Friday, April 3, 2009

Tracey Ullman takes on America (again)

By Bruce R. Miller
bmiller@siouxcityjournal.com | Posted: Friday, April 03, 2009
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LOS ANGELES -- Tracey Ullman never cared much for the opinions of New Yorkers or Californians.

She always wanted to hear from the heartland. "There are big differences," she told producers. So, whenever they'd send her on a promotional tour, she'd make sure she could stop somewhere in the middle.

What she discovered: "Everyone is so friendly. They're good people."

And, they're ripe for impersonation. In the second season of "Tracey Ullman's State of the Union," the Emmy winner spans the country and emerges with plenty of people to lampoon.

Among her favorites? Former first lady Laura Bush.

She pictured her living in Crawford, Texas -- a place where reporters didn't want to go -- surrounded by "a lot of objet d'art and doodads." The thought got her creative juices flowing and helped shape a season that includes everyone from Ariana Huffington to "Dancing with the Stars'" Len Goodman.

Sarah Palin? "Tina Fey just absolutely nailed her...it was the most genius thing," Ullman says "I wanted to be that lesbian that Sarah Palin kept talking about who was her best friend. Where is she? Juneau? What does she look like?"

The idea of doing a series that included offbeat impersonations came to Ullman while watching a PBS commercial that featured a tractor. It talked about a "farmer waking up in the Midwest to provide a high-quality breakfast to a child on the Pacific rim."

"I just thought, 'What a nice journey across America,'" Ullman says.

She adapted the same formula for her Showtime comedy series and found ways to include celebrities like Renee Zellweger who said Ullman looked like her twin brother in drag. Ullman smiles at the thought.

She knows what she does isn't going to please everyone -- or even be funny. But it has the potential to tap humor where others don't look.

She found the groove on her own Fox TV series (which gave birth to "The Simpsons" and provides her a nice little residual, thank you), honed it on HBO and now polishes it on Showtime.

"It's great fun...and a lot of freedom," she says. She and a writer will craft the vignettes, then turn to makeup and costuming to make them happen. Sometimes, they just miss.

"I like it when it's scarier, when I think this isn't going to work," Ullman says. "And I will just put on a pair of glasses or some plumpers and it works. That's the most exciting thing for me."

Because the bits are short, Ullman's husband (and producer) Allan McKeown suspects they'll have an after-life on the Internet. Ullman, though, isn't sure the Web is comedy's future home. "Sometimes you look at a site and 98 percent of it is still kind of the equivalent of dad getting hit in the (groin) with a baseball. There's 2 percent that are really trying to do something different."

Currently, she's high on Chris Lilley, the creator of "Summer Heights High." Ullman says he gets the idea of good comedy and is brilliant at stuff she wants to do. "I'd play any role if I could work with him," she says. "He puts me to shame."

"Tracey Ullman's State of the Union" airs at 9 p.m. April 12 on Showtime.
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