Do you remember The Tracey Ullman Show, which actually introduced The Simpsons to the world as short vignettes between skits? It ran from 1987 through 1990, and featured the wonderful British actress and comedian Tracey Ullman taking on a variety of hilarious characters.
Spool forward nearly 30 years and she’s still going strong: Tracey Ullman’s Show (2016-present), is heading into its third season, kicking off on HBO later this month (September 28). Incidentally, it’s no coincidence that this Ullman vehicle has a title almost indistinguishable from her breakout 1980s show. “Always put your name in the title, Peter. ALLways,” she told ABC News presenter Peter Travers in an interview.
In a career spanning nearly four decade, she cut her teeth in the U.K. starring alongside British comedy royalty like Lenny Henry and Jennifer Saunders. It’s on the other side of the pond that she really made her name, however. The Tracey Ullman Show is the actress’s first British show (it airs on BBC One in the U.K.) in more than 20 years.
But both here and in Britain, Ullman has taken on too many amazing characters to count. We can’t cover all of them so we’ll settle for spotlighting 10 of our favorites:
1. Pop Star
Before making her way stateside, becoming a household name, Ullman released a single called “Breakaway” in 1983. While this is technically Ullman as herself, singing her heart away, she’s definitely revealing a proclivity for playing characters. It’s here that we see her beginning to experiment with dress-up, donning big hair as a 1960s doo wop singer and dancing around the house in a school uniform, singing into a hair brush about heartbreak.
Brenda is a self-involved valley girl. In the above clip, she spots a cute guy driving next to her and in an attempt to meet him, reports him to the police. She’s successful in manufacturing a meet up, but he’s not happy when he learns she’s the reason he’s in an interrogation room. The two somehow make nice, but when Brenda finds out the Porsche he’s driving isn’t his, she calls it off.
3. Fern Rosenthal
Fern is a native New Yorker, who moved to Boca Raton, FL, to enjoy her dotage with her husband of 37 years. In this clip, one of the retirement home residents is hitting on Fern. Where’s her husband Harry? He’s believed to have been eaten by an alligator on the golf course, leaving Fern a widow and… a wanted woman.
4. Sydney Cross
And then there’s Sydney Cross, celebrity attorney. She is SO high strung, but very good at her job. Her motto is, “You name it. I’ll sue it.” She’d be an exhausting real life office mate, but we’re more than happy to watch her from a safe distance. Seeing her Irish dance her stress away in the bathroom is as surreal as it is hilarious.
5. The Auditor
When a taxpayer (Dan Castalanetta) is called in for an audit, he’s beyond worried. Things get even more nerve-wracking when he realizes the auditor is in fact… his own mother. You’d think she’d take it easy on him, but nope. She’s pissed that he’s avoided her for the past three years and presents him with a heavy fine. Or, he can opt to go to hers for dinner every Sunday.
6. Kay Clark
Kay, who is based on an actual bank clerk Ullman knew back in the U.K., has appeared on both The Tracey Ullman Show and Tracey Ullman’s Show. She’s 42, unmarried, and spends a lot of her time taking care of her mother. She’s a bit of a homebody, but when checking out at the grocery, she wins a weekend trip to Atlantic City, NJ. And who does she call from the hotel? Her mother.
We’ve all had run-ins with an overly helpful barista, but Ullman’s version goes above and beyond. This server doesn’t just ask for a name to identify the cup. She also demands to know her customer’s shoe size, the first album he purchased, the name of his best lover, reason she was his best lover, and, finally, the name of his least favorite deciduous tree. Really, she just wants to get the order right and to the correct person.
Jacki puts all other Anglophiles to shame. When she and her husband Hal (Michael Brandon) make a visit to the U.K., Jacki is delighted by everything, from riding “backward” in a black cab to her small hotel room’s horrible view. She hopes it will rain because the U.K. is so quaint when it’s wet. She’s even impressed by the “British pubic hair” she finds on the hotel’s bedding, because it’s “refined.”
9. The Masseuse
Ullman plays a masseuse in the skit “Massage Proposal.” In the middle of working with a client, her ex-boyfriend unexpectedly makes a visit. She is not happy to see him but, like the professional she is, she incorporates her outbursts into her massage technique.
10. Dame Judi Dench
Ullman tends to do original characters, but she couldn’t help but poke fun at the one and only Dame Judi Dench. What with Dench being a national treasure, no one would suspect the thespian of the kind of criminality witnessed in the above skit. Luckily, the real Dench seems to be okay with Ullman impersonating her. She’s even been known to go on stage and say, “Hello, I’m Tracey Ullman!”
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