Tracey Ullman takes on the great issues of the day.
One by one, she takes on pressing issues like religion and marriage, talent agents and smoking, and deftly polishes off each of them in 30 inspired minutes. Viewers looking for answers - and, more importantly, for laughs - should look for "Tracey Takes On . . . ," in its third season on HBO airing Sundays at 11 p.m. MST.But right now, Tracey is taking on the tea just served in a posh Manhattan hotel.
"This is a Limoges teapot I'm holding here, made by the French, and the French hate the English," she says in her sassy, shrewd fashion. "There's no way you can make a decent cup of tea in a French teapot. Not the right thickness. And it's French! This place should really have English china." Got that, Four Seasons?
Ullman, of course, knows her tea, being British-born. But she belongs to the world. A self-declared actress, rather than comedienne or impersonator, she has the ability to embody breathtakingly different members of the human race regardless of color, creed, age or gender. In the tradition of Peter Sellers and Lily Tomlin, she is a channeler-chameleon.
These gifts she unleashes in "Tracey Takes On . . . ," a weekly round of commentaries and sketches tied to the designated topic.
"I wanted lots of different themes on the subject every week," Ullman explains, "and therefore I needed to create this broad spectrum of characters. I create mindsets as need be."
This world of flesh-and-blood "mindsets" includes a much-face-lifted TV has-been, an Asian doughnut shop owner, a gay flight attendant, a Middle-Eastern taxi driver, and an attack-dog attorney whose vanity plate reads: "BITE ME."
Explaining the genesis of the attorney, Ullman says she wanted an aggressive career woman. "But at first, it seemed she had no redeeming features: She's horrid, cold, impersonal."
Then Ullman discovered in Sydney Cross a humanizing trait: loneliness. "She's SO aggressive, and so ugly! She's got adult acne and her teeth are terrible!" Ticking off Sydney's frailties, Ullman can't help laughing. "She became sort of appealing to me. All of my characters have a sadness or an inadequacy about them."
Yet Ullman never plays them to make fun of their shortcomings. All her progeny exhibit self-pride, however ill-advised it may be. Ullman may feel sorry for them, and the audience may feel sorry for them, but clearly they don't feel sorry for themselves.
There is no better example of this than Ruby Romaine, a boozy makeup artist who has been part of Hollywood since the Warner broth-ers were pups. With nothing in her life but pickled memories and an oafish son, Buddy, she's a great old broad who is never without a cigarette and an outrageous claim.
"I used this color on Eisenhower," slurs Tracey-as-Ruby, holding up a phantom tin of powder, "and it suited him very well. He was a very passionate lover, by the way."
Ullman laughs, as if she, too, had been listening to Ruby. Then she announces that in a future "Takes On . . . " segment, Ruby might get a hip replacement, and starts riffing again:
"One of Buddy's friends there at the VA - 'cause we're not insured - he's gonna put a new hip in for me. They got use of one of those thea'ers, operating thea'ers. Nobody's gonna know about us. 'Course, I gotta recuperate at home. But, hell, it's not gonna cost us a penny!"
"I love being Ruby," says Ullman. "But I hate putting the makeup on."
Then she talks about Janie Pillsworth, her idea of a magazine editor. "I love wearing her clothes, but she's such a bitch, and I tend to be a bitch when I'm her. Everyone on the set just hates her.
"Though I hate wearing a beard, I enjoy being Chic," she goes on, referring to her scruffy, loutish cabbie. "He's so vile. So confident.
"But it's weird," she confides, "if I'm having my period when I'm one of my men characters," and then she cracks up at her candor. "It makes the workday SO bizarre!"
Bizarre, on top of breakneck-busy and sweltering, which you could say about the "Takes On . . . " shoot any workday. The series is filmed throughout the Los Angeles area, reports Ullman - except in the San Fernando Valley, which is where she draws the line.
"Not with the makeup I have to wear!" she exclaims. "TOO hot! We don't go anywhere in the 818 area code. That's my rule for location managers: 213, 310, they're OK. But no 818!"