“Who are you?” Meryl Streep asked her longtime friend Tracey Ullman during a, by virtue of those two names, enviously star-studded Q&A in support of Ullman’s HBO sketch show, Tracey Ullman’s Show. The remarkable thing about Streep serving as moderator, an equally batty and soulful inquisitor, is that she seemed to genuinely want to know.
The two met filming the 1985 movie Plenty when Streep was 32 and Ullman was just 22 and breaking out in the U.S. As the Oscar-winner tells it, she considers the venerable comedienne, a character shapeshifter if TV’s ever had one, to be family, and yet also a mystery. “Do you think that your actual DNA leads you to be interested in many, many different kinds of people?”
Anyone who showed up for the event, the Tribeca TV Festival premiere of Tracey Ullman’s Show’s third season, thinking the pals would gossip idly were sorely mistaken. Streep repeatedly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, got to the heart of the matter—and offered a semi-farcical, but, after watching the episode, not entirely unearned pipe dream.
“We need you to run for president,” she said, letting out a Streepian cackle as she closed out the event.
Streep was capping off a summation of why she thinks Ullman’s brand of comedy, particularly now with this HBO show, works and is needed.
“The sources of what you do are ultimately kind of mysterious, and we’re so lucky that you have that generative imagination and desire and heart and soul and you put it all out there and you marry it with politics, man,” she said. That value was underwritten in the episode that was screened before the two icons came out on stage.
The season three premiere of Tracey Ullman’s Show finds the character chameleon and impression whiz taking on Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia, bemoaning that hologram versions of her performance keep being used for umpteen Star Wars sequels. There’s her Angela Merkel, physically seizing at the effort it takes not to roll her eyes. Sharon Osbourne, Judi Dench, and Great British Bake-Off judge Prue Leith are lampooned, and a parody commercial for Amazon’s Alexa touts a “Teenage Edition,” which responds to a request to turn the music down with, “No! Why should I?”
The episode’s political commentary trots around the globe. One sketch has her skewering the age difference between French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte, older by 25 years. Another sees her take on Theresa May mustering the bluster to stand up to Donald Trump’s foolishness.
“Theresa May is not my politics,” she said, adding, “I never come at it by thinking I just want to have a go at you, I’m so angry at you, you’re not my politics, I’m so mad. I just see her as an awkward vicar’s daughter!” Then, on stage and to Streep’s head-thrown-back delight, Ullman recreated the cringe-worthy viral video of May dancing in Africa.
But then there’s Trump, who features prominently in the Tracey Ullman’s Show premiere, both in that sketch with May, played by The President Show’s Anthony Atamanuik, and by association in a sketch in which Russian operatives are stressed that the Melania robot they’ve planted in the White House is malfunctioning. (Turns out Melaniabot can’t compute the contradiction of Trump, of all people, giving her the job of advocating against cyberbullying.)
Ullman nodded emphatically when asked what role her comedy perspective has in skewering politics and making a statement, versus just lightening the mood at a heavy time for our culture.
“I’m not in some liberal indignation bubble,” she said. “I can’t be or I’d go mad right now! I just got tired of that. I don’t want to do those sorts of late-night shows that just hate Trump the most and the best. Do you know what I mean by that? It’s like, enough already. There’s only so much I can take.”
But the talk, surprisingly given our recent reflex to dominate every conversation with the subject matter, wasn’t entirely focused on politics. Proving the canniness of having Streep, who raised her children alongside Ullman doing the same with her own, moderate the conversation, things delved deeper than is usually the case with Ullman, who herself joked about how people tend to stop on the street praising her, not exactly flatteringly, as the crazy lady.
Streep encouraged Ullman to discuss how Tracey Ullman’s Show was born out of the performer’s own mourning over her husband Allan’s death, as a way to find humor and independence again after the man who was not just the love of her life, but her producer and manager throughout most of her career, was gone. And when she couldn’t remember a detail of their shared life story, Streep would call out in the audience to Mabel, Ullman’s daughter, for help putting the pieces together.
They discussed the nuances of their dialect work, how Ullman could take a cab 15 blocks and nail an impression of her cab driver—which she gamely delivered for us—and how one of the secrets to both of their brilliance with accents is not just nailing the voice, but the period in which their characters live.
Their rapport was so comfortable that Meryl said “fuck.” Twice. Maybe even three times. And, to extreme bliss, she did the Meryl: Craned her head back, ran her fingers through her hair as if exasperated, and sighed, finishing with, “OK. Here’s the thing...”
It’s clear that Streep enjoys the series most when it makes a foray into gender politics. She full-on high-kicked in ecstasy when the sketch “What Were You Wearing?” was brought up by an audience member, in which a man reports that he’s been mugged and the investigator repeatedly suggests that perhaps the clothes he was wearing, suggesting a modicum of wealth, baited the criminal—as many use women’s dress to justify an invitation for sexual assault.
But things also got very silly. Perhaps the climax of all that was Ullman impersonating Frances McDormand accepting her Oscar and demanding that Meryl Streep stand up in the audience in support of the inclusion rider, shifting to her take on Streep as well.
We could write for days about why this conversation was an absolute delight to attend. But perhaps it’s better to just show you here: