Tracey Ullman just can’t help herself.
Fans of Fox’s “Tracey Ullman Show,” HBO’s “Tracey Takes On” and Showtime’s “Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union” will find all the hallmarks of Ullman’s series: Spot-on impersonations, quirky original characters and some song and dance.
“I just can’t be one person, it’s ridiculous,” Ullman told IndieWire. “I just love this [sketch comedy] form, and every seven years or so it seems, I get it together and I impersonate the age group around me that gets old with me. I enjoy being different people.”
Unlike those past shows, “Tracey Ullman’s Show” was produced in the U.K. for British audiences. It was Ullman’s first BBC project in 30 years.
“There’s a lady running the BBC [director of content Charlotte Moore] and it was so different for me,” Ullman said. “The last time I was at the BBC it was run by five guys who had fought in the war! I just really connected with them and they asked me to do the show. The BBC still has elements of what it always was, it makes the best shows and has great resources. And there are no commercials, so it’s like HBO. You get to make the show you want to make.”
Ullman’s staff included four writers who had worked on “Veep.” She compares the new show to a U.K. version of “State of the Union,” in which she plays a wide variety of characters from different walks of life.
But what’s really put “Tracey Ullman’s Show” on the map is her spot-on impersonations of Judi Dench (whom she plays as a delinquent and a kleptomaniac), Maggie Smith and German leader Angela Merkel.
“There are a few national treasures, and they can get away with anything,” Ullman said. “Wouldn’t it be funny if Judi goes around scratching cars and shoplifting?” Apparently Dench approves of the impersonation: “She has been really nice about it, and pretends that she’s going around shoplifting.”
Other impersonations include Camilla Parker Bowles and Kate Middleton’s mother. But Ullman is most proud of her take on Merkel.
“I always wanted to impersonate her,” Ullman said. “She’s one of the best ones because I don’t think anyone really knows what she’s like, she’s a mystery woman. I like being Merkel. I gave her a twist – I bet she thinks she’s a sexy woman.”
Ullman said the German media covered her Merkel impersonation, but thought “it was strange… but a German waiter came up to me the other day and said, ‘Thank you for making a German person funny.’ They’ve never seen it before!”
Some of the British references might go over Americans’ heads, but Ullman is confident that U.S. viewers will get it. “There’s an appetite for British humor in America,” she noted. “I was amazed they went for ‘Benny Hill’ all those years ago. That was so English. But you guys got ‘The Office’ and “The Mighty Boosh,” and really English shows that Americans respond to… I could have done this show in New York City; I think they’ll recognize so many people. There’s a healthy exchange of comedy between America and the U.K. And if you don’t like that three minutes, wait for the next three minutes.”
As for the music, Ullman – who had a pop career in the 1980s – said she still enjoys singing and dancing. This time she collaborated with Richard Thomas, who won the Olivier award for composing “Jerry Springer: The Musical” (which Ullman’s late husband, producer Allan McKeown, financed). “He’s amazing, and comes up with the most incredible funny lyrics,” Ullman said. “Who knew Angela Merkel sings so well.”
Viewers may also be taken aback by the laughter on the show, which was taped when an audience screened “Tracey Ullman’s Show” in the old BBC radio studios. “That’s a very BBC thing to do,” she said. “I hate things like that on a show. But when we played it, it kind of worked. It makes it sound like you’re connecting with people. Comedy has gotten a bit cold lately, and neurotic and depressed. This is a nice BBC One family show. It’s not too arch or bleak.”
Ullman said she thinks TV has never been better, but she is concerned about the recent dark turn in TV comedy. “I’m a bit older now, but some of the younger stuff, I just say, jeez, just end it all now! The world’s coming to an end, it’s all a bit bleak.”
That’s not to say that Ullman isn’t a fan of current comedy. She raved about “Fleabag,” Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s series currently streaming on Amazon. “Talk about bleak, but it’s so good,” Ullman said. “It had a real story arc and she’s just incredible. Of course I love Amy Schumer. I love ‘Nathan for You.’ But I’m a real documentary gal. Ken Loach made me want to act, and he’s still making movies.”
Ullman has already filmed Season 2 of “Tracey Ullman’s Show,” which had already been written when the Brexit vote took place. The show’s staff quickly reworked some of the Merkel pieces to reflect the changed world. “It made it better, more poignant,” she said.
Now an American citizen, Ullman will vote in New York for this election – and depending how the tide goes, she may have plenty of American material for Season 3. “After Brexit, I understand why it happened, but at the time I was shocked,” Ullman said. “My daughter works in Parliament and is a real politico. She’s still reeling from it all. It’s changed so much in her short time.”
“Tracey Ullman’s Show” premieres Friday, Oct. 28, at 11 p.m. ET on HBO.