Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Much-Needed Return of Tracey Ullman

Last month, at the Television Critics Association (TCA) convention in Beverly Hills, I caught up with Tracey Ullman at the Starz network's party to promote its upcoming miniseries of Howard's End, in which Tracey plays Aunt Juley.  But we critics were even more eager to quiz Tracey about the new season of her self-titled BBC sketch comedy series, whose second season of six episodes debuts here in the U.S. on HBO this coming Sunday, October 20. 

Chatting with Tracey is a particular treat, because you never know which voice might pop out of her mouth to answer your question.  In between laughs, a few fellow critics and I managed to conduct the interview below, with news of this upcoming season.

Must Hear TV:   I'd love to talk with you about everything from your early album, "You Broke My Heart in Seventeen Places," onward -- but let's talk about the HBO show.  Has Judi Dench or Angela Merkel or any of the other real-life people you impersonate gotten back to you about your impression?

Tracey Ullman:  They both have, in a funny way.  Judi Dench really likes it.  She said it was great, and she has a great sense of humor.  So I sent her a present.  I sent a vase, because I do a whole thing where she smashes things.  She did say that “It’s been a bit tricky for her going into shops, because people think, ‘I’m watching you!’”  But she’s had a wonderful sense of humor about it.

And then I was on some BBC show, and they decided to contact the Reichstag and ask Angela Merkel what she thought.  For a TV show to do that -- it's like if your girlfriend says, “I asked, and he really likes you.”  You don’t do that!  So I was on the show, and they brought out this letter with an eagle on it.  It looked very official, from the Reichstag.  Jerry Springer presented me with a letter from the Reichstag saying, “The Chancellor is not here right now, but she would like to say to the brilliant Tracey Ullman…”  so Angela Merkel likes it.

MHTV:  Have you inspired Judi to a real-life life of crime?

TU:  I sent her a vase and a shawl, and she wrote back “I’ve already smashed it.”  She’s been really kind.  I sort of used her brilliance to do something on my show, and it’s very nice of her.

MHTV:  How did you get hooked up with Anthony Atamanuik, who does the Trump character?  How did that come about?

TU:  Well I saw him during the election, and I thought he was the best Trump.  I love Alec Baldwin, who’s amazing, but I love Anthony’s take on it.  We wanted to have Angela and Theresa May talking to Trump.  He has this set, and he’s always dressed as Trump.  He’s never not Trump at the moment!  So he was fantastic.  I’m doing more shows from London…

MHTV:  Earlier, you said three more?

TU:  Yes, I’m doing 3 more before Christmas [to be called Tracey Breaks the News.]  And I’m going to have all sorts of people talking to Trump.  We’ll put bits on his show, and bits of mine.  I love it.

MHTV:  What is this moment like for you, as someone who does this political satire, when the real politics are so insane themselves?

TU:  Really weird.  But it’s exciting.  It’s what people want to talk about.  It’s what people want to see.  Being Theresa May recently was difficult, because she’d had a terrible election.  We had a terrible, tragic fire in England, the Grenfell Tower, and she couldn’t have been having a worse time.  And yet, we filmed a piece about her and there was some empathy within it.  It just kind of worked.  And the makeup is stunning.  I had this Dutch guy who is a sculptor normally, and he does these amazing makeups on me.  But I like doing this.  I’m trying to do my own Saturday Night Live in England.  I’d like to do everybody.  It’s a great time to comment about it all.  I did sort of Melania Trump as a Russian robot, like her Westworld kind of thing.  They bring her in for a service, because she’s malfunctioning, and won’t hold Donald’s hand.  So that was in the show recently.  And that was fun.  I got a girl who looked like Melania.  I can’t look like Melania Trump, because she’s gorgeous.  But we had our little take on that.

MHTV:  How much time is there between filming in the UK and its airing on TV there?

TU:  Now we’re doing it like 48 hours, some of it.  And we’re going to do it that way with these three shows.  I like live shows.

MHTV:  What can we expect new this season?  New characters?

TU:  I’m really fascinated with Brigitte Macron.  I love Trump saying, “Your wife is so physically fit!”  I was so shocked!  But yeah, it’s the same age difference as you and Melania, right?  So that’s one thing.

MHTV:  Did I hear that we'll meet Jerry Hall?

TU:  That’s going to be in this season of the HBO show, yes.  Jerry Hall and Rupert.  Ben Miller is amazing as Rupert.  We haven’t heard from them in season 1.  That’s season 2 that will be on HBO, and goes out after Bill Maher in October.

MHTV:  What season are you in in the UK now?

TU:  I’m doing sort of a more topical show, with season 3 just starting. 

MHTV:  Do you wish that episodes could get on sooner here in the U.S.?

TU:  Maybe they will, if we’re doing a more topical show.  I’ve got people talking to me from America to get it on quicker here.

MHTV:  We need your voice right now in this political climate.

TU:  Things change.  SNL, thank God for SNL!  And Melissa McCarthy.  But things change so quickly.  Sean Spicer is gone.  It’s so immediate.  I mean, I hear Priebus has been fired, and I would have been sitting here today saying, “So you decided to go with the Mooch!”  I don’t know – some days it’s not funny, and some days, it’s like what are you going to do?!  Brexit ain’t funny!

MHTV:  Of all your characters throughout all your shows, who are your favorites?

TU:  I used to do a character years ago called Ruby Romaine.  I’m staying [in Los Angeles] at a hotel here now because I don’t live here anymore, and I’m on Romaine Street.  And I just remember being her, like an old, faded, alcoholic chainsmoker.  I used to love being her more than anything.  And they still have those kind of Hollywood ladies -- there’s very few of them, but you still see them, with cotton candy hair, and the cigarette.  She’d love Trump.  “He’s wonderful.  I gotta tell you, that guy’s gonna get it done.”

MHTV:  How did you get to be such a good observer of Americans?  That’s such an American archetype, Ruby Romaine.  You’re such a keen observer of the British that we learn from you, but how do you know the Americans so well?

TU:  When I came to America – I got married here in ’83.  I’ve lived here for 30 years now.  And I didn’t do anything for two years.  I had a baby, and I just studied America.  I didn’t come here and live here for just three weeks.  I really learned about the culture.  James L. Brooks, who I did my TV show with, used to send me to the American Museum of Broadcasting [now the Paley Center for Media] in New York, saying go there every day and learn.  And I did that for a year.  So I kind of immersed myself in the culture.  And by the time it came to do something, I think I was a participant.  I knew about everything a bit more.  I didn’t just visit.

MHTV:  When you reflect on your career, what accomplishment are you most proud of?

TU:  That I’m still working.  My next job.  That I’m still doing it, and I’ve instigated my own staff.  I know I’ve been doing it a long time, and I notice that there’s a lady [Samantha Bee] finally in the comedy/variety show category at the Emmys again.  And then someone is saying the last time anyone was in it was me, like 20 years ago.  So I guess I didn’t think about being a gal early in my career, but I do now.  I’m still doing it, and I love it. BBC is great, HBO is great, and I'm lucky.  It’s great to be given the opportunity to do it.

And then as we thanked Tracey for the interview, she turned to me with this:

"You remember my son, Buddy?  He's a great kid, but don't give him any liquor or ammunition." -- Ruby Romaine 

I charmed Tracey Ullman into taking this photo booth shot with me, by quoting a line from aged makeup artist Ruby Romaine, as she found herself on a porn set:  "I didn't need a beaver brush when I worked for Mr. Minnelli!" 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Celebrating The Goldbergs' 100th

The Goldbergs at the Paley Center for Media,
Beverly Hills:
(l to r) Executive Producer Doug Robinson,
stars Sam Lerner, Wendi McLendon Covey,
Hayley Orrantia, 100th episode director Lea Thompson
Last night at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, cast and creators of The Goldbergs came together to celebrate the series' upcoming 100th episode.

After an advance screening of tonight's (hilarious) Revenge of the Nerds-themed episode -- not the 100th, which is not quite ready yet -- series stars Wendi McLendon Covey, Hayley Orrantia and new series regular Sam Lerner, as well as EP Doug Robinson, creator/EP Adam Goldberg and the director of the 100th episode, Lea Thompson, came together for a panel discussion about the show's past and future.  Some highlights:

The show came about when creator Adam Goldberg and producer Robinson were working on Breaking In, starring Christian Slater, which then was cancelled.  Familiar with the crazy stories from Adam's childhood, Doug said to him, "Now is the time to do your family show."

Adam put together a pitch about a family he called the "Silvers," and wrote a pilot called "How the F--- Am I Normal?"  Doug, who had worked with Wendi McLendon Covey on Rules of Engagement, instantly thought of her to play Beverly Goldberg.  So they sent her some of the real-life footage that Adam had shot throughout his life -- and Wendi was in.  "There was one moment where Beverly was yelling at Adam, 'You don't deserve anything!  You're not going to eat tonight!  That's a nice sweater. Where did you get it?'," Wendi remembers. "She turned on a dime, and my parents talked to me that way, so it rang true to me.  I thought, 'These people are crazy! I'm in!'"

Hayley Orrantia auditioned at first via videotape -- and nailed it.  But afraid to cast one of their leads so soon from a mere tape, the producers proceeded to audition many more actresses -- before coming back to Hayley.  The character of Erica is the only one for whom creative license was taken; she's based off Adam's real-life brother Eric.  "In real life, Eric is so much older than me, I thought it would open up the world of the show and create more storylines if the family had a daughter," Adam explains.  "And the great thing about the character has been, I'm so locked in to how Pops would really act, or how my dad would, or how I would, that there's one character in the family where there are no rules -- and I don't get a phone call the morning after an episode airs from someone whose feeligns are hurt.  So creating Erica has turned out to be fantastic -- and for the writers, it's really freeing."

Another freeing device Adam cleverly came up with: the "1980something" device.  From the pilot, he says, he didn't want to be locked into a certain year -- especially an early-80s year, with so little of the decade to explore.  As he and Doug worked hard to convince Sony early on, memory is a tricky thing, and it tends to blur and mix all of its references together anyway.

The Goldbergs panel at the
Paley Center for Media, Beverly Hills:
(l to r): Lea Thompson, Doug Robinson,
Sam Lerner, Hayley Orrantia,
Wendi McLendon Covey, Adam Goldberg,
moderator Jim Halterman
So now, thanks to that device, we get to see the show's trademark takes on movies from anytime in the '80s, from The Goonies, to Hayley's favorite (Dirty Dancing) to Wendi's favorite (watching Troy Gentile as Barry inside the stadium as a Ferris Bueller-type)  to tonight's episode, based on Revenge of the Nerds.  (As Thompson quipped, "I auditioned for all those movies!")  Karate Kid, Adam says, was the easiest homage to pull off -- because for one thing, it's a Sony movie, so rights and clearances were easier.  Whereas recreating Ferris Bueller proved so difficult that, as Doug joked, "I think we're still filming that." 

Rights are a tricky issue for the show; as Adam points out, broken-hearted, he went ahead and wrote a "Thriller"-themed episode, complete with dance, which was never shot because the show was never able to secure permission.  In other instances, it's come down to the wire, and some personal please.  In fact, for one episode, the show was forced to create a separate, non-Journey based version of an episode, until Adam got the okay from the band, via twitter, just before the show was to air.

That's why, of course, the video to which Adam DOES have full rights to use -- his own -- is such an amazing secret weapon.  Not only did his home video compilation help sell the pitch to Sony and help secure actors like Wendi, but a brief clip has accompanied every episode of the show so far, except one.  For the second episode of season 1, there was no clip.  Adam didn't include it, he reveals, "because I didn't know it was a thing."  But then, just as people were responding to him that "you should show more of those," episode 3 turned out to be a few moments too short.  So The Goldbergs producers threw in another of Adam's clips, and the rest was history.  "With the third episode, it became 'a thing.'"

After moderator Jim Halterman of TV Guide opened up the evening to audience questions, one woman ascended to the stage to give the panelists homemade Goldbergs gifts -- and in the process, pointed out her husband, who was "being shy" -- and who turned out to be Adventures in Babysitting star Keith Coogan.  So perhaps the producers will be inspired to create a Babysitting movie homage.  But one spoiler Adam did reveal:  with the 100th episode featuring the return of AJ Michalka as Erica's friend/Barry's girlfriend Lainie, producers are toying with Lainie and Erica forming a girl band.

That 100th episode, by the way, is set to air next week, just in time for Halloween -- which, as Adam pointed out, is always a big night for ABC's comedies.  The episode features not only Lainie's return, but an argument between Star Wars-loving Adam and his Trekkie girlfriend Jackie (based on the second of the real-life Adam's girlfriends -- the third of whom, from age 17, now being his wife.)  "It's very emotional, and hilarious," Adam promises.  "Halloween episodes are always big and kind of silly, but there was a lot of good emotion this year."