Fame is a funny thing. When it gets too big, it works against you, and you become overexposed. You’ve seen it time and time again; a company pushes a performer or a movie so hard, you can’t recall a time when you weren’t sick of them. Even their positive qualities become tiresome.
Then eventually, we acknowledge their talents, allowing that they were revealed during a time of intense corporate saturation.
Before 1986, there were three television networks; CBS, NBC, and ABC. Then in October of that year, Fox became the fourth, co-founded by the tyrant Rupert Murdoch. Fox would introduce a slate of unusual programming over the following two years, which included Married… With Children, The Arsenio Hall Show, 21 Jump Street, and a variety program (with animated bumpers) called The Tracey Ullman Show.
The cast of Ullman’s show was as indomitable as her hair in the above photo. Dan Castellaneta is a tremendous comedian who happens to possess the most famous voice in the world. Sam McMurray is funny incarnate, as anyone who’s seen Raising Arizona can tell you. I can’t remember Joe Malone (second from right, not on Wikipedia), but that’s Julie Kavner on the end, who possesses the second most famous voice in the world. On top of that, she’s one of the funniest “straight-women” to ever grace the small screen. Your average TV enthusiast has been hearing Julie Kavner’s voice in some form for the past forty years.
So as you can see, we’re dealing with legacies here. What people forget, is that at the time, the biggest legacy was Tracey Ullman.
In 1983, she did this:
That’s a cover, too, of a Kirsty MacColl song. I didn’t even realize it was Ullman until I saw the video, sometime in 1987. When you evoke something that successfully, the networks come calling with contracts in hand.
“They Don’t Know” comes from Ullman’s hit album You Broke My Heart In 17 Places, and I’d just like to share how stupefyingly awesome the cover is:
I don’t go for “singing stuff”, and I’m uncomfortable when strange women sing to me with emotion, otherwise I would have owned this. Plus it’s an album of covers, which never gets me that excited. But let me state emphatically: this is one of those Great British Things, like Monty Python or Neil Innes. Tracey Ullman didn’t become the richest female British comedian for nothing.
The Tracey Ullman Show featured musical numbers as well as comedy sketches, showcasing the singing and dancing abilities of the cast. George Clinton of P-Funk provided the opening theme music, and Paula Abdul was the choreographer. It was a terrific variety show, but shows with all-Caucasian casts came to be viewed as “suspicious”, and so the majority-black In Living Color was heavily promoted as “better”. Also, as I mentioned, TTUS had animated bumpers, one of which depicted a cartoon family that would eclipse just about everything that came before, including the show from whence it came.
There was a series of cartoons on TTUS that did not go on to grace thousands of bootleg t-shirts; Dr. N!Godatu. These shorts (six aired, two unreleased) were also the work of animation house Klasky-Csupo, but created by the great cartoonist Mary K. Brown. As a longtime fan of Brown’s work, which has appeared in National Lampoon and Playboy, I confess that the animated format is not ideal for her style of drollery. Dr. Janice N!Godatu is a typical Brown protagonist, beset by weird circumstances, but whereas in print you’re allowed to absorb her ideas at your own pace, in cartoon form they happen too quickly to gel. This is not an indictment or criticism of M.K. Brown’s work, which I adore. Here’s one of many gut-busters she rendered for the old Lampoon:
The Tracey Ullman Show ran from 1987 to 1990. Ullman later produced the similar showcases Tracey Takes On and Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union. She can be overbearing, like a female Robin Williams (god rest), but there’s no disputing her abilities as a performer. If she wasn’t English, she’d be the closest thing we have to a Gilda Radner. (She still kinda is.)
Gilda Radner used to do this bit on Saturday Night Live called “Candy Slice”. It was probably intended as a parody of Patti Smith, but Radner made it her own thing. If you think Ullman’s work is impressive, seek out the Candy Slice sketches. Radner was a force of nature. Admirers of hers like myself don’t mention her as much, because it still hurts that she’s not around.
Truly gifted comediennes like Ullman and Radner are rare, but don’t call that a bad thing. Treating a woman behind a microphone like a revolutionary act denigrates the progress of the women who’ve already made the world laugh. Every time I lament the loss of the “funny drunk” character in TV sitcoms, I remember that a woman named Kaitlin Olson has been quietly keeping it alive on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. She’s like another Carol Burnett, and she plays drunk so perfectly that I don’t even notice the trope on first viewing.
People complained when Bruce Jenner was dubbed Woman of the Year. Why don’t you get upset when female comedians are pretty but not funny? Comedy is born out of personal alienation and loathing, or harmful slapstick. It’s not that women aren’t funny, it’s that women aren’t conditioned in society to be funny. Jokes are cracked to break tension and add levity to awful situations. Society treats pretty girls like Faberge eggs. They get what they want due to their innate desirability. There’s no cause to develop a humor reflex, and by result, no reason to have a sense a humor. They’re going to be scolding toddlers in a few years, anyway.
This isn’t unique to women, either, just more visible. Ever hear a man talk about how funny Dane Cook is? How about Ryan Reynolds? Chris Pratt? These guys are mannequins. They’ve tapped into the horny-female market, the analogue to Harlequin novel readers of the 1980s. They’re not funny at all, but they’re backed by corporate sponsors that will not allow the world to ignore them. And overexposure is no longer counted as a negative.
It’s very dangerous to lump all female comedians together. Anytime race or sex is used as a marketing gimmick, you should question the motive. If the product fails, race or sex is what everyone blames. If an all-female Ghostbusters takes a complete shit, then females are who they will blame. If it’s a hit, and anyone doesn’t like it, they must have a problem with females. See how nefarious that is? It’s not about the writing, the acting, the direction or the performance. Technically, it’s the same as porno. Oh, how far we’ve come!
Tracey Ullman, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Laraine Newman, Lily Tomlin, Jane Curtin, Marsha Warfield, Amy Sedaris, Jodi Lennon, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Melanie Chartoff, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Annie Potts; that’s a fraction of the currently-extant comediennes you could be celebrating. If your knowledge of funny girls begins and ends with Amy Schumer, I hope you feel a little bit shameful.
(I first typed her name as “Schemer”. Draw your own conclusions.)