Well, there's a little good news if, heaven forfend, Tracey Ullman ever happens to be walking by when a Mafia hit goes down. Even if a Goodfella happens to notice her, chances are she won't have to enter the Federal Witness Protection Program. Ullman can instead simply disappear into one (or more) of the myriad characters she so effortlessly creates and inhabits in Tracey Takes On, her celebrated HBO series from the late 1990s whose third and fourth seasons have finally been released on DVD. In my DVD Talk review of State of the Union, I lamented Ullman's curious lack of superstardom, despite her being probably the most versatile television comedienne since Carol Burnett, and one who, perhaps even more than Burnett herself, seems to have chameleon like capabilities to simply "become" a host of different characters, both male and female, young and old, addlepated and--well, more addlepated.
I first became a huge fan of Ullman when her first stateside comedy series The Tracey Ullman Show helped launch the Fox network, which was then considered pretty much of a joke, at least by the "big three" of the day (my, how times have changed). That series allowed Ullman to create a wide variety of characters, and also had the distinction of introducing (via animated interstitials) a little family that has gone on to somewhat wider acclaim, The Simpsons. Perhaps you've heard of them even if Ullman's name doesn't immediately ring a bell.
The fact is Ullman is simply one of the most outlandishly gifted character actresses currently working, as evidenced by the hugely disparate people she gives life to throughout Tracey Takes On. We have Ruby Romaine, the septuagenarian Hollywood makeup artist who has chain smoked (and chain drank) herself through a career touching up the noses of such notables as Joan Crawford and Ronald Reagan. Or there's Shaneesha Turner, an African American TSA agent with attitude to spare. Or my personal favorite (at least on Ullman's distaff side of the aisle), former television star and "recovering addict" Linda Granger, a portrait of a never-quite-was who thinks she's a superstar, and wants to share her bounteous life experience with anyone who has the misfortune to look like they're paying attention to her.
Ullman's male characters are just as diverse, and include such wonders as Chic, the vaguely Middle Eastern cab driver who, in one of the funnier episodes, ends up with a script mistakenly left in his vehicle by Penny Marshall and then decides it's his personal ticket to the Hollywood high life. But these few descriptions can't really start to completely detail the hilarity that Ullman brings to each of these outlandish creations. While there's certainly credence to be paid to the incredible makeup that helps craft these characters, the fact is it's Ullman's performance chops that are the real calling card here. She has so many voices, so many mannerisms, so many incredibly fine details, in each of these portrayals that it's truly head spinning at times.
The set up of Tracey Takes On is simple--via brief introductory comments, the "real" Tracey Ullman (at least we have to assume it's the real one, though I wouldn't be surprised to find out that one is yet another creation of an as yet undiscovered core being) gives some brief anecdote about various subjects (for example, "Loss" is defined by a very funny story of Ullman's small dog eating Ullman's daughter's umbilical cord out of a baby memory book). That then leads into a panoply of both brief and longer sketches built around the key concept. Some of these are almost Laugh-In brief, with one or two lines leading to punch lines, while others can last several minutes up to most of the episode, as in dowdy Kay Clark (the one character Ullman brought over from The Tracey Ullman Show) becoming a pothead (via dealer Cheech Marin) while attempting to secure a little "medical marijuana" for her invalid mother. (It should be noted that this three disc set does not offer the episodes in broadcast order, and in fact various segments on the same subject pop up in various places, so it's hard to determine if complete original episodes are here).
The show does a sport an alarmingly funny gaggle of guest star turns, Marin just being one of them. One of the funnier ones was Austin Pendleton doing a riff on Stephen Hawking, something he strangely also did (albeit in a more dramatic environment) in a Law and Order: Criminal Intent episode. Ullman's Fox series co-star (and once and future Marge Simpson) Julie Kavner shows up in several, and everyone from Broadway's Joanna Gleason to Cassavetes posse member Seymour Cassel appear in various episodes (Cassel in fact has a recurring role as agent Candy Casino). But it's Ullman's genius that anchors this series and provides the most consistent laughs, not to mention amazement, as she wafts in and out of too many characters to keep track of at times.
Tracey Takes On is a potpourri of outrageous situations and personas, but there's not a mean bone in its sometimes jaded body (despite some thankfully brief controversy about Ullman's Asian donut maker, Mrs. Noh Nang Ning). Even pointed commentary like several characters' addictions to smoking (something Ullman evidently shares in real life) doesn't devolve into the television equivalent of a screed. In fact in one episode, when Ruby falls asleep and drops her cigarette, a fire quickly starts in the carpet. You're apt to be thinking, "Can Ullman really mine comedy out of a character dying in a horrible accident like this?" At which point Ruby, still asleep, knocks her glass of bourbon off the chair dousing the flames. Not only is that amazingly real, it's incredibly funny, and it's just one of countless similar moments throughout this wonderful series.