Tracey Takes On...

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Tracey Takes On...
Still from opening title sequence (1997-99)
Format sketch comedy
Created by Tracey Ullman, Allan McKeown
Starring Tracey Ullman
Seymour Cassel
Alastair Duncan
Adele Givens
Julie Kavner
Hugh Laurie
Tim McInnerny
Michael McKean
George Segal
Michael Tucker
Danny Woodburn
Allen J. Zipper
Country of origin United States
No. of seasons 4
No. of episodes 65 (List of episodes)
Running time 30 minutes
Original channel HBO
Original run January 24, 1996 – March 17, 1999
Related shows The Tracey Ullman Show, Tracey Ullman: A Class Act, Tracey Ullman Takes On New York, Tracey Ullman in the Trailer Tales, Tracey Ullman: Live and Exposed

Tracey Takes On... is an HBO sketch comedy series starring actress-comedian Tracey Ullman. The show ran for four seasons, and won multiple awards. Each week, each episode would focus on, or "take on", a certain subject in which each installment would revolve. Unlike her FOX series where characters would frequently be one-offs, Ullman's new roster of characters (29 in all[1]) would appear repeatedly for the duration of the series.

Ullman created and portrayed a wide spectrum of exotic characters for the show, including both men and women, young and old, of a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and sexual orientation. Six characters created for her previous two specials returned for the new series. Only her 'Kay' character would return from The Tracey Ullman Show.

In 1998, Ullman released a book based on the series, Tracey Takes On.


In 1993, Ullman returned to television after her hit Fox comedy series, The Tracey Ullman Show was cancelled in 1990, with two comedy specials for HBO. Tracey Ullman Takes On New York and Tracey Ullman: A Class Act, were produced and aired on the cable network. Both received critical praise and awards. In response, HBO approached Ullman and her husband, producer Allan McKeown, about doing a weekly character series for the network. Ullman agreed, and the Takes On series set up production in 1995.

Guest stars included Hugh Laurie, Tobey Maguire, Giovanni Ribisi, Jon Favreau, Helen Mirren, Billy Connolly, Ron Perlman, Cheech Marin, Alfred Molina, Bradley Whitford, John Stamos, Carlos Mencia, Danny Woodburn, and Huell Howser.[2] Staff included writers Jenji Kohan (creator and writer of "Weeds"), Jerry Belson, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, Allen Zipper, writer/producer Gail Parent and director Thomas Schlamme. Oscar-winner Mauro Fiore ("Avatar") acted as cinematographer for the series.[3]


(top row, left to right) Ruby Romaine; Trevor Ayliss; Rayleen Gibson (second row, left to right) Sheneesha Turner; Her Royal Highness; Chic (bottom row, left to right) Birdie Godsen; Janie Pillsworth; Mrs. Noh Nang Ning
  • Trevor Ayliss: 43, gay, male, airline steward. Fathered a child for a fellow stewardess. Lives with his partner Barry (Michael McKean) in Osterley. A very big fan of Linda Granger.
  • Virginia Bugge: 36, British. Married to The Right Honourable Timothy Bugge, M.P. for Greater Didlesbury. They have two children, Tasmin and Piers.
  • Chic: male, New York City, Middle-Eastern cab driver. A self-described "chick-magnet."
  • Kay Clark: 42, bank teller, originally from England, cares for her invalid mother.
  • Hope Finch: 19, idealistic college student.
  • Rayleen Gibson: 34, Australian stuntwoman to the stars. Raised by dingos in the outback as a child. Married to a 'little person', Mitch Gibson (Danny Woodburn). Runs A.A.H.: Aged-Animal-Actors-Home, for retired animal actors.
  • Birdie Godsen: 42, a Right-wing, Christian fundamentalist homemaker. Her husband Bob is a tobacco industry executive. Homes-schools their seven children. Lives on Dan Quayle Drive in a gated community. Aunt to Chris Warner. Has a twin brother, Sandy, who runs a homosexual deprogramming center, Straight Ways.
  • Linda Granger: An actress, singer, and author. Had a hit 1970s television series, "VIP Lounge," in which she starred as Vickie Starr. Has a book entitled, I'm Still Here! My lifelong Battle with Alcoholism, Disease, and Personal Misfortune.... Has a daughter named Marmalade, whom she secretly gave up for adoption, and then later readopted. She is also a recovering sex-addict. Her manager Candy Casino (Seymour Cassel) runs her life.
  • Her Royal Highness: 57, derives enormous pleasure from making everyone around her as uncomfortable as possible.
  • Sydney Kross: a ruthless, high-profile, Los Angeles attorney.
  • Erin McColl: 47, lead singer of the 1970s band, Wisechild. Depends on her manager, Dusty for guidance.
  • Madam Nadja: 60, Hollywood madam. She never leaves her bed.
  • Mrs. Noh Nang Ning: 70, owns a doughnut shop in Los Angeles, Yankie-Doodle-Donut. Relates everything to the circle/doughnut. Highly patriotic.
  • Janie Pillsworth: 37, originally from England, now a New York fashion magazine editor. Educated at a prestigious British boarding school thanks to her father sacrificing a kidney to pay for her tuition. Disowned her parents for years until an ill-fated family reunion years later. Lets her mother, Jackie (who also acts as her nanny), live with her.
  • Ruby Romaine: 72, a Hollywood makeup artist who has seen it all. Worked heavily during Hollywood's heyday. Drinks and smokes heavily. Lives with her shell shocked Vietnam veteran son, Buddy, her cat, Duke, and their Vietnamese pot belly pig named Oinky.
  • Fern Rosenthal: 56, a Jewish homemaker, originally from Long Island. Retired to Boca Raton, Florida after her husband Harry suffered a heart attack. Harry Rosenthal was the owner of a chain of discount pharmacies. They have one daughter, Sheila.
  • Sheneesha Turner: 34, African-American airport security guard.
  • Chris Warner: 32, a lesbian. Her girlfriend is pro-golfer Midge Dexter (Julie Kavner). Niece of Birdie Godsen.


see List of Tracey Takes On... episodes

Season One: Romance, Charity, Nostalgia, Royalty, Family, Law, Vanity, Health, Death, Fame
Season Two: Sex, Fantasy, Mothers, Vegas, Secrets, Childhood, Food, 1976, Crime, Movies, Money, Race Relations, Supernatural, Politics, Music
Season Three: Marriage, Hollywood, Smoking, Loss, Agents, Age, Man's Best Friend, Religion, Culture, Sports
Season Four: Dating, Drugs, Scandal, Hair, Lies, Erotica, Books, America, Road Rage, Hype, Obsession, The End of the World

Character origins and development[edit]

Tracey Takes On New York and Tracey Ullman: A Class Act[edit]

Characters Linda Granger and Fern Rosenthal were created and first introduced in the comedy special Tracey Ullman Takes On New York. Characters Trevor Ayliss, Janie Pillsworth, Jacqueline Pillsworth (Janie's mother) and Virginia Bugge were created for and introduced in Tracey Ullman: A Class Act.


The character Chic was based on a real New York City cab driver who once drove writer, Allen Zipper to Laguardia airport. The line "You want to fuck me or you want to fuck my Mercedes" used in the series was an actual line that the driver used when talking about how woman in LA only cared about money. A prosthetic penis filled with bird seed was worn by Tracey when made up as Chic and air steward Trevor Ayliss. Yak hair was applied for Chic's body hair.[4] The hair continuously bothered Ullman, giving her rashes and making her itch.[5]

Kay Clark[edit]

Ullman was unable to reprise many of Tracey Ullman Show characters due to copyright conflicts. The only character that she had total hand in creating was the British expatriate bank teller, Kay Clark. Ullman first introduced 'Kay' back in 1986 in a sketch for Saturday Live. Kay Clark would return for the HBO series.


Her Royal Highness, or H.R.H., is described as an amalgamation -- Queen Elizabeth's hat, Princess Margaret's eyes, and Princess Anne's teeth.[6]

Ullman sent the episode "Tracey Takes On... Royalty" to Diana, Princess of Wales, hoping she would enjoy the sketch, A Royal Visit. Her Royal Highness attends a dinner party at Timothy and Virginia Bugge's estate. Over the course of the meal, Her Royal Highness has some choice words about Diana and royal duty. In another sketch, attorney Sydney Kross makes an appeal to Diana via video, hoping to handle her divorce settlement. Diana, through her lady in waiting, contacted Ullman, letting her know that she had enjoyed the episode. In the aftermath of her death, Ullman removed H.R.H.'s mention of the late Princess by re-dubbing "Diana" with "Fergie." The Sydney Kross sketch was omitted entirely.

Sydney Kross[edit]

Ullman has admitted that the character, Sydney Kross, is inspired by high-profile attorney, Leslie Abramson, attorney for the Defense in the trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez. The character bears an uncanny resemblance to Ambramson, although the voice originates from Ullman's first Hollywood agent whom she describes as having been "insane."[7] The character was identified with the surname "Kross" and "Cross" in the character's monologues throughout season one. "Kross" was used from season two onward.

Erin McColl[edit]

Character, Erin McColl's manager Rusty was originally portrayed by actress Kate McGregor-Stewart. Erin made her first appearance in "Tracey Takes On... Nostalgia" in season one. Starting with series two, 'Rusty', now renamed Dusty, would be portrayed by actress-comedienne Mo Gaffney. Gaffney would continue to make appearances for an additional two seasons.

Madam Nadja[edit]

Madam Nadja was inspired by real-life Hollywood madam, Madam Alex, who Ullman saw in the 1996 documentary, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam.

Mrs. Noh Nang Ning[edit]

Mrs. Noh Nang Ning was based on a donut shop owner Ullman and her co-writers frequented in Los Angeles.

Ruby Romaine[edit]

Ruby Romaine was such a hit with viewers that Ullman decided to try and create an entire series devoted to the character, Tracey Ullman in the Trailer Tales. A pilot was commissioned and aired on HBO, but a full series was never ordered and the pilot became a one-off comedy special.

During a 2003 appearance on The View, promoting her Trailer Tales HBO special, panel member, Joy Behar told Ullman that she knew who she based character Ruby Romaine on - Romaine Green, make-up artist to Woody Allen.[8] Ullman appeared in two of Allen's films, Bullets Over Broadway and Small Time Crooks. She was also cast in Everyone Says I Love You, but due to time constraints her scenes were deleted.[9]

In 1991, Ullman portrayed real stage mother, Florence Aadland in a stage adaption of her scandalous Hollywood book, The Big Love. Much of subjects and incidents related in Florence's story are similar to the back story of the Ruby Romaine character. The voice Ullman used to portray Aadland, was very similar to the one she used as Ruby Romaine. Both Florence and Ruby have ties to actor, Errol Flynn.

Ullman contends that Ruby is actually based on all the senior Hollywood makeup union artists she's encountered throughout her career (those who have made done makeup on "Eisenhower"[10]).

In 2000, during an appearance on LIVE! Regis and Kathie Lee, Ullman revealed that she wanted to do a new series, but one where she wore minimal makeup and played fewer characters.[11][12]

Fern Rosenthal[edit]

Actor George Segal took over the role of Fern Rosenthal's husband, Harry Rosenthal in season two. Michael Tucker who originated the role, returned for the third and fourth seasons.

Character retirement[edit]

Over the course of the series' four seasons, numerous characters were retired for various reasons. The character, Virginia Bugge was no longer part of the character roster post-season two because Ullman kept having to replace the character's husband with different actors - first Hugh Laurie, and later, Tim McInnerny. The character, Mrs. Noh Nang Ning was retired after the third season. No reason was ever stated, however the makeup for the character was excessive. Ullman commented that it felt as though she had been "buried alive", especially in the first season's makeup design for the character. It would be altered starting with the second season. Ullman fainted on more than occasion due to excessive character makeup.


The Asian-American community found the Asian character, Mrs. Noh Nang Ning, that Ullman portrayed, offensive.[13] Ultimately, HBO supported Ullman, citing that she did not portray the character in a negative light. Tracey later revealed how she received letters from Asian youth, thanking her for her character, appreciating that even though they were rarely represented on television, 'at least they had her.'

Theme song and opening title sequence[edit]

In season one, viewers would only catch a glimpse of Ullman asleep in a bed, with a voice-over playing, reciting words or phrases related to that week's episode topic. Due to this title sequence, viewers were left virtually unaware that Ullman was playing every character, or for that matter, which characters. For the show's second season, a new title sequence was created, along with a new opening format. In season two, a scripted Ullman would appear in the beginning of each episode, performing a scripted monologue connected to that week's (episode) subject. An opening title sequence featuring Ullman and her cast of characters lipsyncing to her 1983 hit song, They Don't Know would follow. This signaled to viewers that she was indeed playing every character and which ones. Only characters featured in that week's episode sketches would appear in that week's opening lipsyncing title sequence. Season three and four featured Ullman in an impromptu sitdown interview delivering anecdotes related to the episode's subject at the start of the show.

The opening titles of season two featuring They Don't Know, do not appear on the DVD releases (except in the episode "Childhood"). In its place is the season one theme song, with only a black background stating the episode's title, series credits, with no character lipsynching.

Final episode[edit]

Although it was never announced to be the final episode, Tracey Takes On... The End of the World, became the closing show to the series. Storylines included: Kay's mother's death, Chic and Janie Pillsworth sleeping together, Hope deciding to lose her virginity, and Ruby's home being hit by the meteor. The last bit featured character, Sydney Kross, being trapped in the space shuttle MIR unable to make contact with NASA. Sydney was one of the individuals chosen to start a space colony of "super humans".


The series won 6 Emmys, including one in 1997 for Outstanding Music, Comedy and Variety Show, a CableACE award in 1996 for Best Comedy Variety Series, and GLAAD Media Awards for 1998 and 1999.



Famed caricaturist, Al Hirschfeld, rendered artwork dedicated to the show in 1997 which was used to promote the third season of the series.[14][15]

Got Milk?[edit]

In 1999, Ullman was featured in a Got Milk? ad, along with three of her alter-egos from the Takes On series.[16]

Home video release[edit]

VHS home video
  • Tracey Takes On... Sex, Romance, Fantasy released January 27, 1998
  • Tracey Takes On... Movies, Vanity, Fame released January 27, 1998
  • Tracey Takes On... Fern and Kay released January 26, 1999

In December 2005, Tracey Takes On... officially came to DVD from HBO Home Video. Included in the first season's ten-episode set is a photo gallery, four previously-unseen character comedies, the special Tracey Ullman Takes On New York and an audio commentary on the premiere episode "Romance" from Ullman herself.

In June 2006, the entire second season of the series was released. Extras include a photo gallery, three character comedies (Kay, Hope, and Chris Warner) and commentary by Tracey on Las Vegas.

Seasons three and four were released as one DVD set on July 14, 2009 in the United States. The set boasted 72 minutes of unseen bonus footage, which amounted to three "Character Comedies" (Virginia, Ruby, and Rayleen). However, the DVD set is extremely edited with some episodes whittled down to a mere 3 to 5 minute length.[citation needed]


Seasons 1 - 4 were released on iTunes and Amazon Video-on-Demand service in the United States in 2009, but are currently unavailable to purchase in either store. The entire 47 original episodes and 3 "Best of" specials, as well as all 15 "Character Comedies" episodes are currently available on Hulu.[17]


  1. ^ "TTO - Characters Performed by Tracey Ullman". Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  2. ^ "Tracey Ullman with Huell Howser in "Tracey Takes On"". YouTube. 2013-01-13. Retrieved 2013-04-12. 
  3. ^ "Mauro Fiore". 1964-11-15. Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  4. ^ April 16, 1999 (1999-04-16). "Producers Notebook Meet Tracey Ullman - CNN". Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  5. ^ Posted by Cate (2009-04-16). "Tracking Tracey: Enter the antic world of Tracey Ullman". Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  6. ^ "N.A.". N.A.. July 27, 2000. CPAC.
  7. ^ "Tracey Ullman on Sydney Cross". YouTube. 2008-12-25. Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  8. ^ "TTO - 2003 Talk Show Appearances". Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  9. ^ "Woody axes Tracey. - Free Online Library". Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  10. ^ "Tracey Takes on Ruby Again - Today's News: Our Take". 2003-08-05. Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  11. ^ "TTO - 2000 Talk Show Appearances". 2008-04-20. Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  12. ^ "Tracey has a bad hair day in new Allen film. - Free Online Library". Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  13. ^ Snow, Shauna (1988-04-10). "Tv & Radio - Los Angeles Times". Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  14. ^ "TRACEY ULLMAN | Al Hirschfeld". 1997-10-01. Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  15. ^ "TRACEY ULLMAN | Al Hirschfeld". 1997-10-01. Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  16. ^  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  17. ^ "Tracey Takes On - Full Episodes and Clips streaming online". Hulu. Retrieved 2012-08-17. 

External links[edit]