The Tracey Ullman Show

1987 | United States

Better-known as the birthplace of The Simpsons, this half-hour comedy sketch show was also a wonderful showcase for the talents of its British-born star. 

Tracy Ullman first came to America's attention as a singer with her 1984 top-ten single 'They Don't Know.' Although Ullman rejected a number of proposals for an American series, her agent sent copies of her TV work in the UK (including Three Of A Kind and Girls On Top) to producer James L. Brooks. He was taken with her abilities and struck a deal with the new Fox network for a series built around Ullman. The result was a variety programme featuring sketches and musical numbers with a regular supporting cast-Dan Casttellaneta, Sam McMurray, Anna Levine, Joseph Malone and Julie Kavner (the best known of the group, thanks to her role as sister Brenda on Rhoda). 

Each week, Ullman portrayed various characters in a variety of skits. Among some of her recurring characters was Francesca, a 14-year-old girl raised by two gay dads; aging actress Sandra Decker; Australian pro golfer Kiki Howard-Smith; radio announcer Summer Storm; and singer Angel Tish. (Ullman eventually performed a total of 108 characters!) 

The Tracey Ullman Show made its debut the same night as Married...With Children, as the first prime time offerings of Fox Broadcasting in the spring of 1987. But the series was more of a prestige vehicle than a rating draw; it was the first Fox series to win a major Emmy award. The show's choreographer, Paula Abdul (before her success on records and her stint as an American Idol judge) also won an Emmy. Every week, the show ended with Ullman wearing a bathrobe, telling her live studio audience to Go home! After she series ended in 1990, Ullman became an American citizen and went on to roles in a number of films; she also had her own sketch comedy series on pay cable networks HBO and Showtime, continuing to win audience favour and Emmy awards. 

Tracey Ullman was also the incubator for cartoonist Matt Groening's strange yellow family. The Simpsons started as animated bumpers that ran between the skits and the commercials. They were upgraded to short features in the second and third seasons; by Season Four, Brooks finally talked Fox into spinning off the characters into their own series-first with a Christmas special in late 1989, followed by the regular series a few weeks later. And so a television legend was born. Ullman-who famously said she had breast-fed those little devils on her show--later sued for a portion of The Simpsons' considerable profits. A settlement was eventually reached but terms were never disclosed.

Published on February 9th, 2019. Written by Mike Spadoni for Television Heaven.