The problem with satirizing the flaws of powerful men is that the job so often falls to another powerful, flawed man — America may have just barely elected Donald Trump, but it had no say in Alec Baldwin. Thankfully there’s Tracey Ullman to help right the balance. In the second season premiere of her sketch program Tracey Ullman’s Show, airing on HBO on Friday, the prolific comedian plays a forlorn Angela Merkel castigating herself as “ein loser” and “ein pariah” before breaking out into a song in which the chancellor laments her new global status: “All on my own.”
The characterization of Germany’s leader as the only woman in the room is a familiar angle for Ullman, who is probably best known to American audiences for The Tracey Ullman Show, the sketch series that aired on Fox in the late 1980s and that featured an animated segment that would later spin off as The Simpsons. Since then, the British-born Ullman, who holds dual British-American citizenship, has acted in films and TV shows; written a book about knitting; won a whopping six Emmys; and created several more sketch series for both American and British television, including HBO’s Tracey Takes On…, in the mid-1990s, and Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union, which aired on Showtime from 2008 to 2010.
“I’ve had a loyal audience that sticks with me,” says Ullman. “My audience has aged with me. They appreciate me portraying women in their age group.” In Tracey Ullman’s Show, with the aid of makeup and prosthetics, the 57-year-old Ullman utterly transforms herself into a variety of characters both real and imagined. She’s Judi Dench, shoplifting and keying strangers’ cars just for the thrill of getting away with it because, she explains with a coy smile, “I’m a national treasure.” Or, she’s Camilla Parker Bowles, entertaining her royal grandson by drowning a kitten in a barrel. Other characters are more prosaic, like Dominic, a middle-aged man who’s desperately trying to develop an app while working out of a coffee shop, and, in the season premiere, a woman on her deathbed with some very trivial regrets (“I wish I played more Candy Crush.”)
Watching the series, it’s hard not to think about the dearth of comparable female comedians who have had the benefit of aging into their careers and not out of them. The 56-year-old Julia Louis-Dreyfus comes to mind, but her Selina Meyer, on Veep, isn’t just powerful but sexy, a quality Ullman doesn’t seem to factor into her career choices. “When I was young I would think, ‘I have to write my own things and forge my own career because I don’t fit the mold here,’ ” she recalls. “I’m not that cute girl that can be in rom-coms and all that. I can’t act the coquette. I never wanted to look pretty.”
That kind of disregard for being adorable is a powerful tool for a chameleonic performer like Ullman. She’ll happily don a fat suit or morph into a balding middle-aged man, and despite her immense fortune — she’s one of the wealthiest women in the U.K. — Ullman still has an eye and ear for the ordinary. She loves to watch documentaries, and dutifully tunes in every seven years for the latest installment of Michael Apted’s Up series. Dominic, the coffee-shop start-up hopeful, was based on a former boss of her daughter’s. “There was an arrogance and an anger and a disenfranchised, middle-aged-white-male thing going on,” she says. “It was pretty sad to see him try to wear jeans and talk about creating apps. ‘I’ve got a digital platform going in Finland right now.’ ”
By her own reckoning, Ullman is “anonymous.” “People don’t recognize me,” she says. “I move around and people don’t see me observing them. Especially in England, because I haven’t been there for so long.” For decades, Ullman primarily lived in Los Angeles with her late husband, producer Allan McKeown; since his death in 2013, she’s split her time between New York, L.A. — where her son lives and writes for James Corden’s late-night show — and England, home to her daughter. While the scenes and characters in Tracey Ullman’s Show reflect a particularly British sensibility, Ullman says she doesn’t really think about that when writing the show. “I’m lucky that I really am given artistic freedom,” she says. “I don’t think, ‘It has to be this type of show for this type of audience.’ ”
That kind of freedom is rare, and rarer still to maintain throughout a successful, decades-long career, something Ullman attributes to the business acumen she learned from her husband. That sense of artistic freedom courses through Tracey Ullman’s Show, which never feels like it’s trying too hard to make a point. Ullman’s sketches are often political, particularly now that, as she says, “the world is very politicized”; these days she’s producing a topical sketch series for the BBC called Tracey Breaks the News, based on what was supposed to be a one-off, post-Brexit special. But Tracey Ullman’s Show never wags its finger in its audience’s face; this isn’t comedy-as-activism, and it’s not so easy to package a Tracey Ullman sketch as partisan clickbait (“Watch Tracey Ullman Eviscerate Theresa May!”).
With a female star at its center, Tracey Ullman’s Show is free to depict a wide range of women, without the anxiety of tokenism or the pressure to make a politically correct statement about women as a group. The women of Ullman’s world are funny in their specificity: In one scene in the new season, she plays a female news anchor being shunted into a daytime slot to make way for a younger woman. But — twist! — it turns out she’s been demoted because she keeps bringing her cats to work; we see a clip of her hosting a news program while one of them slinks across the desk. The bit isn’t about older women; it’s about this woman.
In that same episode, Ullman plays Germaine Greer, the pioneering Australian-British feminist writer who’s come under fire in recent years for her refusal to accept that transgender women are women. “They called me a radical when I was young but you’re not allowed to be controversial once your areolas head south!” Ullman-as-Greer bellows to a small crowd of people waiting for a bus. “I’m intellectually homeless! Can’t even get a seat on BBC4. And all because I’m old. There’s no other possible explanation!”