dinner with someone who's had a lot of
Botox over the years, quite a well known actress, and I looked at the spots on
her forehead and her--the marionette lines around the eyes, and it's sort of
gone pale green, those patches of her face, because they're atrophied and no
blood goes through them. I thought, wow, she's got like green spots. So I
told her that, and also I think that most of the people that do this cosmetic
surgery are men, and their aesthetic of female beauty is not mine. I wish
there were more female cosmetic surgeons. Have you noticed that?

GROSS: No, because I don't...

Ms. ULLMAN: Terry, are you doing anything, darling? Are you doing a little
dermapeel, abrosion? ? What are you doing, honey?

GROSS: Nothing.

Ms. ULLMAN: Anything?

GROSS: Nothing.

Ms. ULLMAN: You're just all smart people on National Public Radio. You
don't get involved in all that stuff.

GROSS: Hey, I'm invisible. I don't have to worry about it.

Ms. ULLMAN: Yeah, it's a tricky issue.

GROSS: What's the most unusual thing you did to your body or to your
complexion for the characters you do in this new series?

Ms. ULLMAN: I try to steer away from huge makeups on this series because
that's something else I learnt from previous shows, that if you encase
yourself in latex masks, it's like trying to act through a sponge. You know,
you have to let some of the movement of your face come through. And I worked
with a new makeup artist on this show called Matthew Mungle--well, we've
worked together before, but this was the first series we've done--and he's
developed this new kind of prosthetic makeup that's sort of made of gel, and
he brings the pieces along, and they're not like these dry latex rubber
anymore. You can like see the veins within them and stuff. I mean, they have
a weight and a warmth that when you get them on your face, they feel good.
And I didn't wear any complete masks.

Also, I used to feel so claustrophobic. It was like going--what do you call
it--it was like, you know, spelunking. You know, a bit like going caving
wearing all those big makeups. You get sort of panicky. Most I used really
were necks and cheeks and noses, and I used a lot of fake teeth and gum
expanders and contact lens. And he did an amazing job. He made me look like
Andy Rooney. I always wanted to be Andy Rooney. This is like sacrosanct,
Terry. I hope Andy Rooney doesn't watch this, but I did so enjoy being Andy
Rooney.

GROSS: Andy Rooney with a little extra hair coming out of your nose.

Ms. ULLMAN: That was Ronny Rooney, his older brother. I played both of them
in this show. I mean, this is just a fictional, Ronny Rooney, his older
brother. I just put a bit more hair coming out the nose, more hair coming out
the ears, and bigger earlobes.

GROSS: Since you do so many characters, was there ever a period of your life
where you knew who you were when you were in character, but were unsure who
you were when you weren't? Like, I know, like, some actors seem to be much
more confident of who they are when they're performing in a role.

Ms. ULLMAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And their lines are written for them, and so on. And you take on so
many other people's personalities, were you ever unsure of who you were when
you were just yourself?

Ms. ULLMAN: I'm all right as me. I don't want to be me as a reality show,
heaven forbid, or as a TV host or anything like that. I mean, I'm happy. I
love doing my work and my acting, but I'm very comfortable being me, and I
have a very comfortable home life. You know, I've been married for 25 years
to the funniest man in the world, to me, and I'm not the funny one at home. I
have two kids and they make me laugh, and I'm just, you know, I'm the person
that watches PBS documentaries and knits nowadays.

GROSS: I know. I hear you even had a knitting book a while ago.

Ms. ULLMAN: I know. I love that.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. ULLMAN: I'm a bit of a--I don't go out much. I mean, you know,
sometimes, I mean, I'm quite happy just doing performances in the bedroom and
making my kids laugh or having them make me laugh. That quite suffices. I
don't need to go out and do it all the time or show up somewhere in a frock to
get in a magazine. I just--you know, I'm not that sort of person. But I'm
happy being me. I really am. No. I know what you're saying. I think that
other people think that people who are drawn to comedy have these tragic, you
know, lives and they just are sad when they're not on, and I don't feel that
way.

GROSS: My guest is Tracey Ullman. Her new sketch comedy series, "Tracey
Ullman's State of the Union," premieres Sunday on Showtime. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Tracey Ullman's my guest, and she has a new series that starts on
Showtime Sunday March 30th. It's called "State of the Union."

You became a naturalized citizen a couple of years ago. Why did you want to
do that? Why then? This was, what--was it 2005? Do I have that right?

Ms. ULLMAN: 2006.

GROSS: 2006.

Ms. ULLMAN: December 2006, I completed the process and became an American
citizen. And I still, of course, retain my British citizenship because you
can't ever give that up unless you do something terrible to the queen. So I
am both and I'm thrilled. And as my children are--you know, have dual
citizenship and--I don't know. I've been here a long time, Terry. I've been
here in America really for like 25 years, and I've had my children here, and
I've had a lovely career here, and you just get to the point where you want to
join in, fully.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ULLMAN: And after the last election, I just thought, `That's it. I want
to have a vote now.' And this is something you psychologically--I think I'd
been at a party or something, and I think it was Tom Hanks was standing in a
corridor at a party and I said something, and he was just very nice. He went,
`Oh, yeah, you know, I know that, but you don't--you're British. You know,
you don't have to put up with that stuff.' And he was talking about something
and I thought--me name dropping here, Tom Hanks. But he was, and I thought, I
went, `No, actually, I've been here a long time.' I thought, `That's it. I'm
going to join in.'

So I took the test. You have to study civics, and it was really rather an
enjoyable, interesting process that culminated in a big signing and
swearing-in ceremony, downtown Los Angeles, and there I was, waving a flag
with 5,000 other people. And they play a film. They show a film of America,
and I don't know who made this film; I'd like to find out. It's like waving
wheat fields and monster trucks and the moon landing, and it's all scored with
that song, (singing) "I'm proud to be an America, because at least I know I'm
free. And I can stand up next to you." And it was lovely, but it was kind of
like a right wing induction ceremony. I thought, `Hm, this is great. This is
America. It's not my America.' Then I really thought, `Wow, I want to do my
show about America. I want the America that I see, and that's my opinion.
And it's my First Amendment right now and they can't throw me out the
country.' So that was another reason to do the show. I really feel a part of
it here now.

GROSS: What was the most difficult part, you know, of--or the most ridiculous
part of the whole process of becoming a naturalized citizen?

Ms. ULLMAN: Listening to that song on the film.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. ULLMAN: It was a little--and waving a flag, and this guy was saying to
us, `You could turn to the people next to you and say, "Hello, citizen!"' It
was just that optimism and the, you know, as we walked outside, as we all
filed out, there were two booths waiting for us, Republicans, Democrats, `Sign
up! Sign up!'

GROSS: Oh, wow.

Ms. ULLMAN: Yeah. Yeah. It's like `Get them now! Get them now!' But my
daughter came with me, and actually she's taking her masters now in political
science, and she was fascinated by the whole process. That was great, as a
political science student, for her to witness all this. But what can I say?
(singing) "I'm proud to be an American, Terry, because at least I know I'm
free." Am I?

GROSS: So tell us about the neighborhood you grew up in in England.

Ms. ULLMAN: Well, I started off in the country, country
girl...(unintelligible)...ponies, that sort of England, green belt. My father
was a Polish immigrant who did very, very, very well, and who built up a
terrific business, and we had a lovely life. Married an Englishwoman, my mum,
and then very sadly he died when I was six, and so our fortunes came and went,
really. We moved around a lot. My mother re-married, and I, to cheer my
mother up, I think, and sort of keep myself, you know, happy and my sister, I
would put on shows in her bedroom, the Tracey Ullman show. Well actually, it
was originally the Patty Ullman show, so I'm a spin-off from my sister's show,
as she likes to point out. And always just us kids could play football or
play the piano. I could just imitate everybody. I wanted to imitate
everybody--neighbors, family, teachers--and that's what was really fascinating
to me.

GROSS: So your father died when you were six. Did you know what death was
when he died?

Ms. ULLMAN: Well, he died in front of me, so that was--well, now we're
getting to that heavy, `This is why she's in comedy. This is why--the tragic
side of the comic.' Yeah, I certainly did. I was always an old soul. I was a
very sensible little--I think I'm reincarnated many, many times. I've had
many lives before. When that happens to you as a child, I think you can face
anything. You're always waiting for the other shoe to drop. You know, if
something great happens, you're like, `Wow, that's great that happened because
it could have been crap.' because so much, you know, most disappointing thing
happened when you were younger. So I think girls that have lost their fathers
young, I think I have similar characteristics. Whenever I meet somebody also
lost a parent when they were younger, they're similar. They're just braver
and if good things happen, you're really grateful.

GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, how did your father end up dying right in
front you? What happened?

Ms. ULLMAN: He had a heart attack. Heart attack. He'd had a heart
operation, so he hadn't been well, and then he had a heart attack. Working
too hard, I suppose, looking back on it. And who knows.

GROSS: Was there anyone else in the room, or were you alone?

Ms. ULLMAN: I was alone with him.

GROSS: So what'd you do?

Ms. ULLMAN: And he was reading to me. And he had a Polish accent, and then,
you know--so, yeah, I most certainly knew that he'd died and that...

GROSS: Just, if you don't mind my asking, so like when your father died, who
did you run to tell? Was there somebody around to go to? Was your mother
home?

Ms. ULLMAN: Yeah, my mum was downstairs. Yeah.

GROSS: OK. Yeah.

Ms. ULLMAN: I mean, you never forget those days. I went back to that house
recently, actually, that happened. I mean, as you get older, you get very
nostalgic, and you start going back to houses you lived in as a child. And
every house I lived in as a child's been knocked down, or was in the process
of being knocked down when I got there, which is kind of funny in a way. I
kept rounding corners with my children in the car and going, `And this is the
house where--oh. It's all gone.' But that's all right. They weren't great
houses anyway.

GROSS: So your mother re-married. You said that you as a child started
performing more in a way to like cheer everybody up after your father died.

Ms. ULLMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: So suddenly there was like a new person living in your house, like a
new...

Ms. ULLMAN: Yeah, well, it wasn't a very good second marriage.

GROSS: No.

Ms. ULLMAN: Of course, I don't think--certainly wasn't the bloody "Brady
Bunch," Terry, let me tell you. That show. A load of old rubbish, that was.
Yeah, it wasn't that way for us. But, you know, she tried.

GROSS: Did you impersonate him?

Ms. ULLMAN: Oh, yeah, I can do a really good impersonation of him.

GROSS: What was he like?

Ms. ULLMAN: Yeah, yeah, oh, he was all right, you know. He was just--he had
kids himself, and I think mixed marriage, I think it's ever so hard to make it
work, you know. But they tried for a while. Actually, he's a London cab
driver, and when I was 15, she divorced him, and I didn't see this man that my
mother had married until I was like, literally about five years ago I got in
his cab. So it was interesting, actually, to talk to him again after all
these years now I'm grown up and can see it from his perspective, my mother's
perspective. And I just sort of stared at the back of his head as I drove
along in his cab, and then he didn't charge me at the end of the ride, which I
thought was kind of cool, you know, just got out the car and shook his hand
and got out the cab. So it's funny.

GROSS: Did he realize how famous you'd become?

Ms. ULLMAN: And then I called my sister, who's live in America for a long
time, and has become so American. I mean, I told her, I went, `I got into our
stepfather's cab!' And she said, `Oh, God. You got to have closure.' I said,
`Patty, you're so American now. Closure?' You know, I said, `I saw the guy
again, you know.' So there you go.

GROSS: Tracey Ullman will be back in the second half of the show. Her new
series, "Tracey Ullman's State of the Union," premieres Sunday on Showtime.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tracey Ullman. Her new
sketch comedy show, "Tracey Ullman's State of the Union," premieres Sunday on
Showtime. Ullman plays a variety of original characters and also impersonates
well known people. When we left off, we were talking about growing up in
England. She'd explained that she'd started doing impersonations as a kid
after her father died. The first people she imitated were family members.

Were your family members, including your new stepfather, pleased that you were
so talented and could effectively do them?

Ms. ULLMAN: We're English. You don't tell anyone they're talented in
England. I mean here you're all special.

GROSS: Yes.

Ms. ULLMAN: You know, you're told you're special and you're great. We don't
tell each other that in England, say that to each other. You're very
self-depreciating, `oh, no, she's all right.' You know, even now, I mean, it's
hard to give praise as English people. But if they have a sort of grudging
respect for you, you can see--it means more than someone saying to you all the
time, `You're wonderful, you're great, that's fantastic, good job.' And I've
noticed that in the schools that my kids go to here. You know, `You're just
special, everyone's great, everyone's fabulous.' And it doesn't really help
this gifted generation of child that are so indulged. You need to prove
you're special. But we don't give the kids anything to prove.

GROSS: Were your family members, your stepfather, offended when you started
doing them? Did they ever take it the wrong way?

Ms. ULLMAN: No.

GROSS: Especially your stepfather because he was new to the family and here
you are imitating him.

Ms. ULLMAN: No. They--it's England. You know, we all take the mickey out
of each other. You know, it's--there's always a healthy sense of
self-depreciation and you can make fun of yourselves in England. That's what
we are good at, making fun of ourselves, maybe too much, but no.

GROSS: Now, you went to professional school...

Ms. ULLMAN: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...this kind of school that working children go to. So how did you
get to the point in terms of your entertainment aspirations that you were sent
to professional school at the age of 12?

Ms. ULLMAN: I guess it's--looking back, I mean, it's having a wonderful
teacher that picked me out and helped me along. I was very good in the school
productions. And I had a terrific--a principal of a school called Ronald
Harding, very English man, you know, itchy sort of tweed suits and shiny
leather shoes, and he was always a very scary sort of figure to me as a little
girl. And then he said to my mother after one of the productions, `You know,
Tracey really should go to a special school.' And I thought he meant like, you
know, a school for naughty kids, like a...(unintelligible)...like
a...(unintelligible)...and I thought, `what did he mean?'

And then he helped my mom, who was--you know, we're financially strapped cash
always, to get a grant for me to go to the Italia Conti Academy, as they now
call themselves. It used to be called a stage school. And I got a grant and
they paid for my lunches and my uniform--I mean, I really have to thank the
British taxpayer for this--to go up to London every day and study singing,
dancing, acting and academic classes as well. And it was great fun and it got
me out of the home life I had at the time. I wasn't very happy. And looking
back, you know, certain teachers and people make a difference; I really
appreciate it now that he did that for me.

GROSS: So were you cast in certain roles when you were in your early teens?

Ms. ULLMAN: It was really tough, Terry, because I was this--I look like a
troll. I mean, my family--I mean, honestly, it makes me laugh, `oh, she looks
like a troll, our Trace.' And I was this sort of odd looking troll looking kid
dressed in black. And all these kids at the stage school, some of them were
like very pretty blondes that had been like the stand-in in "Chitty Chitty
Bang Bang." Or they just--`I've just done a Barbie commercial and I'm doing a
McVickies cookie commercial.' And they're all pretty, and I thought, oh, you
have to be blond and pretty to be in show business. And I thought well, how
am I ever going to fit in? So I just did my thing and sang and danced and
learned stuff. And I didn't--I thought it was all based on looks as a girl.

GROSS: Well, a lot of it is.

Ms. ULLMAN: Oh, boy, was I right a lot of the time in this business, you
know.

GROSS: I mean, honestly, yeah.

Ms. ULLMAN: It is about looks. And so some people slip the net and
become--and I always wanted to be a great character actress. I used to look
at Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith and Peggy Ashcroft at that time and think,
well, they made it and they're not conventionally beautiful and stuff so maybe
there's hope for me.

GROSS: Well, how did you head toward comedy?

Ms. ULLMAN: You know, I used to impersonate Lily--I used to do Lily Tomlin
on "Laugh-In" and stuff in the school shows. And then I started to notice
Lily Tomlin and I saw some of the "Saturday Night Live"s in the '70s in
England with Gilda Radner and Carol Burnett, and it seemed that Americans were
giving character actors and comedians more of a shot really at that time than
England was. At that time in England really there was nothing but "Benny
Hill," and the girls on his show who were just in bikinis. I thought, hm, I
can't do that. So I was very inspired by American comediennes.

GROSS: So how did you get into sketch comedy?

Ms. ULLMAN: I had done an improvised play at the Royal Court Theatre in
London. Four actors were taken and we developed a play just by improvisation,
which something like might lead us. It was a contemporary of mine least,
called Les Blair. We developed this play over eight weeks, and it was a huge
success. I mean, it was just terrific reviews. It was funny. It was all
about club acts. It was all about, you know, dancers and singers and
comedians, and we just improvised it. And we could sort of add different
chunks every night, which really is where I, you know, initially, like, I
loved the spontaneity of just making things up on the spot every day.

And that got me noticed, and I won a theater critics award and the attention
of the BBC, who asked me to be in a sketch comedy show. And, as I just
mentioned, I was very concerned about being in a sketch comedy because I
didn't think girls were allowed to do it unless they looked like Benny Hill's
girls and wore bikinis. So I said to them, `I'll do it, but I don't want to
be the butt of a sexual joke. I won't wear a bikini, and I'd like to be able
to do some of my own writing and characters.' And that's indeed what they let
me do. And it was that then that was a very successful sketch show called
"Three of a Kind."

GROSS: So when you were doing this theater sketch show before you...

Ms. ULLMAN: Oh, that was theater--that was one part. I played--I developed
one character called Beverly who was a born again Christian nightclub singer.
It was just an odd character I developed. And she just--that, it just--it was
based on someone I knew, actually, who was very upset because I called her
Beverly and she was Beverly, and she said `I don't understand why I couldn't
have just played the part.' So I was like, `well.' So that was one part. It
wasn't a sketch show that I was doing in the theater.

GROSS: I see.

Ms. ULLMAN: But the BBC came along and decided, you know, asked me if I
would do a sketch show.

GROSS: So what kind of songs did you sing as her?

Ms. ULLMAN: It was that kind of--I would sing "My Guy" by Mary Wells in a
spangly blue dress and just do lots of like vocal pyrotechnics and moved the
microphone wire around a lot, you know. It's like, it reminds me of like
"American Idol" nowadays. You know how that they get them to sing? (Singing)
`They start at a certain spot in the song and then they're building, building
higher and higher' and the (crowd noise) the crowd comes in.

GROSS: Absolutely.

Ms. ULLMAN: We call it vocal pyrotechnics. I think I was doing that back
then.

GROSS: Is it fun for you to watch "American Idol" and see what kind of show
business shticks people have picked up and are imitating?

Ms. ULLMAN: Oh, I don't like "American Idol." I just can't watch it. I
don't get into it. I like--I don't know, it's just not my kind of music. I
hate that mainstream sort of stuff. I don't know, I'm like an indie radio
kind of...

GROSS: Right.

Ms. ULLMAN: I've just never gotten into that. And I know there's a soap
opera drama aspect to it that people get into because they just want so and so
to win. It's never appealed to me because I can't take the singing. Here
she--who am I to say, my little one hit wonder song in the '80s. But I don't
know, it's not my kind of stuff. I like Simon Cowell. I love that people
think he's mean. He's not. He's just British. He's just honest. I liked to
find it refreshing the first years of that show when he'd go, `that was
terrible,' you know, `you shouldn't be singing, that was horrible.' I like
that sort of thing.

GROSS: Yeah. So, you know, you do so many characters in your series. What
do you look like when you're not in character? You're in a West Coast studio,
I'm in an East Coast studio...

Ms. ULLMAN: Mm.

GROSS: ...so we're not looking at each right now. But like how do you dress
when you're just yourself?

Ms. ULLMAN: Do you know I'm wearing a vintage Chanel suit today.

GROSS: Are you?

Ms. ULLMAN: I don't know why. It's just--yeah, I look very smart, actually.
I look like I'm going for a meeting with my accountant. I've just got really
long hair. I let my hair grow. As I say, I've not had any facial--I've not
had any work done, Terry. I think a lot of makeup as you get older makes you
look older, so--and I wear so much makeup as my characters I just enjoy having
nothing on my face. And I've got a 21-year-old daughter so, you know, if I
try and dress up in anything age inappropriate, as she puts it, I get slapped
down really quickly, Terry. So, you know, I daren't. I don't wear jeans or
anything like that because if I do wear jeans my son says, `oh, single mom
jeans.' He's got this thing about women that get divorced and are trying to
get another guy, they wear those `single mom jeans.' And I think, oh, can you
imagine if that's how I looked? I'd just die.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. ULLMAN: I love talking to you. I love your show. I love NPR,
generally. I love your show.

GROSS: Oh, well, thanks so much. I wish you...

Ms. ULLMAN: And I listen all the time.

GROSS: Fabulous. And I wish you good luck with your show. Will you be
watching it or like when it's actually shown?

Ms. ULLMAN: No.

GROSS: No? Why not?

Ms. ULLMAN: I don't really like watching myself. If you start figuring out
what people think of you too much, it gets--all these flipping bloggers out
there now and these snarky old bloggers. It's like you remember, like people
at school that would say bitchy things, like, you know, like fat people watch
the gymnastics team and go `look at her, she's crap.' And now they just do it,
do you know what I mean, sitting there eating a bag of Oreos going `look at
her on the asymmetric bars, she's crap.' And now they can just get their nasty
little snarky voices out there in public. If you read the blogs, you just
want to kill yourself, you know.

GROSS: So I take it...

Ms. ULLMAN: Look at Heather Locklear, like `I wouldn't sleep with her, she's
old.' Do you know what I mean? I feel like going and finding that guy that
wrote that and saying, `You really wouldn't sleep with Heather Locklear
because she's old?' Who do you think you are, Craig, sitting in your Minnesota
bedroom with your Disney wallpaper. I'm going to go and find some of these
bloggers, Terry, slap them around a bit.

GROSS: Tracey Ullman's new series is called "Tracey Ullman's State of the
Union." It premiers Sunday on Showtime.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Ed Ward reviews "The Brit Box," four-CD collection of
popular music over the last 20 years from Great Britian
TERRY GROSS, host:

Over the past 20 years Great Britain has produced a huge quantity of popular
music that's gotten very little attention in the United States. So much, in
fact, that it's practically impossible for American fans to keep up with it.
In an attempt at a crash course, Rhino released a four-disc collection called
"The Brit Box." Rock historian Ed Ward gives it a listen.

(Soundbite of "How Soon Is Now?")

MORRISSEY: (Singing) I am the son
And the heir
Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
I am the son and heir
Of nothing in particular

You shut your mouth
How can you say
I go about things the wrong way
I am human and I need to be loved
Just like everybody else does

(End of soundbite)

Mr. ED WARD: The British music scene is very different from the American
one. Britain is, and always has been, the home of pop, music which revolves
around the three-minute single, produced by fresh new faces promoting fashions
in clothing and lifestyle who may or may not have staying power. It hardly
matters. There's always more where they came from.

Once punk became established on the UK charts by the early '80s, the question
became `what next?' And a young man named Steven Patrick Morrissey decided to
answer it directly. Fortunately, in Manchester, where he lived, there were
plenty of young musicians eager to upset the city's traditional rival,
Liverpool. And fortunately for Morrissey, one of them was a guitarist named
Johnny Marr, who was a genius. Their band, The Smiths, released a single,
"How Soon Is Now?" which sounded like nothing which had come before, and a new
era in British pop was born.

By the end of the '80s, it was influenced by dance music, some of it, and it
was almost inevitably released on small labels, at least at first. And it
seemed that an awful lot of it was from the city that had become known as
"Madchester."

(Soundbite of "This Is How It Feels")

INSPIRAL CARPETS: (Singing) Husband don't know what he's done
Kids don't know what's wrong with mum
She can't say, they can't see
Putting it down to another bad day
Daddy don't know what he's done
Kid don't know what's wrong with mum

So this is how it feels to be lonely
This is how it feels to be small
This is how it feels when your word means nothing at all

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: The Inspiral Carpets were typical, starting their own label, Cow,
and getting lots of press in London before signing with a larger indie label,
Mute, where they had success for a while.

Scotland was another fertile area for the new pop. One of the first bands
from there was The Jesus and Mary Chain, fronted by the Reid brothers, William
and Jim, whose sound was classic enough to give it a string of hits.

(Soundbite of "April Skies")

THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN: (Singing) Hey, honey what you trying to say
As I stand here
Don't you walk away
And the world comes tumbling down
Hand in hand in a violent life
Making love on the edge of a knife
And the world comes tumbling down

And it's hard
For me to say
And it's hard
For me to stay
I'm going down
To be by myself
I'm going back
For the good of my health
And there's one thing
I couldn't do
Sacrifice myself to you
Sacrifice

(End of soundbite)

WARD: The British rock press--weekly papers like the New Musical Express and
Melody Maker--stirred up controversy, pitting "rockist" bands which relied on
traditional guitars against the ones who used keyboards and synthesizers and
often had their singles remixed by dance music producers. But the reality was
that all the fans were listening for were songs that stuck in your head. You
only needed one to achieve fame.

(Soundbite of "There She Goes")

THE LA'S: (Singing) There she goes
There she goes again
Racing through my brain
And I just can't contain
This feeling that remains

There she goes...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: The La's from Liverpool were a perfect example. "There She Goes"
from 1988 was a pop masterpiece. But the last I heard, the band was still
working on its second album. Others never even got that far. Creating an
album's worth of material was hard. And although they all did it, it didn't
mean the fans had to buy it--and a lot of them didn't.

The American music business of the time was more conservative, looking not
only for singles that were well defined in terms of melody, lyrics and
structure, but bands which could tour and play their stuff live. When a bunch
of kids with a well produced single gets catapulted to fame on a small island,
it doesn't necessarily mean they have the right stuff to sustain a career.
Some of them, though, did.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. LIAM GALLAGHER: (Singing) Maybe I don't really want to know
How your garden grows
Because I just want to fly
Lately did you ever feel the pain
In the morning rain
As it soaks it to the bone

Maybe I just want to fly
I want to live, I don't want to die
Maybe I just want to breathe
Maybe I just don't believe
Maybe you're the same as me
We see things they'll never see
You and I are going to live forever

I said maybe...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: Noel Gallagher had been a roadie for Inspiral Carpets, and with
his brother Liam obviously worshipped at the altar of The Beatles, although
they were from Manchester. Putting together a band called Oasis, they were
able not only to conquer Britain, but the US as well, where "Live Forever" was
a top 10 smash in 1994. At home they were in heated competition with a band
called Blur, but in a pointed illustration of how Britain and America had
drifted apart in the pop world, Blur never made a dent in the States.

One other band from this era deserves mention, if only because they broke all
the stereotypes. Jarvis Cocker had had a band called Pulp since he was in
college. And after nearly a decade of getting nowhere he was about to pack it
in when one of his singles was raved about by the press. Suddenly Pulp was
hot. Their six-minute extravaganza of a single "Common People" proved that in
1994, British pop could still come up with something both old and new. I'll
leave you with a bit of it.

(Soundbite of "Common People")

Mr. JARVIS COCKER: (Singing) She came from Greece, she had a thirst for
knowledge
She studied sculpture at St. Martin's College
That's where I caught her eye
She told me that her dad was loaded
I said, in that case I'll have rum and Coca-Cola
She said fine
And then in 30 seconds' time she said

I want to live like common people
I want to do whatever common people do
I want to sleep with common people
I want to sleep with common people like you
Well, what else could I do?
I said I'll, I'll see what I can do

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Rock historian Ed Ward lives in Berlin. He reviewed "The Brit Box" on
Rhino Records.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: John Powers reviews DVD collection "Forbidden Hollywood
Collection, Volume 2" of five pre-code era movies
TERRY GROSS, host:

In 1930 the American film industry adapted the motion picture production code,
which set down a set of rules defining what was morally acceptable and
unacceptable in movies. The list of banned elements included nudity and
suggestive dances, illegal drug use and anything that would make one
sympathetic with criminal activity. But in the four years before it was
enforced, Hollywood turned out a series of pictures that were racier than
anything it would make until the late 1960s. A new three-disc set of these
movies, the "Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 2" has just come out from
Warner Brothers with stars like Bette Davis, Norma Shearer and Barbara
Stanwyck. Critic at large John Powers talks about what the pre-code era that
today's movies do not.

Mr. JOHN POWERS: One of the ways the present flatters itself is to think
that we're more sophisticated, more advanced than people in the past. When I
used to teach film, my students would roll their eyes at classic Hollywood
movies with their old fashioned rules of sexual decorum and their insistence
that evil be punished.

But things were always more complicated than that. Until the creation of the
motion picture production code in 1930 and its serious enforcement four years
later, Hollywood movies enjoyed the freedom to tackle subjects that still
seemed daring. You can see this quite clearly in the "Forbidden Hollywood
Collection, Volume 2," Warner Brothers' terrific new boxed set of DVDs with
five pre-code movies filled with crime, drug abuse and licentious womanhood,
plus a documentary on that giddy era.

My favorite is "Night Nurse," a sassy comic drama starring Barbara Stanwyck as
Lora Hart, a salt-of-the-earth student nurse. She learns the ropes from
another trainee--that's Joan Blondell--who warns her not to date interns. And
she catches the eye of an affable bootlegger.

Lora's first job involves looking after the young daughters of a booze-addled
socialite in her mansion. Turns out she's caught up in a scheme to harm the
little girls. The heavy's a chauffeur played by the young Clark Gable, whose
famed animal magnetism here largely seems apish. In this scene, Stanwyck has
just been handed a hundred dollars to buy her silence, and she shows the money
to her friend Blondell.

(Soundbite from "Night Nurse")

Ms. BARBARA STANWYCK: (As Lora Hart) What you want?

Ms. JOAN BLONDELL: (As B. Maloney) Gee, a hundred bucks.

Ms. STANWYCK: (As Lora Hart) Yeah, isn't that a scream?

Ms. BLONDELL: (As B. Maloney) Hey, don't handle it like it's rubber.

Ms. STANWYCK: (As Lora Hart) Well, I won't get very much kick out of
spending it.

Ms. BLONDELL: (As B. Maloney) Listen, bell, for a hundred bucks I'd take a
couple socks on the chin.

Ms. STANWYCK: (As Lora Hart) Funny what people think money will do, isn't
it?

Ms. BLONDELL: (As B. Maloney) Yeah. Keeping our nose out of patients'
private affairs is part of our professional ethics.

Ms. STANWYCK: (As Lora Hart) I'll kill the next one that says ethics to me.

Ms. BLONDELL: (As B. Maloney) Says you.

Ms. STANWYCK: (As Lora Hart) Yeah, says me in a big way, sister.

Mr. POWERS: Ethics, indeed. "Night Nurse" flaunts many of the racy elements
of pre-code filmmaking. You have Stanwyck's romantic connection to that
murderous bootlegger, for which neither of them is punished. And, boy, do you
have a lot of scenes in which, for very little reason Stanwyck and Blondell
peel off their uniforms so we can eyeball them in their underwear.

"Night Nurse" gets its oomph from Stanwyck, who may well be the greatest
American screen actress. She was always the toughest and most worldly whether
getting romantic with the Chinese warlord in "The Bitter Tea of General Yen"
or plotting to kill her husband in "Double Indemnity." As this movie makes
obvious, she possessed a bold sexual allure and a wonderfully brisk way with
words. This made her perfect for delivering great comic lines like the one in
"The Lady Eve," where she's a con woman out to cheat Henry Fonda. "I need
him," she says, "like the axe needs the turkey."

And speaking of axes, once the motion picture code took hold much of what is
complex and adult in American life was instantly hacked out of our movies.
And why? The Hays code, as it's known, was basically the elite dictating to
the masses. The guardians of social order worried that the largely working
class, often immigrant audience, might be inflamed or driven to anarchy by
seeing inappropriate things. They wanted to re-assert law and order and
protect the image of womanhood.

In late '60s the code was replaced by the ratings system. And I'd love to say
that Hollywood has used its liberation well. In the early 1970s, it did. But
the sad truth is that era of expressive freedom soon faded and movies began to
be governed by a new set of implicit codes. Thus filmmakers are now free to
show us naked female flesh as they never could have, even before the code.
But what's seemingly taboo in today's Hollywood are stories about female
characters who are as smart, complicated and varied as those found in "Night
Nurse" or hundreds of other films from the '30s and '40s. Such women have
been banished. Only Meryl Streep has had a career that could approach that of
Stanwyck, who herself had to share the spotlight with Katharine Hepburn, Bette
Davis, Joan Crawford and Carole Lombard. Talk about selling the image of
womanhood.

And it's not just strong, forceful women who've been tacitly banned. It's
also working people--except of course for cops. I mean, somebody has to catch
all those serial killers. It may seem incredible, but Hollywood used to
routinely make pictures about store clerks and truck drivers and waitresses.
Can you imagine a new studio movie being made about a night nurse, much less
one having that title? Not a chance. But I guess that's the scary truth
about "Forbidden Hollywood:" The code you don't write down is often more
oppressive than the one you do.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. He reviewed the "Forbidden
Hollywood Collection, Volume 2."

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site at freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

43:11

He's edited Caro, le Carré and 'Catch-22,' but doesn't mind if you don't know his name

At 91, Robert Gottlieb is perhaps the most acclaimed book editor of his time. He started out in 1955 and has been working in publishing ever since. The list of authors he's edited include Robert Caro, Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, John le Carré, Katharine Graham, Bill Clinton, Nora Ephron and Michael Crichton. His daughter Lizzie Gottlieb's new film, Turn Every Page, centers on her father's decades-long editing relationship with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro.

08:19

Sleekly sentimental, 'Living' plays like an 'Afterschool Special' for grownups

Living, is a sleekly sentimental new British drama adapted by Kazuo Ishiguro from Akira Kurosawa's classic 1952 film Ikiru, which means "to live" in Japanese. Starring the great Bill Nighy, it tells the story of a bottled-up bureaucrat in 1950s London who's led to examine the way he's spent the last 30 years of his life.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue