Tracey Ullman has, for more than 30 years across multiple shows and specials, made her mark portraying a vast and ever-growing array of people on both sides of the pond. On her current show, Tracey Ullman’s Show (a co-production between BBC One and HBO whose third season debuts stateside Friday on HBO at midnight), Ullman regularly injects celebrities and politicians into the mix. How has Ullman perfected her craft over the years? By studying people, being empathetic, and finding a unique way to interpret them — a method that some of her peers can’t (or won’t) match while trying to keep pace with a rapid and chaotic news cycle.
Uproxx recently spoke with the uproarious and refreshingly unguarded Ullman, touching on that process and that news cycle, her creative philosophy, and the state of political comedy in America at a time when everyone and anyone seems to be a practitioner. We also discussed social media — specifically, Ullman makes a rock solid case for avoiding it altogether in favor of knitting and hanging with dogs.
Any changes in the approach to the way you do the show this season?
Yeah, I think we just made it more topical, and because we filmed it with the BBC and then we would go out on a Friday night… we were sort of making sure we did material up to Wednesday and Thursday so we could keep the shows topical. That was exciting, it was sort of like throwing all the newspapers on the table and saying “Quick! Quick! What can we do?” and then getting Theresa May makeup on or getting wonderful Anthony Atamanuik to call me from New York as Donald Trump. It was more spontaneous and exciting. I like that element of it. Because things happen so bloody fast, there’s no… the news cycle is like three minutes now, it seems. It’s crazy. So we just made them more topical.
How do you choose a character and learn them?
I think I’m trying to interpret a person. It’s not just a surface impersonation or getting a few facial ticks; I think I try to imagine what they’re like. I think I’m very empathetic and I see the sadness or the poignancy or the difficulty that people have, you know? I think Theresa May, for instance, the British Prime Minister, has an unenviable task right now, you know? The boys have all messed it up, all the public schoolboys, and she’s left with this Brexit thing, you know? She comes over to America and Trump holds her hand and that’s all anyone talks about, but yeah, I do feel some empathy for her, and being trapped inside Downing Street. She’s such a Dickensian-looking character to me, and her… the way her voice suddenly cracks a little bit… and they tell her what to say, but it’s like, it’s a bit of humanity missing. But I do like being her. I love being Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. I’ve done her for like three years now, on the show. I don’t think I’m anything like Angela Merkel, the way I’m portraying her. Who knows, but she’s kind of a mystery woman so I can sort of be my version of Angela Merkel and I hope she approves.
Have you gotten feedback from any of the people you’ve portrayed?
Judy Dench loves that I play her as a shoplifting rebel, you know. [Someone] who scratches cars and is terribly naughty. She loves it. I never hear from the royal family because who would, you know?
They never write. They never call.
Damehood is not on the horizon for me. That’s fine! No, I just, play lots of characters I create and see in society. I just try to cover the gamut of society and the world, you know? I know I’m ambitious, but it’s just always something happening, something interesting.
You mention how Anthony came and played Donald Trump, I’m curious if that’s a character you had ever thought about playing yourself?
No, Anthony does it much better than me. There are some characters where you go, what’s being done? You know, he’s doing it so well. And like Hillary Clinton a couple of years ago. Saturday Night Live has sorta bagged a lot of them. You have to sort of come at it from another angle and try and find what you want to do.
Would it be hard to find the sympathy and the humanity there?
I don’t know because I haven’t attempted him. I would find something there, probably. I would though, yeah. We do Melania. We have a character as Melania but I don’t play Melania. Because we came at it from a different angle. I’m not living in a big, angry liberal bubble of who can hate Trump the most and the best. I think these are challenging times in ways, but also, you have to make it, you know, more interesting than that. I’m always hopeful, and I’m always fair, I think, in my depictions and the way I balance the show. You know, it’s the BBC One that I make them for, and it’s a very mainstream audience and I don’t think you want to be too partisan. That would be just childish.
With that in mind, political comedy here in the US, especially, is in season right now. Do you think it can make a difference or do you think it’s just a way to channel anger into creative pursuit?
Some of it is, some of it is. It’s a bit exhausting, a bit one note. There’s a history of political satire in the United Kingdom and there is here too. It goes back to sort of Beyond The Fringe coming here, you know, years ago Peter Cook and Alan Bennett on Broadway, and Elaine May, and Second City has always been very political, I think. You’ve had Saturday Night Live since the ’70s, which is crucial, and it’s more important than ever today. And some of it is dealt with really well and some of it is just who can hate him the most and the best at the moment, which is exhausting.
In the second episode of this season, I enjoyed the final sketch. The Twitter sketch.
Was that the sketch that was me and my daughter?
Yes, I thought that was great.
Yeah, I mean I don’t go on Twitter. I don’t do any social media myself, but when I was shown things on Twitter it was just hilariously out of proportion. Like that sketch that we wrote. “I hope you die from AIDS, you stupid bitch,” “I would have fucked you in the eighties.” You go “Wow! This is totally out of proportion.” So I wanted to write that sketch where we go find this guy, and he’s just an idiot when you find him.
Yeah, there’s always stuff, though, come on! There was always fake news, you know there was fake news in the second World War saying all sorts of things that happened… I don’t think it’s totally different. I think America has grown up big-time. You were always so much more polite when I first came to live here in the early eighties. I look at Spitting Images on the television in England and it was really brutal about Reagan and Thatcher and the puppets and brilliant writing. I remember they brought it to NBC in the mid-eighties and I thought this is never going to work. People weren’t ready to laugh at their leaders then, you know? There would be a puppet of Reagan wandering around the White House, and they’d say “the President’s brain is missing!” and a little brain would be jumping along behind him. It was off in two weeks. Now, that would be great! That would be very acceptable. But there are so many different channels now. That was back when it was just the networks and Johnson & Johnson didn’t like that.
It’s changed, but there are great things everywhere, you know? I’m not trying to sound Pollyanna-ish about stuff, but you know, I’ve come to New York, looking out at the Empire State Building. I’ve been coming since the eighties, and it’s so accepting here, and there are so many different voices to listen to. So many different people to be interviewed by, and I’ve come here selling my wares now for three decades, and it’s always fun and exciting and generous and [there’s] a lot of optimism and a lot of humor. It moves very fast, and it’s like politics has now become the entertainment and it never used to be. It’s like the elections, it’s all part of the U.S. economy, you know? There’s the political economy, and it just goes on and it’s this big show, and it’s a big way of spending money and putting money into the ads. You know it’s that that drives America and the self-examination and realization. You know, the whole time you’re always analyzing yourselves and moving on, and it’s something a younger country does.
I mean, Twitter’s certainly a part of that. Obviously, there are a lot of ugly parts. A lot of ugly parts, but…
There’s tons of ugly stuff Europe too, my goodness. Right now with Brexit and the nationalism rising, and it’s very strange, strange times there too. Anything you say can be misinterpreted in a second and you’re gone. You know? It’s like, whoa.
You said you don’t really use Twitter, you don’t use social media. What’s behind that?
I guess it reminded me of high school, it reminded me of kids, you know, in the bleachers, that used to sort of sit in the bleachers and go “she’s fat, she’s no good.” Sitting there eating sweets. And now they’ve got a voice. That’s why I did that piece about Twitter with that guy being just disgusting about me, and you go and find him and you go “Who do you think you are? Why are you upsetting my kid?” Have you actually met them? Because there’s just this anonymity on the internet. You can say anything you want. Say it to my face, it’s different. They’re just cowards. And it’s just an echo chamber. I had a huge controversy over an impersonation I did in England about the opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the accusations that he’s anti-Semitic and that he’s had dealings with the IRA. It’s based in fact, people or groups he’s met over the years and I did this piece and it was… you either absolutely loved it or you absolutely went crazy and Twitter was going nuts, calling me a Zionist fanatic. Like really, extreme. And at the end of the day, you realize there was probably only what, four people, that were doing that, and yet it makes such an impact.
I always want to congratulate someone when they tell me they’re not on social media because I am and I’d love to be off, but I don’t know that I have the willpower to do it, so it’s always impressive to me.
Well, it’s your business, you have to be.
Yeah, that’s true. That’s what I tell myself.
It’s exhausting. Do you ever take a break from it? I mean, I do because I leave my phone at home and I go [Gasps] “How am I going to get around the park without my phone?”
My big thing is I try to avoid fights; I don’t get into arguments with people. That’s a big focus of mine because I feel like that is ultimately a wasted endeavor.
Exactly. Just gotta learn to pace yourself. Just go, that’s it. Shut up, sit down. Like, you know, I’m older now, I knit. [Laughs] I knit and sit with my dog and read historical biographies.
[Laughs] Too many people forget that there are other simple pleasures in life.
The season 3 premiere of Tracey Ullman’s Show airs on HBO at midnight on Friday, September 28.