Tracey Ullman

Tracey Ullman

Tracey Ullman at the 1990 Emmy Awards
Born Trace Ullman
(1959-12-30) 30 December 1959
Slough, Buckinghamshire,[lower-alpha 1] England[1]
  • Actress
  • comedian
  • singer
  • dancer
  • screenwriter
  • producer
  • director
  • author
  • businesswoman
Years active 1980–present
Notable work
Net worth Increase £77 million[3] (2015)
Spouse(s) Allan McKeown (m. 1983; wid. 2013)
Children 2
Awards Full list

Comedy career

  • Television
  • film
  • theatre
  • books
Influences Peter Sellers, Lily Tomlin, Gilda Radner, Carol Burnett, Imogene Coca[4][5][6][7]

Musical career

Years active 1983–1985
Labels Stiff
Music sample
"They Don't Know"

Tracey Ullman (born Trace Ullman; 30 December 1959) is a multiple award-winning television, stage, and film actress who performs as a comedian, singer and dancer, as well as works as a screenwriter, producer, director, author, and businesswoman. She holds dual British and American citizenship.

Ullman's early appearances were on British television sketch comedy shows A Kick Up the Eighties (with Rik Mayall and Miriam Margolyes) and Three of a Kind (with Lenny Henry and David Copperfield). After a brief singing career, she appeared as Candice Valentine in Girls on Top with Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.

She emigrated from the United Kingdom to the United States where she starred in her own network television comedy series, The Tracey Ullman Show, from 1987 until 1990. She later produced programmes for HBO, including Tracey Takes On... (1996–99), for which she garnered numerous awards. Ullman's sketch comedy series, Tracey Ullman's State of the Union, ran from 2008 to 2010 on Showtime. She has also appeared in several feature films. Ullman was the first British woman to be offered her own television sketch show in both the United Kingdom and the United States[8] and in 2016 stars in her own BBC sketch comedy show Tracey Ullman's Show, her first project for the broadcaster in over thirty years.[9]

Ullman is currently the richest female British comedian; the third richest British comedian overall. She is also the second richest British actress (surpassed by Isla Fisher's marriage to comedian Sacha Baron Cohen as of 2015).[3]

Early life

Tracey Ullman was born Trace Ullman in Slough,[1] Buckinghamshire,[10] the younger of two daughters,[11] to Dorin (née Cleaver) and Antony John Ullman. Her mother was British, with Roma ancestry,[12] and her father was a Roman Catholic Pole.[13] On the subject of the spelling of her name: "My real name is Trace Ullman, but I added the 'y.' My mother said it was spelled the American way, but I don't think she can spell! I always wanted a middle name. My mum used to tell me it was Mary but I never believed her. I looked on my birth certificate and I didn't have one, just Trace Ullman."[14]

My dad, who was from Poland, used to say, 'My leetle Tracey ees going to be an actress.'
 Tracey Ullman on her father[15]

Antony Ullman served in the Polish Army and was evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940. He subsequently worked as a solicitor, a furniture salesman, and a travel agent. He also brokered marriages and translated among the émigré Polish community. Dorin recognized their younger daughter's talents early on and encouraged her to perform.[16]

In an interview with Fresh Air host Terry Gross, Ullman revealed that when she was six, her father, who had been recovering from a heart operation, died of a heart attack in front of her while the two were alone and as he was reading to her.[17] He was fifty years old.[18] "When that happens to you as a child, you can face anything. You're always waiting for the other shoe to drop. If something great happens, you're like, 'Wow, that's great that happened, because it could have been crap. The most disappointing thing happened when you were younger [...] You're just braver and if good things happen you're really grateful."[17]

Ullman, who had been living an upper-middle class life, was uprooted to Hackbridge, southwest London, along with her older sister Patti and her mother, who could now barely make ends meet without their father's income.[19] "After [Dad] died, our fortunes came and went because Mum couldn’t speak Polish and had to give up the business."[11] Mother Dorin would go on to take a host of odd jobs. "My mother was always doing strange things like driving parts around for a garage, all covered in oil and paid 10 pounds a week. But she was very funny, and our defence against hardship was having a great sense of humour."[19] On a separate occasion, on the subject of her mother's jobs, Ullman recalled: "[Mum] worked in a laboratory, testing food, and would bring home samples for our dinner. Sometimes she'd have to report that formula X had been found unfit for human consumption."[20] Despite reality, their mother maintained that they were middle-class. "My mother always insisted on middle-class because we had money at one time. We're really lower-middle."[21]

Ullman credits her sense of humour to a feeling of both classlessness as well as her mother's working class roots. "It comes from being classless, I think. My father was Polish and he died when I was six. And from being a little girl who went to gymkhana and had ponies, and went to a private school, and lived in a big house we suddenly didn’t have any money any more and had to go to a state school. And my mother’s family is all from South London, and we have a lot of uncles and friends over there. And when my father died they were very supportive, and they used to come down for the weekend - all these hordes of South London oiks. They used to invade our big Posh Bucks home and use the swimming pool, ride the ponies, and they were so funny these blokes; they really affected my sense of humour ... But I think the man who really affected my sense of humour was my uncle Butch, he was called Butch Castle. He was a decorator from South London - lazy old sod. An he’s got the sharpest mind I’ve ever known; he’s so hysterically funny. And I wanted to be like him."[22]

In the aftermath of their father's death, their mother would slip into a deep depression and spend a lot of time in bed. In an effort to cheer her up, Ullman, along with her sister, created and performed a nightly variety show on the windowsill in their mother's bedroom. “It was originally the Patti Ullman Show. So I’m a spin-off of my sister’s show, as she likes to point out.” In the show, Ullman would mimic neighbours, teachers, family members, and celebrities such as Julie Andrews and Édith Piaf.[23] "Some kids can play the piano or kick a football; I could just impersonate everyone."[24] She would also perform alone for herself after everyone had gone to bed. "I'd stand in front of the mirror and talk to myself until I fell asleep. I'd interview myself as women with problems. Women in documentaries who had three kids and chain-smoked and husbands in prison that hit them."[23] Her mother would eventuality remarry to a man who Ullman has described as a maniac who drove a London taxi and had a son who stole. "We weren't the Brady Bunch, let me tell you!"[17] The marriage brought an end to the children's late night antics. "There was a new person in her bed now and I couldn't do my nightly performance anymore. I was nine years old and my show had been cancelled." Alcoholism and domestic violence became a common occurrence in the household.[23] The marriage also resulted in the family moving around the country, with Ullman attending numerous state schools. Her flair for mimicry helped with the transitions as her new classmates didn't take to her upper crust accent. "I had to talk like them to avoid being beaten up."[1]

Ullman wrote and performed in school plays[25] and it was there that she caught the eye of a headmaster who recommended that she attend a "special school." "I thought he meant a school for juvenile delinquents."[23] Eventually her mother agreed and at age twelve she won a full scholarship to the Italia Conti Academy. Despite the encouragement she received from family, friends, and teachers, her big boost of confidence came from a very unlikely source: a clairvoyant who predicted that she would become famous, especially in America.[26] Some of her earliest work included an appearance on The Tommy Steel Show when she was thirteen, and as a model for My Guy magazine.[21][27]

She would end up loathing Italia Conti saying, "I hated the pressure that many of the children were under. Many of the kids were forced to grow up too fast, their careers were being decided for them before they were 13. If I went to an audition then they’d always choose the sweetest, prettiest kid. I wasn’t obviously beautiful so I used to miss out." Ullman has also alleged that the owners taught their own children and that a certain level of favouritism seemed to exist. She also felt that the education she was receiving was of very little value. "These stupid teachers would come in and go, 'Good morning, darlings, lets all be dustbins!' I'd go, 'Oh, shut up! I wanna be a banana!'"[28]

The treatment she received at school led to her spending more time in pubs than in class.[23] Despite her tardiness, she passed her O levels.[29] Her interest in theatre began to wane and her family could no longer afford tuition; she then set her sights on becoming a travel agent like her late father.[30][31]

At sixteen, she was goaded into attending a dance audition by some school friends under the impression that she was applying for Summer season in Scarborough.[32] The audition resulted in a contract with a German ballet company for a revival of Gigi in Berlin.[33] Upon returning to England, she joined the "Second Generation" dance troupe, performing in London, Blackpool and Liverpool.[34] Her dancing career would come to an abrupt end when she forgot to wear underwear during a performance.[23] She subsequently branched out into musical theatre and was cast in numerous West End musicals including Grease, Elvis The Musical, and The Rocky Horror Show.[18][35]

Disillusioned with the entertainment industry, she sought full-time employment working in a paper products distribution company.[23][36] Her boredom with the job led to her competing in a contest at London's Royal Court Theatre; Four in a Million, an improvised play about club acts.[37] She created the character Beverly, a born-again Christian chanteuse. The performance was a big success and won her the London Critics Circle Theatre Award as Most Promising New Actress.[38] At this point the BBC became interested, which led to a successful career in television. She would soon go on to become a household name in Britain, with the British media referring to her as 'Our Trace.'[16]

With fame came intense scrutiny of her personal life. The press became increasingly aggressive, printing untrue or exaggerated stories, soliciting information from people who supposedly knew her. An ex-boyfriend sold his story about his life with her to the News of the World. "He appeared on television with my dog saying, 'I'm going to tell you about the real Tracey Ullman. Aren’t we Lilly?'"[39]

When she hastily married Allan McKeown in 1983, it made front-page news all over the country with the press placing bets on how long the marriage would last; it would last nearly thirty years until his death in 2013.[40]

Music career

Ullman, who had already made a name for herself as a comedian with her BBC comedy series Three of a Kind, had a chance encounter with the wife of the head of the punk music label Stiff Records, Dave Robinson. The meeting led to her recording her first album. “One day, I was at my hairdresser, and Dave Robinson’s wife Rosemary leant over and said, ‘Do you want to make a record?’ I was having some of those Boy George kind of dreadlock things put in and I went, ‘Yeah I want to make a record.’ I would have tried anything.”[41]

Her future husband Allan McKeown had reservations about her launching a music career and tried talking her out of it. “When I first met Miss Ullman, I was a TV producer, and I called her into my office in London and I told her that she had a big career in comedy, and she said to me, ‘Well actually, I’m doing a record next week,’ and I said, ‘Now listen here Miss Ullman, if I know anything about show business, is that you shouldn’t get involved with singing. Imagine how stupid I felt about four months later, I’m in London driving around and I hear, ‘And now, the Top of the Pops, Tracey Ullman with ‘They Don’t Know About Us.’”[42]

Her 1983 debut album, You Broke My Heart in 17 Places, featured her first hit single, "Breakaway" (famous for her performance with a hairbrush as a microphone[43]), and the international hit cover version of label-mate Kirsty MacColl's "They Don't Know," which reached number two in the UK,[44] and number eight in the United States.[45] MacColl sang backing vocals on Ullman's version.[46] In less than two years, Ullman had six songs in the UK Top 100.[44]

Follow-up singles, a cover of Doris Day's "Move Over Darling," reached number eight in the UK,[44] and the cover of Madness' "My Girl," which she changed to "My Guy" were released.[47] (The "My Guy" video featured the British Labour Party politician Neil Kinnock, at the time the Leader of the Opposition)[48]

Ullman's songs were over-the-top evocations of 1960s and 1970s pop music with a 1980s edge, "somewhere between Minnie Mouse and the Supremes" as the Melody Maker put it, or "retro before retro was cool," as a reviewer wrote in 2002. Her career received another boost when the video for "They Don't Know" featured a cameo from Paul McCartney;[49] at the time Ullman was filming a minor role in McCartney's film Give My Regards to Broad Street.[50] She released her second (and final) album, You Caught Me Out, in 1984.[44]

Her final hit, "Sunglasses" (1984), featured comedian Adrian Edmondson in its music video.[51] During this time, she also appeared as a guest VJ on MTV in the United States.[52]

She gave up her music career after an incident that occurred on a German television show. "The host said to me, 'Tracey Ullman. Hello!' I said, 'Hello' and he went, 'Guffaw, guffaw. Crazy as ever!' Then I was standing in the background and he slung a rat over my shoulder. I thought, 'That's it, I don't want to do this anymore.'"[23]

While she has chosen to end her recording career, she has continued singing in film, television, and theatre.

In 2013, she re-teamed with McCartney, appearing in his music video for the single, "Queenie Eye" from his album, New.[53]

Television career

Early years

Ullman got her first television acting job when she was seventeen, in a Heinz soup commercial where she had to wear a cow's head.[16]

She tried her hand at serious drama, playing Lynda Bellingham's daughter in the 1980 BBC TV series Mackenzie,[54] but said that she found that she wasn't cut out to be a straight actress. "I really thought I was great when I did a quite serious soap opera for the BBC. I played a nice girl from St. John's Wood. 'Mummy, I think I'm pregnant. I don't know who's done it.' Then I would fall down a hill or something. 'EEEEE! Oh, no, lost another baby.' It seemed all I ever did was have miscarriages—or make yogurt."[55]

In 1981, the success of her performance in the Royal Court Theatre's production of Four in a Million led to many offers; one being the chance to move into television comedy. The BBC was quick to cast her in the BBC Scotland sketch comedy programme A Kick Up the Eighties. The network was so impressed with her that it offered her her own series. She initially turned down the offer. "My first reaction was you must be joking, as women are treated so shoddily in comedy. Big busty barmaids and all those sort of cliches just bore me rigid."[56] She also had reservations due to a lack of female contemporaries. "At that time English women were't really allowed to be funny on television. I didn't have any examples. I mean, I didn't have a Gilda Radner, Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin. I mean, my only point of reference, quite honestly, was the Benny Hill girls."[23] Ullman got into her performing arts school by doing an impersonation of Lily Tomlin.[5] Eventually a deal was made with the proviso that she would get to choose the show's writers, have script approval, and choose the costumes.[29] Three of a Kind, co-starring comedians Lenny Henry and David Copperfield, debuted in 1981.[57]

In an interview with Amanda Root for The Musical Express magazine, Ullman was asked about critics labeling the show 'non-sexist humour.' Did it exist? "Not unless it’s cleverly done. When we did Three of a Kind we kept getting sketches sent in about me as a traffic warden, or me being a busty barmaid. Writers that have no idea about women - their typical way of starting a sketch is to say, Tracey is sitting there, filing her nails and chewing gum, as if all girls are stupid. Sketches beginning like that used to really get on my nerves. But as soon as we found the right team of writers, they weren’t into that sort of thing, so it worked out OK."[58] She went on to win her first BAFTA Award in the category of Best Light Entertainment Performance for Three of a Kind in 1984.[59]

In 1982, she met her future husband, Allan McKeown, a television producer with his own production company, Witzend Productions.[60] McKeown discovered her when he happened to catch her in an episode of Three of a Kind. The two eventually worked together on a television pilot for Central Television, A Cut Above, about a 1960s hairdresser (McKeown’s former profession) who meets a posh girl (Ullman). “Pilot didn't work, but I got a husband out of it," said Ullman in 1990.[61]

In 1983, she signed on to star in a comedy about four women sharing a flat together, Girls on Top (provisionally titled Four-Play, Bitches on Heat, and Four Fs to Share). She was cast as the promiscuous golddigger Candice Valentine. The show didn't go into production until early 1985 due to an electricians' strike at the studio where the series was set to film.[62] The show, co-starring comedians Dawn French, Ruby Wax and Jennifer Saunders (who also wrote the scripts), continued after Ullman bowed out after the first series. In her book, Bonkers: My Life in Laughs, Saunders writes, “If Ruby taught us how to write funny, then Tracey was a lesson in how to act funny. She was by far the most famous of us, having starred with Lenny Henry in ‘Three of a Kind.’”[63]

She's just brilliant–a bloodsucker of personalities. You walk away, and she's taken a little bit of your brain.
 Ruby Wax on Ullman's mimic abilities[16]

In April 1984, it was announced that Five Faces of Tracey, described as an 'all film series of five half hours' starring Ullman as one character per episode in one 'self-contained story,' was to be filmed in July of that year written by Ruby Wax and herself. The series never came to fruition.[62]

The Tracey Ullman Show

In 1985, Ullman was persuaded by her husband to join him in Los Angeles, where he was already partially stationed.[64] She was no stranger to the United States, as she had promoted her music career there, appearing and performing on an array of American talk shows.[65] She had also just completed a press junket for her film, the period drama, Plenty there.[66] The US knew her as a singer and a now budding serious film actress; not the television comedian of her homeland.[67] When she agreed to make the move to the America, she had set her sights on a film and stage career, believing that there was little in the way of television for her.[68] "I didn't believe there was anything above Webster standard. I was wrong."[69]

Her British agent put together a videotape containing a compilation of her work and began circulating it around Hollywood. The tape landed in the lap of Craig Kellem, vice president for comedy at Universal Television. "I could not believe my eyes. It was just about the most extraordinary piece of material I'd seen in a long time." He wanted production on a series to begin immediately for her.[16]

A deal was struck right away with CBS television, who went from ordering a pilot to ordering a full series two weeks later. A script for I Love New York, a show about a "slightly wacky" British woman working in New York, was written by Saturday Night Live scribe Anne Beatts. Ullman hated it and the deal deteriorated.[16]

Recalling the project, Ullman said, "We'd just hit on an idea, then some white-haired executive - very, very important - would come in from the race track and say, 'I don't like that idea. I think Tracey should be a caring person. I think there should be a kid in this. Now, I'm just pitching here. I don't know if this is funny. But I think Tracey should love this kid and maybe there's a moment where she tells the kid something about life.' And I'd say, "Look - I don't want to work with little kids being cute who I eventually adopt'."[69]

She was also turned off by the industry's materialistic attitude. "Literally, you start your first meeting and already they're thinking about three years' syndication. 'You're going to be worth $13 million. You're going to be a very rich young lady.' I'd say, 'I don't want to talk about the millions of dollars now. Can we put that on hold? I just want to talk about something good'."[69]

I don’t think there’s anybody like her, and that’s a big deal. If you insist, there are parallels to Peter Sellers, an actor who did brilliant sketch comedy.
 James L. Brooks on Tracey Ullman[68]

Ullman’s agent then decided to send producer James L. Brooks some tapes of her work.[69] Brooks, who had had a very successful career producing television sitcoms, had stepped away from the medium, opting instead for a career in film. Ullman's material was so good that it lured him back to television. "I started showing [her work] to people like you'd show home movies," revealed Brooks.[68] "I was just startled by the size of the talent. I got chills."[70]

Brooks felt that a sketch show would best suit her assets (acting, singing, and dancing). "Why would you do something with Tracey playing a single character on TV when her talent requires variety? You can’t categorize Tracey, so it's silly to come up with a show that attempted to."[68]

To ensure that she was well-versed in American comedy, Brooks sent her tapes of American sitcoms and variety shows to watch while at home, now pregnant. Ullman refers to it as "homework."[71] She also visited the Museum of Television and Radio, which she would later be inducted into. She had in fact grown up watching American television in the 1970s in England. Two things stood out to her: the vast number of female comedians, as well as their not having to be conventionally attractive to be funny. "It was very true of my childhood that women needed to be sexy in order to be funny."[71][72]

Brooks assembled a team of writers, and a deal with Fox Television was made.[69] The network was looking to create its own original programming. Ullman's show, along with Married... with Children, would be the first two scripted shows produced and launched.[73]

Scouting for a supporting cast to play opposite her began. Dan Castellaneta, a relative unknown, was asked to read for the show after he was spotted by Ullman at Chicago's Second City. Castellaneta's portrayal of a blind man who wants to be a comedian brought her to tears instead of making her laugh.[74] Actress Julie Kavner had co-starred in Brook's spin-off series to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, starring Valerie Harper. Kavner played Harper's younger, socially awkward sister Brenda, a role for which she won an Emmy Award. Kavner was at the top of the list of people Brooks wanted to be part of the show. Brooks on Kavner: "When somebody's intrinsically funny -- you know, in-their-bones funny -- they never have to work at (being funny), so they're free to work on other things. We were all nuts about her work. She was the person we most wanted to work with Tracey."[75] Actor Sam McMurray read for a guest spot on the show playing William, lover of thirteen-year-old valley girl Francesca's (Ullman) father. McMurray recalling his casting: "The first Francesca sketch, they said, 'Play the guy not so gay.' And I said 'I disagree.' I had a big mouth then -— still do. I said, 'I think he’s more the woman. I think he's more out there.' So I read and I read it big, and they cast me. It was just a one-off, and then we were on hiatus. I did the one week, and I had a friend coincidentally who used to write, a guy named Marc Flanagan, and he was on the show as a staff guy. He called me up and said, 'Did they call your agent?' I said, 'No, why?' He said, 'They wanna make you a regular.'"[76] Another actor who was originally cast for a guest shot which led to becoming a series regular was choreographer Joseph Malone.[77] The show now had its cast.

Singer-songwriter George Clinton provided the theme song for the show, "You're Thinking Right."[78] Dancer Paula Abdul, who had not yet found fame as a singer, was hired to choreograph the show's dance numbers.[79]

Cast of The Tracey Ullman Show, 1987. Left to right: Dan Castellaneta, Sam McMurray, Tracey Ullman, Joseph Malone, Julie Kavner

Because the Fox network was new to the world of television production, a bureaucracy had not yet been established. This enabled the show to take risks and the freedom to try things that the major networks would never permit. The series landed an initial twenty-six episode commitment deal, unheard of for a television comedy. The Tracey Ullman Show debuted on 5 April 1987. Describing the show proved difficult. Creator Ken Estin dubbed it a "skitcom". A variety of diverse original characters were created for her to perform. Extensive makeup, wigs, teeth, and body padding were utilised, sometimes rendering her unrecognisable. One original character created by Ullman back in Britain was uprooted for the series: long-suffering British spinster Kay Clark.[70]

A typical episode of The Tracey Ullman Show consisted of three sketches, one including a song and/or a heavily choreographed dance routine. Brooks was keen on showing off all of Ullman's abilities. "It’s 'Can you juggle this and keep throwing on more plates?' I’m constantly amazed." Ullman opened and closed the show as herself, adding her trademark, "Go home!," which she would shout to the studio audience for the closing. The show was shot on film, a departure from previous variety shows which were routinely shot on tape.[70]

Looking to add "bumpers"[80] (before and after commercial breaks) to the show, two cartoon shorts were created: "Dr. N!Godatu"[81] and "The Simpsons." The Simpsons would go on to be spun off into its own television series.[82]

By the time the The Tracey Ullman Show ended in 1990, the show was awarded ten Emmy Awards; Ullman winning three, one in the category of Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program in 1990.[83][84] The show not only scored the Fox network its first Emmy nomination, but also earned it its first-ever Emmy win.[85][86]

After four seasons, Ullman decided to end the show in May 1990.[87] In 1991, she filed a lawsuit against Twentieth Century Fox in Los Angeles Superior Court over profits from the later half-hour incarnation of The Simpsons. She wanted a share of The Simpsons' merchandising and gross profits and believed she was entitled to $2.5 million of the estimated $50 million Fox made in 1992. The Fox network had paid her $58,000 in royalties for The Simpsons as well as $3 million for the 3½ seasons her show was on the air. According to an article, as Ullman had continued her professional relationship with former producer Brooks, only the studio and not Brooks was named in the suit. Brooks was allowed to videotape his testimony as he was in the middle of filming I'll Do Anything, in which Ullman appeared. The suit was ultimately dismissed.[88][89] Ullman wasn't the only one to file a lawsuit; Tracey Ullman Show executive producer Ken Estin filed a similar suit against Fox claiming that his contract called for him to receive 7.5% of revenues from The Simpsons, including a portion of merchandise.[90] Despite losing the 1992 suit, Ullman continues to get an annual share of the show's profits.[91]

Ullman provided the voices of Emily Winthrop, a British dog trainer, and Mrs. Winfield on The Simpsons episode "Bart's Dog Gets an F" (1991).[92]


After the The Tracey Ullman Show, Ullman went on to make her big screen starring debut with I Love You To Death in 1990.[93] That same year she hit the stage with actor Morgan Freeman for Shakespeare in the Park's production of The Taming of the Shrew;[94] she then made her Broadway debut with her one-woman show, The Big Love.[95] She had no aspirations to return to the television. In 1991, she had given birth to her second child, Johnny, and her husband was bidding on a television franchise in the South of England. Along with the bid he included a potential television programming lineup. Listed was a Tracey Ullman special. Ullman thought nothing would come of it, but to her horror, she learnt that the bid was successful.[96]

The frantic pace of The Tracey Ullman Show was one of the key factors in her decision to give up television. That show was shot in front of a live studio audience and featured her playing on average three characters a week. She frequently wore layers of costuming to disguise herself. The prosthetic makeup was at times excessive. In her book Tracey Takes On, she recalls an incident where she fainted on the makeup room floor, having to be revived before rushing out to give a performance.[96]

Unlike the Fox show though, this special would be shot entirely on location, allowing ample time to apply makeup, wigs, and other accoutrements for the characters; so Ullman felt less panicked. She decided to do a send up of the British class system. All new characters were created and she was joined by Monty Python's Michael Palin for each of the show's sketches. Tracey Ullman: A Class Act premiered on 9 January 1993 on ITV.[97]

Tracey Ullman as Kay Clark

The American cable network HBO became interested in Ullman doing a special for their network with the caveat that she take on a more American subject. She chose New York.[98]

The special, Tracey Ullman Takes On New York debuted on 9 October 1993 and both it and Ullman went on to win two Emmy Awards, a CableAce Award, an American Comedy Award, and a Writers Guild of America Award. The success of the special led the network to broach the subject of a "Takes On" series. Ullman and her husband liked the idea and set up production on Tracey Takes On... in Los Angeles in 1995.[99]

As with the special Takes On New York, each episode of Tracey Takes On... centered on a single subject. Characters created for A Class Act and Takes On New York were adapted for the HBO series, along with several new characters, as well as the character Kay Clark. Unlike The Tracey Ullman Show, Tracey Takes On... had a rotating roster of upwards of twenty characters repeated throughout the run of the show.[100] Also, unlike The Tracey Ullman Show, Tracey Takes On... was a single-camera comedy, shot heavily on location, without a studio audience.

Ullman and the show went on to receive a slew of awards including six Emmy Awards, two CableAce Awards, three American Comedy Awards, two GLAAD Media Awards, as well as a Screen Actors Guild Award in 1999 for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series.[101]

Purple Skirt and Oxygen stint

In 2001, Ullman took a break from her character-based work and created a fashion-based talk show for Oxygen Network, Tracey Ullman's Visible Panty Lines. The series was spun off from her e-commerce clothing store Purple Skirt, which had been launched a few years prior. Interviewees included Arianna Huffington and Charlize Theron.[102] The show lasted for two seasons and ended in 2002.[103]

Return to HBO

A pilot for a Tracey Takes On... spin-off, Tracey Ullman in the Trailer Tales, was produced in 2003 for HBO.[104] The show spotlighted just one character, Ruby Romaine. Ullman made her directorial debut with the show.[105] No series was commissioned and the episode aired as a one-off comedy special.

She returned to the network again in 2005 with a filmed version of her live autobiographical one-woman stage show, Tracey Ullman: Live and Exposed.[106]


Upon her naturalisation in the United States, it was announced in April 2007 that she would be making the switch from her 14-year working relationship with cable network HBO to Showtime.[107] Ullman created a brand new series for the network[108] which focused on America: "The good, the bad, and the absolutely ridiculous."[109]

Ullman credits both senior programmer Robert Greenblatt and the network's list of hit shows as having influenced her decision to switch networks.[110] Greenblatt was a young development director during her Tracey Ullman Show days and was enthusiastic to get her over to Showtime.[111] Five episodes were ordered for the first season.

Tracey Ullman's State of the Union debuted on 30 March 2008. The show not only featured original characters, but also celebrity impersonations, something she hadn't done since Three of a Kind.[112]

The critical response to State of the Union was overwhelmingly positive.[113][114][115] One critic pointed out a change in Ullman's humour:

It's been fascinating to watch Ullman evolve from, say, Imogene Coca and Carol Burnett to something leaner and meaner, like a young Whoopi Goldberg. Or Lenny Bruce, with his surreal jive and need to shock. Or Lily Tomlin, signalling in coded transmissions through a worm hole to some parallel universe. Or Anna Deavere Smith, chameleon and exorcist, seeing around corners and speaking in tongues. Or, of course, Robin Williams, before all the bad films and worse career choices, a brilliant mind unmade of equal parts politics and paranoia, music video and psychotherapy, a scrambled shaman egghead and Jack–in–a–Pandora's box. Think of America as performance art.[116]

Ullman commented that the United States is "now able to laugh at itself more," embracing more satiric humour rather than deeming it "unpatriotic." Now that she is a citizen, she joked that she "won't end up in Guantánamo Bay"[117] for speaking her mind.

The show ran for three seasons, concluding in 2010.

Return to network television

In March 2014, Ullman was introduced as Genevieve Scherbatsky, the mother of character Robin Scherbatsky in How I Met Your Mother.[118]

On 20 March 2014, it was announced that she was tapped to co-star in the upcoming CBS sitcom pilot, Good Session. The single-camera comedy was written and executive produced by Matt Miller (Chuck), along with actor James Roday (Psych). Ullman's character, Ellen, was described as an 'astute, straightforward therapist who uses her own brand of insight and humor to inspire the couples she helps to tell the truth.'[119]

Return to British television: Tracey Ullman's Show

On 4 March 2015, it was announced that Ullman would return to the BBC with a new six-part comedy series for BBC One. It was her first project for the broadcaster in thirty years, and her first original project for British television in twenty-two.[120][121] The press release stated that she would play 'a multitude of diverse and distinct characters living in, or visiting, the busy global hub that is the UK.'[122] On 7 October 2015, it was confirmed that HBO had picked up the American rights to the show, and like the BBC, would broadcast it in 2016.[123] On 25 August 2016, HBO formally announced that it would begin airing the series on 28 October 2016.[124]

Tracey Ullman's Show premiered 11 January 2016.[9] Ullman became internationally famous for parodying German chancellor Angela Merkel in this show. According to German media, her comedy is the best spoof of Merkel in the world.[125]

The show has been recommissioned for a second series.[126]

Other notable work

In 1987, Ullman filmed a sketch for Saturday Night Live, "Hollywood Mom." In it, she plays an English actress who focuses more on her career than on her newborn daughter.[127]

In 1995, she became the modern-day cartoon voice of Little Lulu.[128] In 1999, she had a recurring role as an unconventional psychotherapist on Ally McBeal. Her performance garnered her an Emmy Award and an American Comedy Award.[129]

In 2005, she co-starred with Carol Burnett in the television adaptation of Once Upon a Mattress. She played Princess Winnifred, a role originally made famous by Burnett on Broadway. This time Burnett took on the role of the overbearing queen.[130]

On 15 April 2016, Ullman became the 100th guest host of Have I Got News for You.[131]

Film career

Along with her television work, Ullman has featured in many films throughout her career. Her first theatrical film was a small role in Paul McCartney's 1984 film Give My Regards to Broad Street.[50] This was followed by a supporting role in the 1985 Meryl Streep drama Plenty.[67] She re-teamed with Streep for 1992's Death Becomes Her, playing Toni, a bartender who runs away with Ernest (Bruce Willis) and lives happily ever after. Director Robert Zemeckis decided to re-shoot the ending, opting for a darker, "more risky ending." This meant that Ullman's scenes would have to be cut. "We were all heartbroken over losing the character. (She) was so great." Despite the cut, some of her scenes were released in an early trailer for the film.[132] Death Becomes Her is one of two instances in which her scenes in a film have ended up on the cutting room floor. Due to time constraints, her song in 1996's Everyone Says I Love You was deleted.[133]

After the cancellation of The Tracey Ullman Show in 1990, she made her starring debut alongside Kevin Kline, River Phoenix and Joan Plowright in I Love You to Death. She also has appeared in lead and supporting roles in Robin Hood: Men in Tights,[134] Nancy Savoca's Household Saints,[135] Bullets over Broadway,[136] Small Time Crooks and A Dirty Shame.[137] She was nominated for a Golden Globe Award in the category of Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for her work in Small Time Crooks in 2001.[138]

Her voice work in film includes Tim Burton's Corpse Bride[139] and the computer-animated The Tale of Despereaux.[140] She acted as creative consultant on the 2006 DreamWorks feature, Flushed Away.[141]

In 2014, she played Jack's Mother in the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Into the Woods.[142]

Ullman was under serious consideration for a number of roles: Betty Rubble in 1994's The Flintstones;[143] Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games.[144] Director Adrian Lyne asked her to screen test for his film Fatal Attraction. She passed on the idea and the role went to Glenn Close.[145] She was also sought for reuniting with her Plenty co-star Meryl Streep in She-Devil. The part ultimately went to comedian Roseanne Barr.[146]


Further information: Tracey Ullman § Early life

Ullman has an extensive stage career spanning back to the 1970s.

In 1980, she appeared in Victoria Wood's Talent at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool.[147]

Her award-winning performance in Les Blair's avant-garde Four in a Million in 1981 led to a career in television.[61]

In 1982, she played Kate Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer.[148]

In 1983, she took part in the workshops for Andrew Lloyd Webber's upcoming musical, Starlight Express, playing the part of Pearl[149] and Snoo Wilson's The Grass Widow at the Royal Court Theatre with actor Alan Rickman.[150]

In 1990, she starred opposite actor Morgan Freeman as Kate in Shakespeare in the Park's production of Taming of the Shrew set in the Wild West for Joe Papp.[151] In 1991, she made her Broadway debut with Jay Presson Allen's one-woman show The Big Love, based on the book of the same name. The Big Love recounts an alleged love affair between actor Errol Flynn and a then fifteen-year-old actress Beverly Aadland, as told by her mother, Florence Aadland (Ullman).[31] Both Taming of the Shrew and The Big Love garnered her Theatre World Awards.[152]

In February 2005, she performed her autobiographical one-woman show Tracey Ullman: Live and Exposed at The Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles, where it ran for ten performances.[153]

In 2011, she returned to the British stage in the Stephen Poliakoff drama My City.[154] Her performance earned her a Evening Standard Theatre Awards nomination for Best Actress.[155]

In 2012, she joined the cast of Eric Idle's What About Dick?, described as a 1940s-style stand-up improv musical comedy radio play, taking on three roles. The show played for four nights in April in Los Angeles at the Orpheum Theater. She had performed the piece previously in a test run for Idle back in 2007.[156] Cast members included Idle, Eddie Izzard, Billy Connolly, Russell Brand, Tim Curry, Jane Leeves, Jim Piddock, and Sophie Winkleman.[157]

On 6 October 2014, it was formally announced that she would star in a limited engagement of The Band Wagon, from 6 November to 16 November 2014 at City Center. The production was directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall.[158]

Personal life

Ullman married producer Allan McKeown in 1983. They have two children: Mabel, born in 1986, and Johnny, born in 1991.[159] Mabel ran for the Labour Party in 2015;[160] Johnny is an actor and currently writes for The Late Late Show with James Corden.[161][162] On 24 December 2013, Allan McKeown died at home from prostate cancer, just three days shy of the couple's 30th wedding anniversary.[163] Ullman's mother died in a fire that took place at her retirement flat on 23 March 2015.[164] An inquest ruled the death to be accidental.[165] She was 85 years old.[166]

Ullman became an American citizen in December 2006 and now holds dual citizenship in the United States and the United Kingdom.[167] The results of the 2004 United States presidential election, and a comment made by actor Tom Hanks, prompted her desire to naturalise. “Tom Hanks was standing in a corridor at a party and I said something, and he was just very nice and he went, ‘Oh, yeah. I know that but you’re British. You know, you don’t have to put up with that stuff ... I went, ‘No. Actually I’ve been here a long time.‘ I thought, that’s it. I’m going to join in. So I took the [citizenship] test.”[168] In 2006, she topped the list for the "Wealthiest British Comedians," with an estimated wealth of £75 million.[169] In 2015, Ullman's wealth was estimated to be £77 million, making her the wealthiest female British comedian, and the second richest British actress.[3]

In the past, she has described herself a British republican. "Even as a kid, I never got why we pay people millions of pounds to be better than us."[170] On a particular incident: "An MP once suggested I be put in the Tower of London for saying derogatory things about the royals."[171]

An avid knitter, she co-authored a book on the subject, Knit 2 Together: Patterns and Stories for Serious Knitting Fun in 2006.[172]



Year Show Role Notes
1980 Mackenzie Lisa MacKenzie TV series
1981 Screenplay Karen Episode: "Happy Since I Met You"
A Kick Up the Eighties Various TV series
1981–83 Three of a Kind Various TV series
1985 Girls on Top Candice Valentine Series 1 only; additional material credit
1987 Saturday Night Live Herself (uncredited) Episode: Garry Shandling/Los Lobos
"Hollywood Mom" (sketch)
1987–1990 The Tracey Ullman Show Various
1989 Sesame Street Herself
Episode 2584; Season 20; 6 April 1989
I, Martin Short, Goes Hollywood Tina Wise TV film
1991 The Full Wax Herself Episode: #1.4
The Simpsons Emily Winthrop
Mrs. Winfield
Episode: "Bart's Dog Gets An F"
Funny Women of Television Herself
1992 Sibs Episode: "If I Only Had a Dad"
1993 Love & War Dava Levine Episode: "The Prima Dava"
Tracey Ullman: A Class Act Various Additional material credit
Tracey Ullman Takes On New York Various
1995 The Little Lulu Show Lulu Season 1
Women of the Night IV Herself
1996–99 Tracey Takes On... Various Creator; writer; executive producer; second unit director (season 4)
1998–99 Ally McBeal Dr. Tracey Clark Episode: "Troubled Water"
Episode: "Sideshow"
Episode: "The Real World"
Episode: "The Playing Field"
Episode: "Theme of Life"
2001–02 Tracey Ullman's Visible Panty Lines Herself TV series
2003 Tracey Ullman in the Trailer Tales Ruby Romaine
Pepper Kane
Directorial debut; writer; executive producer
2004 Will & Grace Ann Episode: "Looking for Mr. Good Enough"
2005 Tracey Ullman: Live and Exposed Herself Writer
Once Upon a Mattress Princess Winnifred TV film
2006 Dawn French's Girls Who Do Comedy Herself 3 episodes
2007 If It Ain't Stiff Herself
2008 Mumbai Calling Telephone Voice 7 episodes
2008–2010 Tracey Ullman's State of the Union Various Creator; writer; director; executive producer
2011 Kennedy Center Honors Herself Tribute to Meryl Streep
2014 How I Met Your Mother Genevieve Scherbatsky Episode: "Vesuvius"
Episode: "Daisy"
Episode: "The End of the Aisle"
Sofia the First Marla Episode: "Mom's the Word"
2015 Shakespeare Uncovered Herself Episode: "The Taming of the Shrew With Morgan Freeman"
2016–present Tracey Ullman's Show Various Devised by credit; executive producer
2016 Have I Got News for You Herself Guest presenter; Series 51, Episode 2


Year Film Role Notes
1984 Give My Regards to Broad Street Sandra
The Young Visiters Ethel Monticue
1985 Plenty Alice Park Nominated - BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role
1986 Jumpin' Jack Flash Fiona
1990 I Love You to Death Rosalie Boca
Happily Ever After Thunderella (voice)
Moonbeam (voice)
1992 Death Becomes Her Toni Scenes deleted
1993 Robin Hood: Men in Tights Latrine
Household Saints Catherine Falconetti
1994 I'll Do Anything Beth Hobbs
Bullets over Broadway Eden Brent
Prêt-à-Porter Nina Scant
1996 Everyone Says I Love You Scenes deleted
2000 C-Scam
Panic Martha
Small Time Crooks Frenchy Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical
2004 A Dirty Shame Sylvia Stickles
The Cat That Looked at a King The Cat (voice) Video
2005 Corpse Bride Nell Van Dort (voice)
Hildegarde (voice)
Kronk's New Groove Ms. Birdwell (voice) Video
2006 The Queen Self (uncredited) Archive footage
Flushed Away Creative consultant
2007 I Could Never Be Your Woman Mother Nature
2008 The Tale of Despereaux Mig (voice)
2014 Into the Woods Jack's Mother

Music videos

Year Single Director
1983 "Breakaway" Dave Robinson
"They Don't Know" Dave Robinson
"Move Over Darling"
1984 "My Guy"
1985 "Terry"
1989 "Monster in the Mirror" Laura DiTrapani
2013 "Queenie Eye" Simon Aboud

Stage credits

Year Production Role Location
1976 Gigi Theater des Westens Berlin
1977 Second Generation Blackpool and Liverpool
1977/78 Aladdin Liverpool Empire
1978 Elvis The Musical London Astoria
Oh! Boy London Astoria
1979 Grease Frenchy London Astoria
The Rocky Horror Show Janet Comedy Theatre
1980 Talent Everyman Theatre
It's a Madhouse Vera Everyman Theatre
Zack Sally Everyman Theatre
Gloo Joo Irene
Dracula Lucy Young Vic
1981 Four in a Million Beverly Royal Court Theatre
1981–82 Dick Whittington Dick Theatre Royal, Newcastle
1982 Rita, Sue and Bob Too Bob's wife Royal Court Theatre
She Stoops to Conquer Kate Hardcastle Lyric Hammersmith
Bows and Arrows Henrietta Young Writer's Festival
1983 The Grass Widow Carmen Royal Court Theatre
1990 The Taming of the Shrew Kate Hardcastle Delacorte Theater
1991 The Big Love Florence Aadland The Orpheum Theatre
2005 Tracey Ullman: Live and Exposed Self The Fonda Theatre
2011 My City Elizabeth Lambert Almeida Theatre
2012 What About Dick? Aunt Maggie
Enid Bastard
The Countess von Kuns
The Orpheum Theatre
2014 The Band Wagon Lily Martin New York City Center


Studio albums

List of albums, with selected chart positions and certifications
Title Album details Peaks Certifications
You Broke My Heart in 17 Places 14 34
You Caught Me Out
  • Released: November 1984
  • Label: Stiff
  • Format: LP, cassette, CD
"—" denotes a recording that failed to chart or was not released in that territory.

Soundtrack albums

List of albums, with selected chart positions and certifications
Title Album details Peak chart positions
ARIA US US Billboard Top Soundtracks SNEP
The Corpse Bride 8 105
Into the Woods 13 8 2
"—" denotes releases that did not chart or were not released in that territory.

Comedy albums

List of albums
Title Album details
Three of a Kind (with Lenny Henry and David Copperfield)

Compilation albums

List of albums
Title Album details
Forever – The Best of Tracey Ullman
The Best of Tracey Ullman: You Broke My Heart in 17 Places
  • Released: 12 May 1992
  • Formats: CD
  • Label: Rhino
Breakaway: The Very Best of...
  • Released: 1992
  • Formats: CD
  • Label: BR Music
The Very Best of Tracey Ullman
  • Released: 1993
  • Formats: CD
  • Label: Stiff
The Best of... Tracey Ullman
  • Released: 26 February 2002
  • Formats: CD
  • Label: Metro Music
Tracey Ullman Takes on the Hits
Tracey Ullman - Move Over Darling: The Complete Stiff Recordings
  • Released: 14 September 2010
  • Formats: CD
  • Label: Salvo

Other appearances


List of singles, with selected chart positions
Title Year Peak chart positions Album
"Breakaway" 1983 4 70 You Broke My Heart in 17 Places
"They Don't Know" 2 8 11
"Move Over Darling" 8
"My Guy" 1984 23 You Caught Me Out
"Sunglasses" 18
"Helpless" 61
"Terry" 1985 81
"—" denotes a recording that failed to chart or was not released in that territory.

Awards and honours

Tracey Ullman at the 1989 Emmy Awards

Ullman is a seven-time Emmy Award-winning actress. To date, she has been nominated twenty-four times.[174]

On 5 December 2006, she was honoured at the Museum of Television and Radio along with likes of Carol Burnett, Lesley Visser, Lesley Stahl, Jane Pauley and Betty White, in the She Made It category.[175]

In April 2009, it was announced that Ullman would be awarded a Lifetime Achievement BAFTA Award the following May. She became the first recipient of the Charlie Chaplin Lifetime Achievement Award for Comedy on 9 May 2009.[176]


American Comedy Awards
BAFTA Awards
CableACE Awards
Primetime Emmy Awards
Golden Globe Awards
Critics' Circle Theatre Award
Museum of Television and Radio
Satellite Awards
Screen Actors Guild Awards
Theatre World Award
Women in Film



  1. Prior to 1 April 1974 Slough was in Buckinghamshire.


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Further reading

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