Tracey Ullman on ‘Into the Woods’ and Why the Status of Women in Late Night Comedy is ‘Ridiculous’
In 1987, the brand new Fox network did something that’s almost unheard of in 2014: Give a network television variety show to a woman. Fox really had nothing to lose, its primetime programming at the time consisted of risky shows that we remember—‘Married… with Children,’ ’21 Jump Street’—and a lot of shows that we do not (George C. Scott in ‘Mr. President’?).
At the time, Tracey Ullman was best known in the United States for her 1984 pop hit ‘They Don’t Know,’ certainly not the first name to come to mind for a primetime sketch comedy show, but ‘The Tracey Ullman Show’ would last four seasons and become one of the most influential comedy shows of its era (and, of course, it spawned ‘The Simpsons’). Ullman, today, does not understand how women keep getting passed over.
Ullman is starring in Disney’s adaptation of ‘Into the Woods’ as Jack’s Mother, (a play she has admired since her son played the role of Jack in middle school). ‘Into the Woods’ is the story of a baker (James Cordon; the new host of ‘The Late Late Show’ who was in the running against rumored names like Amy Schumer, who Ullman greatly admires) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who make a deal with a Witch (Meryl Streep) in an effort to have a child. Ullman admits her film options are limited because she wishes there were more roles for “women in their mid-50s”, which is (a) accurate and (b) infuriating that this is true. Ahead, Ullman shares her experiences of being in a music video with Paul McCartney (twice) and her opinions on the state of women in comedy today. (Spoiler alert: She thinks it’s ridiculous.)
After watching ‘Into the Woods’ I realized that half of the cast makes an appearance in Paul McCartney’s video for ‘Queenie Eye.’
[Laughs] Yeah! Because we were all in London and he heard we were all out in Shepperton, so he started dragging us in one by one. Yeah, we were!
Even Chris Pine is in that video.
Yeah. Meryl loved it. We all went to Abbey Road and we were in the studio where The Beatles had done all of their great albums. It was fantastic. I got to take a picture of myself on the mixing board for ‘Sgt. Pepper.’ It was a four-track, old fashioned mixing board. And you think, Jesus, you know, this should be in a museum. Why are we all leaning on it and throwing our coats on things? it seems sacrilegious.
Your first movie was Paul McCartney’s ‘Give My Regards to Broad Street.’
Oh, God, yeah. I think it was. I’ve been around a while.
Paul McCartney is also in your video for ‘They Don’t Know.’
There you go! It all goes back a long way. He was in my video and I said, “Oh, I’ll be in yours a tiny bit.” Yeah, that was fun. Johnny Depp showed up and laid by the piano. He’s great, Paul. He’s a lovely man.
I’ve shown it to a couple of people recently who haven’t seen your video and they freak out when Paul shows up.
I remember all the Americans used to say, “It’s a lookalike. That’s that guy from Germany that looks like Paul McCartney. It’s not Paul McCartney.”
Yeah, they do. You know, all your bloody conspiratorial shit that goes on in this country [laughing]. But people used to say that!
I’ve heard a lot of conspiracy theories; I’ve never heard that one.
Yeah, it was a whole thing.
Oh, the whole “Paul is dead” theory? So the Paul in your video was related to that conspiracy?
You haven’t done a lot of movies recently. It was nice to see you in ‘Into the Woods.’
I wanted to be a part of it. I’m more of a TV gal and if I get to be in movies, it’s great. But they are few and far between, really. I love ‘Into the Woods’ —my kid was in it when he was in middle school, he played Jack. I watched him dutifully for 10 nights in a row and I really loved it, the complexity of it. Sometimes it’s like doing Shakespeare, but singing; it’s just clever on lots of levels. I remember I just said, “Alright, I think I might be right for Jack’s mom.”
I loved hearing you sing in ‘Into the Woods.’ When I was 10 I had your album, ‘You Broke My Heart in 17 Places.’ I knew your version of ‘(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear’ before I knew Blondie’s.
[Laughing] Oh! Yeah, I can carry a tune. It’s nice! I like singing. I just did a month on Broadway singing with ‘The Band Wagon.’ It’s really interesting to sing, but not to be one of those, “WAAA!” kind of voices. I’m not trained. I can’t bear that Broadway trilling shit. You know? It’s like, “Oh, man.”
I know you say you’re a “TV Gal,” but I wish you were in more movies.
Well, you know, I wish there were some for women in their mid-50s. It ain’t easy, mate. [Laughing] It ain’t easy! You’ve got to do your own stuff. I’ve always forged my own path. If someone offers me a job, great. But, mostly, what I’ve done is been going out there—and I’m not your classic-looking bird; I ain’t a fairy tale princess—but I just got out there and I got really lucky, too. I met James L. Brooks and he let me do my show for a while and try all of this stuff. But I realize that most of the stuff that has been good and broken through, it’s just been stuff I’ve pushed through or tried to do myself. There are so many great girls around now. I mean, my inspirations were Gilda Radner and Lily Tomlin. I was so struck my American strong, strong women.
Did you ever meet Gilda Radner?
Yeah, I did briefly. And Carol Burnett is fabulous to me. And now, you know, you have Amy Poehler. And I like Amy Schumer —I love her. She’s a kind of weird girl I’d like to be friends with at school. We’d be really crappy about people and always laugh at the back of the class.
People would love to see the two of you do anything together.
I think we should. Exactly. And you’ve got Amy Poehler and Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig—there are so many great girls doing stuff now. I’m so proud of them all. It was not easy 20 years ago.
Do you think ‘The Tracey Ullman Show’ gets the credit it deserves?
Yeah, they all know it. They always remember me. Just like I knew Gilda Radner growing up, they watched me, “Oh, there’s a girl doing it and getting to do lots of different bits.” It’s nice when people come up to me and say, “We liked to watch your show and thought, Oh, a girl could do all that.”
Could your show even happen today? A network giving a woman a comedy variety show? The network late night shows are all still hosted by men.
It’s ridiculous. Give me a woman in late night or give me a black person in late night.
I really thought Amy Schumer had a chance at something.
I thought Amy Poehler— Listen, James Corden is going to be terrific. He’s brilliant in this film and he’s really excited. And it’s great. But it’s ridiculous. I know lots of people write about it, but I’m a bit surprised there’s just no more women in late night. But, it’s a business model that works for the network and they keep doing it and it perpetuates. But, yeah, women get daytime. But, why would you necessarily have a breakout hit show, diverse show, on a network anymore. It could be Netflix; it could be Amazon. It’s getting people’s focus for more than six seconds that scares me anymore.
Right. The networks might not matter as much anymore.
And people get cast because they have 6 million followers on Twitter. It’s all about the social networking and I just can’t imagine. I’m such an anti-social person; all that publicizing is agony. Why would you want to tell people what you’re having for lunch? Who gives a shit? I went on Facebook for five minutes once and the girl I couldn’t stand in school found me immediately. “Hi, do you want to be my friend? I’m not sure if you like me.” I thought, This is exactly why I’m not social.
Did you delete your Facebook account?
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.