Ullman continues role-playing game

At first glance, one might swear the bearded character on the tube before them is a man. A slimy, hair-covered, chauvinistic cab driver, the very picture of machismo, “Chic” is likely to garner even a second glance. But those familiar with the half-hour HBO comedy know they are witnessing the genius of Tracey Ullman, exuding from just one of her hundreds of characters.

Her show, “Tracey Takes On … ,” takes a comedic, yet insightful, look at diverse weekly topics through the eyes of such varying personas. Wrapping up its second season, the show’s success is evidenced by three CableAce awards, an Emmy, along with several nominations, and the 1997 GLAAD media award for best individual episode. Together with husband and executive producer Allan McKeown, Ullman is enjoying the fruits of achievement —- rave reviews, total creative freedom and a promising future.

Success, in fact, has seemed to follow the British-born performer ever since her 1987 splash into American television. That was when Fox, a brand new network at the time, decided to give Ullman her own variety series. “The Tracey Ullman Show” took Fox’s viewers by storm with its unconventional format and spicy writing. Its biggest allure, however, was the uncanny stretch of characters Ullman was able to portray on every weekly show.

“It was very experimental … very, very hard work with all the different writers and mentalities,” she recalls. “I wasn’t used to American TV. It was like doing a pilot each week.”

Unlike her current show, “The Tracey Ullman Show” was taped before a live audience and pieced together by short animated sequences. The skits were also written by a team of writers. Consequently, Ullman learned to be extremely versatile. She learned from the older writers and watched how they structured their scripts.

Hard work ultimately paid off for both Fox and Ullman. During its four thriving seasons, “The Tracey Ullman Show” took home three Emmy Awards (giving Fox its first Emmy), gave birth to the hit series, “The Simpsons,” and showered its star with critical acclaim.

The series ended in 1990, and like many other accomplished actors in her position, Ullman then went on to pursue success in theater and film. Projects included a team-up with Morgan Freeman in “The Taming of the Shrew,” her own one-woman Broadway hit, “The Big Love,” and roles in such features as “Robin Hood, Men in Tights,” “Ready to Wear” and “Bullets Over Broadway.”

But however appealing Broadway and the big screen were, it wasn’t long before television lured Ullman back again. In 1993, she nabbed an Emmy for a guest appearance on “Love and War,” and yet another for her HBO special, “Tracey Takes on New York.” It was the success of this hit coupled by her work on “A Class Act” that piqued HBO’s further interest. Chris Albrecht, president of original programming, and Carolyn Strauss, VP of original programming, approached Ullman with the idea for a regular series based on the two specials. The idea stuck.

With McKeown lined up to exec produce and Ullman ready for anything, “Tracey Takes On … ” was born. And now, two years later, it’s a creative venture that is paying off in more ways than one. Ullman is afforded full creative control now — the writing, production and subject matter are hers.

“It’s like a mom-and-pop operation, really,” Ullman explains. “We can say anything we want,” she says. “There’s no restrictions or censorship. We hand in our scripts and get great notes and off we go.”

This season’s shows included sketches centered on themes such as fantasy, race, mothers, 1976 and sex, among others. Perhaps as diverse as the themes are the characters Ullman portrays. They break the bounds of age, race, sexual orientation, religion, nationality and profession. Ullman considers her show a social document at times, but she maintains that her primary motive is to be funny.

“I don’t want to preach,” she says. “The best kind of sketch is a kind of poignancy mixed with comedy.”

Despite her newfound creative freedom, Ullman doesn’t believe that Fox was any more censoring than HBO. She maintains that she could have done just about the same thing she’s doing now back then. She simply didn’t own or write the shows herself. Fox TV still took its share of risks with the show’s racy material, and Ullman’s characters did a great job bringing that to life.

Unfortunately, classic spinster Kay Clark is the only character Ullman was able to take with her to her current show, the others likely copyrighted by Fox. Does she miss any of her early characters?

“I miss Francesca, particularly,” she says. When asked if she would take up this character again, given the opportunity, she chuckles lightly. “It gets harder to play a 14-year-old each year.”

As for the future? Ullman is currently completing a book based on “Tracey Takes On … ,” 10 new episodes will begin production in August, and the show plans to continue its already prosperous international sales.

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