Newsweek: At Liberty to Laugh

March 24, 2008

At Liberty to Laugh

Tracey Ullman just became a citizen. So how does she celebrate? By making fun of her new home.

By Joshua Alston | NEWSWEEK
Mar 31, 2008 Issue | Updated: 12:53 p.m. ET Mar 22, 2008

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America is the land of optimism, and since becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen last year, Tracey Ullman, the British-born, shape-shifting comedian, is still a bit drunk on sunny-side spirit. That's the only possible explanation for why she thinks opportunistic television personality Rita Cosby won't spontaneously combust when she sees Ullman's impression of her. "I think she'll have a sense of humor about it," says Ullman, 48. Oh, really? It's hard to imagine she'll be laughing, in that hoarse, husky voice that Ullman mimics so perfectly, when Cosby sees her doppelgänger offering sex acts to prison guards in order to broadcast live from inside an execution chamber while a prisoner is being lethally injected. But woe unto him who is close enough to find out.

"State of the Union," Ullman's first sketch-comedy show since becoming a Yank, is full of celebrity takedowns. In addition to Cosby, blog baroness Arianna Huffington; Lindsay's mom, Dina Lohan; Larry David's environmentalist ex-wife, Laurie, and actress Renée Zellweger are exposed to Ullman's satirical wrath. "A lot of it is easier than it looks," Ullman says. "With Renée Zellweger, for example, all you basically do is just squint as much as you can." But the most daring and provocative sketches feature her imagined characters, whose foibles echo some of the country's thorniest issues. Each episode of the show (which debuts March 30 on Showtime) covers a day in the life of America, meting out dozens of characters in YouTube-friendly vignettes. Peter Strauss narrates as the camera bounces from city to city, dropping in on the members of Ullman's motley crew. There's an airport security screener who uses a luggage X-ray to examine and diagnose the uninsured. There's a soldier who visits her son at his soccer game during her three-hour furlough. There's an elderly woman who, when busted trying to smuggle prescription drugs from Canada, says she had crossed the border to see an Anne Murray concert. There's a rich Malawian actress who flies in to adopt a poor white child and take him back to her country. It's a warts-and-all look at America, and the warts earn top billing.

But while it is her comedic right to point out the country's flaws, is it her place? "Becoming a citizen freed me up to say what I want to say because I feel like I can't be sent to Guantánamo Bay now," she says in her natural British accent, the one that seems least natural coming out of her mouth. Despite all the characters Ullman puts on display, viewers might be reminded of one from another show: the dentist on "Seinfeld" who converts to Judaism so he can get away with telling Jewish jokes. Ullman doesn't worry about some viewers' thinking the show is too cutting. When she talks about America, it becomes clear that she kids because she loves. She's maintained dual residency since she got married here in 1983. Her son and daughter were born in the United States, as were some of her biggest professional successes, including her previous sketch-comedy shows "Tracey Takes On …" and "The Tracey Ullman Show," which gave a platform to another comedy series with a taste for arch satire: "The Simpsons."

It's telling that Ullman waited so long to become naturalized. She certainly didn't need to for her career—she's won seven Emmys and a Golden Globe—but she was tired of watching from the bench. "It's just something I wanted to do," she says. "I wanted to vote and be involved politically." She cast her first vote on Super Tuesday for Barack Obama, but she won't be playing him on her show. "I thought of having him sneaking off to have a cigarette, and he would be singing 'Nothing Compares 2 U.' But the song would have been too expensive." His opponent will escape Ullman's wrath, too. "With Hillary, there's just not a lot there," she says. "Not a lot that's funny, I mean."

What makes "Union" so fascinating to watch is the way it shows Ullman fully embracing America, being willing to accept it in spite of its flaws—to dig through the dirt to get to the truffles. "When I'm in England, I'm always having to defend this country," she says. "Brits will talk about something they saw on television here and say, 'What's wrong with them?' I try to explain that isn't representative of America as a whole. There's a lot to love about this country." Not the least of which: we give her great material.

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