Of the dozens of characters Tracey Ullman embodies, distends, devours, and detonates in her flagrant new sketch-comedy series, State of the Union, my favorite is Padma Perkish, a “full-service” pharmacist in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Padma, with her freakish patter of Bombay bombast and babu baby talk, is not only eager to supply whatever meds her customers need for everything from erectile dysfunction to bipolar flip-out, she also insists on accompanying each sale with a complete Bollywood musical number, stripping off her white coat to strut upon a cheesy set like some blue-skinned avatar of Krishna. This is invariably hilarious, but never more so than on the occasion of a mishap involving a Suzanne Somers Vagisizer, available with or without cilantro.
I’ve decided not to explain the Vagisizer. As for Suzanne Somers, well, she is another of Ullman’s characters. A majority of these are made up, like Gretchen Pincus, a “white widow” who specializes in marrying prisoners on death row. Or Doris Basham, a senior citizen busted for busing prescription drugs across the border from criminal Canada. Or Chanel Monticello, an airport security guard who gives out free chest X-rays to passengers who lack health insurance. Or Linda Alvarez, a Buffalo TV anchor whose idea of international news is either Paris Hilton having a miscarriage in Dubai or Angelina Jolie in South Africa being beaten up by an angry mob of her own children.
But a surprising number are actual people who, after seeing what Ullman has done to them, may wish they weren’t. While Nancy Pelosi, Andy Rooney, and Helen Mirren come off relatively unscathed, the same cannot be said for CNN’s Campbell Brown, nor Lindsay Lohan’s mother, Dina, nor “soccer star and underwear salesman” David Beckham, nor, especially, Cameron Diaz, who giggles an explanation of female genital mutilation. And even they are lucky compared to super-blogger Arianna Huffington, who cries herself to sleep each night with a laptop computer instead of a man; Hollywood sweetie-pie Renée Zellweger, who emerges from frontal lobotomizing with a “chronic narcissistic squint”; and Larry David’s ex-wife, Laurie, who is repeatedly ridiculed for a radical-chic environmentalism somehow symbolized by a Daryl Hannah minivan that runs “on cadavers and goat shit.”
Which isn’t to say that State of the Union is merely wicked fun, mean games, and goofy looks. Ullman’s America needs work. Each of her half-hours is loosely organized around a theme, such as illegal immigration (12 million undocumented workers), the urban homeless (3.5 million, 1 million living in their cars), children needing adoption, and the exorbitant cost of medical care. But “loosely” is, in Ullman’s case, more than an operative word; it’s practically an aesthetic. In her mix-master mimicry and splenetic seizures, the ether realms of TV talk and celebrity culture are cross-examined by an underclass of caregivers, washerwomen, war vets, hospital patients, and domestics. As the jokes go up like tracer fire—about nuns, bankers, face-lifts, red states, and Alzheimer’s—somewhere underground a reality principle rumbles toward a reckoning. How funny is it, really, that an African princess should adopt a blue-eyed American boy and fly him home to eat nutritional roots?
It’s been fascinating to watch Ullman evolve from, say, Imogene Coca and Carol Burnett to something leaner and meaner, like a young Whoopi Goldberg. Or Lenny Bruce, with his surreal jive and need to shock. Or Lily Tomlin, signaling in coded transmissions through a worm hole to some parallel universe. Or Anna Deavere Smith, chameleon and exorcist, seeing around corners and speaking in tongues. Or, of course, Robin Williams, before all the bad movies and worse career choices, a brilliant mind unmade of equal parts politics and paranoia, music video and psychotherapy, a scrambled shaman egghead and Jack–in–a–Pandora’s box. Think of America as performance art.