Prepare to laugh hard with the humor queen’s return to sketch comedy — and to her native England — on HBO’s Tracey Ullman’s Show. Here, the 56-year-old runs through her favorite personalities from the series. You’ll never view Judi Dench the same again.
In the series premiere, Ullman plays a graying hippie who comes home to her working-class neighborhood in England after spending 28 years in a Thai prison for drug smuggling. “Karen was just a one-off thing for the first episode,” Ullman says, “but she resonated with the feeling of me returning to England, too. I hadn’t made television there for about 30 years, so this was my way — a little weirdly — of coming home.”
“I really enjoy being her; she’s had such patience with us [Brits] after Brexit,” Ullman says of the broad-shouldered German chancellor. After the show premiered on the BBC earlier this year, “the Germans showed me [as Merkel] on their evening news, and the commentary was all about how strange it was that this young English girl — that was nice of them! — would want to imitate their leader. They don’t have many satirical shows over there, but a German waiter came up to me at a restaurant and said, ‘Thank you for putting a German character on television who’s actually funny!’”
Camilla Parker Bowles
“I’ve not heard from the royal family. The Dame business ain’t ever gonna happen to me, so what the hell? I was never a royalist, but I find Camilla very interesting,” she notes of Prince Charles’ wife, the Duchess of Cornwall. “She waited a long time for Charles, and she’s a tough old survivor. We imagined her being the really fun grandma, saying to little [Prince] George, ‘Would you like to put your hand in a cow’s uterus?’ God knows if she’s really like that,” Ullman says with a laugh. “I just inflict my bizarre thoughts on these people and hijack them.”
“In my imagination, Camilla is the cool grandma and then there’s Kate Middleton’s mum,” Ullman says. “You will never know who she is, she’ll never give interviews, the royal family’s got her on a real leash. But she used to run a party favor business and that just kills me. All these party poppers and Halloween stuff. So we just picture her having this great big warehouse next to her garden and all the grandkids get in there. I know I would.”
Ullman is truly unrecognizable as a dweeb plugging away on his laptop. “Ah, poor Dominic. He’s one of the disenfranchised white males who are having a really tough time. We’ve all seen these once-dominant guys having meetings in cafés, threatening Starbucks that they’ll go to the other coffee shop if they’re not nice to them. On some level, Dominic kind of breaks my heart.”
“In Europe, there are lots of topless protesters and it just seemed like a topless member of British Parliament would be the next thing. So I just played her like a mom going to work. But it was very tough to wear those prosthetic breasts and talk to the crew. You either had the people who stared at your tits — or the ones who are determined to look you in your eyes. My director, bless him, never ever looked at me below neck on those shooting days.”
In the show’s most brilliant running gag, Ullman is an uncanny doppelgänger for Dame Judi Dench, who can get away with vandalizing a hotel bathroom and shop-lifting because, well, she’s a national treasure. “Judi has been very kind about me playing her. She accepted an award recently and she said, ‘Oh, hello, I’m Tracey Ullman.’ And now she even pretends to steal things in meetings, you know, staying true to her character,” Ullman jokes.
“We originally wrote her to be in scenes outside of her house, but I thought, ‘You know, all Maggie wants is to [in Maggie Smith voice] ‘never do Downton again!’” So in the most anti-Dowager Countess gestures, we witness Dame Maggie pitching herself for James Bond (take that, Dench!) and Star Trek and showing her prowess in a motion-capture suit — all from the comfort of her living room.
“Kay is that eternal virgin in the polyester pantsuit, with the same haircut she’s had since she was a child,” Ullman says of a woman she’s portrayed in skits for 30 years, based on an actual bank employee she knew. “The real Kay had pictures of cats all over her desk at work, but she couldn’t have one since her mother was allergic. It’s the poignancy of people that attracts me to them, and I really love playing Kay. She’s one of the world’s unsung heroes. Very rarely do I impersonate people who I don’t like in some way.” Well, except for…
…the disgraced former News of the World editor, whom Ullman portrays as a village witch. “Yeah, she deserved it, man. To be in charge of that vile tabloid for all those years. So, yeah, the locals try to burn her at the stake. She’ll be back, though. I think Rupert Murdoch’s already given her another job. [In Aussie accent] He’s just craaazy about ’er!”
Tracey Ullman’s Show airs Fridays at 11 p.m. ET on HBO.