Being a professional comedian may be hazardous to your health.
John Belushi and Chris Farley died at 33, Richard Pryor at 65. And that’s to say nothing of the comedians who have merely suffered breakdowns (Dave Chappelle), endured nearly fatal staph infections (Rosie O’Donnell), been caught by the police with a transsexual prostitute (Eddie Murphy) and spewed racist outbursts in comedy clubs in front of hundreds of people (Michael Richards).
Yet at 47, Tracey Ullman is practically the poster child for physical and mental health. She has been married to the same man for 21 years. She has made tens of millions of dollars and held on to them. She has lived in L.A. for two decades and still hasn’t had plastic surgery. “She’s one of the only actresses working today who doesn’t look like a reconstructed granny,” says John Waters, who hired Ullman for 2004’s A Dirty Shame. “She’s fearless.”
“I’m a pretty happy person,” says Ullman at her editing studio in Los Angeles, where she’s wearing a white shirt and a gray skirt from Junya Watanabe. “I watch PBS documentaries and knit. I have nice friends. I got out of Hackbridge.”
Does she at least have a psychoanalyst to thank? “No. I just have a cup of tea and carry on. When the Germans were going to invade England, there were all these posters saying, ‘Keep calm and carry on,’ and I think it’s a fantastic motto.”
Since she became a household name in 1987 with her eponymous, Carol Burnett-like half-hour show on Fox, Ullman has practiced a form of comedy that is rarely mean-spirited or angry. “There’s absolutely no venom in her work,” says Meryl Streep, who worked with Ullman on the 1985 film Plenty and is one of her closest friends. “She loves the people she invents. She loves the ones who really exist and whose egos she pricks, but it’s not sadistic like other less-evolved comics involved in their own vendetta against the world.”
Arianna Huffington, another good friend, says this is because Ullman is driven more by a desire to learn about people than an impulse to make fun of them. “She’s a little like an anthropologist in the way she’s constantly monitoring everyone around her. She’s just always listening and watching and drawing fantastical conclusions about people.”
Which more or less describes Ullman’s latest expedition, State of The Union, a once-a-week series that comes to Showtime March 30. As the title implies, it’s about life in America as seen through the eyes of more than 50 people who live here. They include an undocumented worker from Bangladesh, an Indian pharmacist at a store like Wal-Mart and several very well-known men and women, among them Huffington, Renée Zellweger, Laurie David, Andy Rooney and Nancy Pelosi. All of whom Ullman plays, and all of whom she seems to like in one way or another.
To view this complete article as well as:
• Eco Design Goes Big
• Carter Smith Does Horror
• Philippe Starck Settles Down
see Monday’s WWD SCOOP, a supplemental publication of WWD available to subscribers.