There’s sketch comedy, and then there’s bad sketch comedy. Then, there’s really bad sketch comedy. Beneath all that is “Tracey Ullman’s Show.” The BBC program, which originally aired in the U.K. in January 2015, debuted on HBO Friday night. The 30-minute romp explores British culture, pokes fun at its most prominent leaders and satirizes current events. Thirty years earlier, this would have been a recipe for comedic gold – and it was. “Tracey Ullman’s Show” is the comedian’s first major broadcast project since her wild, wacky and incredibly influential “The Tracey Ullman Show” in the late 1980s.
Unfortunately, this is not 1987. Today’s viewers have access to endless sketch comedy, from “Saturday Night Live” to “Broad City” to the video their cousin Maggie made with some friends from her improv troupe in Chicago. Viewers expect witty, weird and wholehearted sketch comedy. Compared to the content produced today, “Tracey Ullman’s Show” is trite.
To her credit, Ullman is an incredible impressionist. She pulls off her impersonations with such ease and confidence that it’s possible to forget she is not the real subject. The pilot episode features several sketches about a “misbehaving Dame Judy Dench.” From blatantly stealing at the grocery store to defacing the tablet of co-star Rupert Grint (The “Harry Potter” series), Dame Judy Dench tests how far she can take being Britain’s national treasure. It’s so believable that those who aren’t that familiar with Dench (myself, for example) might not realize it’s an impression until after the episode ends.
Other impressions include German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dame Maggie Smith. Each sketch put the women in interesting situations — Smith filming an audition tape for sci-fi movies, and Merkel throwing a tantrum on a private plane. The acting is calculated and focused. Ullman has great comedic timing and a strong presence on camera.
But the problem with “Tracey Ullman’s Show” is not her acting, it’s the sketches themselves. The writing is unoriginal, and the humor in each sketch is predictable. One storyline which stands out in particular is that of Karen, a recently released prisoner who returns home for the first time in 28 years. The “joke” of the piece lies in Karen’s discomfort with life outside of prison, and the changes that have occurred since her imprisonment. For such a seasoned comic, this premise is a rudimentary excuse for humor. The worst part of it, however, was the employment of the “rule of threes.” Time and time again, if Karen sees or hears of something new, she needs to hear its name three times before she understands. The repetition is just not funny.
Use of techniques such as the “rule of threes” belittles the viewer. By its nature it’s silly and fun, but sketch comedy can do more than that. It can incite conversation and respect the viewer enough to trust that they can handle more than the “rule of threes.” No part of “Tracey Ullman’s Show” inspires thought, or evokes emotion. It’s simply 30 minutes of tired jokes and curated impressions.
It’s disappointing to see a strong female comedian in what could potentially be the role(s) of her career fall short. Tracey Ullman is clearly talented. She is funny. But her show isn’t. It might have a different effect on older audiences — those who grew up watching and laughing with Tracey Ullman might think the program is prime comedy. Maybe it’s unfair to call it based off of the pilot episode. As of now, though, the 30-minute pilot is 25 minutes too long.