Hit or Sh**: HBO’s TRACEY ULLMAN’S SHOW
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
Tracey Ullman orbits American fame the way only comedians from across the pond seem to be able to do. We’ve promoted plenty of dramatic British actors to the A-List, but there hasn’t been a British comedy to reach the upper echelons of American fame since MONTY PYTHON. Ullman is perhaps the best embodiment of the British/American comedy rift, as it was her sketch show that spawned THE SIMPSONS. Now that sketch show has come back for round two, and I’d say it deserves a lukewarm reception. Not because I didn’t like it; I found it decently funny in a reserved, corny sense. But when measured against sketch comedy classics like old SNL, CHAPPELLE’S SHOW, or the aforementioned Pythons, it’s clear that ULLMAN’S lacks the necessary depth and wit to really leave a lasting impression.
Pictured: A lasting impression
TRACEY ULLMAN’S SHOW’s main problem is that despite a confident and clean execution, it fails to truly excel at anything; no lines are particularly memorable, and while some of the sketches are poignant, most of them aren’t. ULLMAN’S balances smarminess with crass gags, cleverness with cheesiness, and while I appreciate its mellow quips, ULLMAN never made me laugh particularly hard. It feels like comedic ocean sounds, soothing to listen and pleasantly predictable.
The best sketches are the ones that don’t overstay their welcome. The “main” sketches, the ones with recurring characters, get tired quickly. The “Karen” character in the first episode is a prime example. Her voice is abrasive, nothing she does is funny, and they gave her multiple sketches for some reason. The exception to this is evil Judi Dench; unbelievably corny, sure, but watching Judi Dench be pointlessly mischievous just tickles me. I’m glad they did a bunch of them, and wish they had given all of Karen’s sketches to Dench.
Helps that Ullman looks EXACTLY LIKE JUDI DENCH SOMEHOW
Despite being known for her accents and character versatility, Tracey does as well with politicians and other straight laced characters as she does with wacky ones. The sketches where absurdity is suddenly injected into the situation tend to work better than those with inherently absurd premises. The musical number about the closure of the library (complete with a tap dance feature) executes that formula well, and embodies the vaudevillian nature of the show. ULLMAN ‘s old-fashioned corniness stands in stark contrast to today’s uber-personal comedies like BETTER THINGS and ATLANTA, comedies that feel like the diaries of the main characters. These sketches exist primarily for the sake of cracking jokes; commentary and poignancy are merely side effects.
ULLMAN’s theme song proclaims that Tracey has been doing this show since she was a little girl dancing in her mother’s bedroom. I’d say that’s largely accurate. From a stylistic perspective, ULLMAN is thoroughly old-school, devoid of the nuance and self-importance that currently dominates the television landscape. Unambitious, unassuming, and willfully ignorant of millennial humor tastes, I wouldn’t expect many people to enjoy this. If you’re the type that really appreciates comedic craftsmanship, enough so that stylistic integrity supersedes humor in value to you, ULLMAN may just be right up your alley. But if your comedy also has to make you think, hard pass. Comedy has evolved since the 1980s, and Tracey Ullman has not.
TRACEY ULLMAN’S SHOW airs on Fridays on HBO