She has more voices than the Vienna Boys Choir and more personalities than a walk-in closetful of Shirley MacLaines. On any random Sunday night this Brit wit can impersonate a giggling American teenager, her mouth a silver glare of braces, composing her Last Poem Before My First Date; a career mother who gives her child quality time via videotape; or an anorexic, formerly bisexual ex-junkie rock star who dresses in black and tells one fan, “I fantasize about nuclear war during sex.”
She’s Tracey Ullman, 27, the redheaded floptop who headlines the most innovative program seen on the tube this year. Fox TV’s The Tracey Ullman Show has been called a variety show, but it isn’t (“When I hear that term,” says the star, “I think of Luciano Pavarotti singing on a speedboat in the Everglades”). It is better defined as a skitcom—a half hour of Ullman mugging and mewling her way through a series of sketches. And in a medium where the bland often leads the bland, Ullman jolts like a shot of Tabasco. “I try hard not to conform,” says the comedian. “I can’t bear to be a smug, complacent Shelley Long-type woman. You’ll never see me on the cover of Family Circle judging a toy competition.”
The daughter of a British housewife and a Polish-immigrant shopkeeper-turned-lawyer, Ullman won a scholarship to acting school at 12, thus making a grateful escape from the “uninteresting” London suburbs. She has mastered other media—recording a gold-certified 1984 album, You Broke My Heart in 17 Places, and giving co-star Meryl Streep a run for the emoting in the 1985 film Plenty. But American TV is her preferred vehicle—and American eccentricities her highways and byways. “The way you [Americans] talk about yourselves—it’s an obsession,” says Ullman, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband of four years, British TV producer Allan McKeown, 41, and their 20-month-old daughter, Mabel. “In England it’s three years before you invite someone into your home. Here the girl who is training me at the health club starts telling me how her Dalkon Shield got infected.”
As is our wont, we have opened ourselves up to Ullman, and 30 more episodes of her critically lauded show have been ordered. Ullman will take the kudos but admits she hasn’t come close to the most astonishing thing she ever glimpsed on the telly, a British comic dying on camera. “The show was called Live From Her Majesty—that was the irony of it. He sank lower and lower and ended up on the floor dead. People said, ‘You mustn’t laugh,’ but I thought it was hysterical. That’s the ultimate you can do.” In the world according to Tracey Ullman, comedy is a killer.