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Tracey Ullman takes on the current state of the entertainment industry

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British actress and comedian Tracey Ullman has more than earned her place in television history after multiple successful shows based around her chameleon-like ability to take on characters — plus hosting the show that launched a little animated family called the Simpsons. But she's far from done, and she has a few choice opinions about the state of the entertainment industry.

Would you say the U.S., in its "Golden Age of Television," has actually just been co-opting a lot from the British television world?
Well, there's always been changing formats for many, many years. I mean, "Sanford and Son" was a British show, you know. "All in the Family" was a British show. People took the formats from England and made shows here, so there's always been a cross-cultural exchange. When I first came to America in the '80s, there was "Saturday Night Live" always, but there was nothing else. I remember they brought "Spitting Image" to America in the '80s with the puppets, and they impersonated Reagan. I remember seeing it on NBC and saying to my husband, "They'll never stand for that in this country, because they still respect the President. They won't let that stand." And I was right, it was off in two weeks. And yet now, late night satire is just unbelievable. There wasn't a lot of that when I first got here. That was a very British thing.

What about very American things?
We, in England, would kill to develop something as great as "Friends." I love "Friends." It's a lovely comfort food to me. It's brilliant. My kids watch an episode every night before they go to sleep, and my daughter watches "Golden Girls." A lot of British shows, we don't do that many of them. But then something like "The Office" can transfer over here and be brilliant.

Did you know that the Screen Actors Guild has a diversity-in-casting incentive where a female character counts as "diverse"?
Females over 35, I'd reckon.

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No, any female characters.
Oh, wow. Well, of course. You hate to whine, "Aw, we're not getting any dates!" but you have to make your own way. That's why I wrote my own stuff. I never used to think about the guys and the girls when I was younger, but I see it a bit more now. And it's sad when you see 55-year-old men in movies with 35-year-old women. But just go out and change it, keep working toward it. It's happening. It's a multicultural society, for God's sake. I wonder how under-represented some Asian communities must feel. It's ridiculous. Look at late-night TV. It's crazy. Can we have a woman in late night? Is it just girls in the daytime? This business model surely will break down eventually. It's frustrating.

Well, network television tends to stick to traditions.
Yeah, but this one's hung on a bit too long. We've got some brilliant women around — Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. I mean, these are people that can open movies now, so it's changed a hell of a lot from when I first started out.

Have you thought about doing more shows like "The Tracey Ullman Show" and "Tracey Takes On"?
I mean, yeah, I've done that eclectic multi-character thing. I'm getting older now, and you begin to think, God, what's funny? What can you say? It's tough. It's bleeding rough out there. [Adopts a deep news anchor voice], "Terrorism, cyber-terrorism threat, breaking news, blackened stool problems, are you allergic to this? Have you got a lawsuit? Did you take this drug in the last six months? You could die! Five things in your refrigerator that could you kill you!" It's like, good God, what can we laugh at? Don't say this, don't say that. But there's always something to laugh at. I'm going to write something in the New Year. Every five years it comes to me to sort of do what I do again and I throw a load of stuff at the wall, and some of it works and some of it obviously doesn't, but that's the nature of television. I love TV. Films kind of sit there, they're not right. But with TV you go, "OK, this week's episode was crap, let's do another one."

So what is that next thing?
Sketches are hard because people have no focus. What's that thing that's six seconds? Vine? You look at that and you go, "What was that? A couple of guys had a moment, something really funny, but it's gone." So if you do a show nowadays, nobody can concentrate for more than six seconds? But ultimately a lot stuff is just someone getting kicked in the balls. Ninety-eight percent of it is. There's only two percent of it that's ever forwarded things or was brilliant or really, truly changed anything. A lot of it is just the same-old, same-old.

So what are you going to make to try to combat that?
It will be eclectic, as always. I wish I could find a way to play one character, but that's not me. So instead of being embarrassed by that, you've just got to do it how you feel you should do it. Maybe I'll play sisters, two people … (laughs) I don't know. But I'm just glad to have the opportunity to keep doing it, you know? Running my own ship, controlling it, getting a chance to work with other great actors. And not being too glib or disrespectful, always funny. Hopefully. We shall see.

Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter:@nedrick

 
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