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The Unalienable Right to Laugh

Tracey Ullman returns to TV on Showtime with five episodes of Tracey Ullman's State of the Union. Premiering March 30 at 10 p.m. ET, the series is made up of YouTube-length sketches featuring Ullman as a raft of political and impolite characters from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Tony Sirico's Paulie Walnuts. It is her latest entry into the annals of American satire and a sequel of sorts to her HBO series Tracey Takes On….

And while the English comedian, who has lived in the States since the mid-'80s, has not exactly been shy about lampooning America's sacred cows, her decision to become a U.S. citizen about a year-and-a-half ago has given her a new lease on American life and license to skewer our realpolitik with impunity. Ullman talks to B&C's Marisa Guthrie about why she finally decided to become a citizen, where she gets her political news and what she would like to say to the person who beat up a young Tucker Carlson.

What made you decide to finally become a citizen?

I think it was after the last election. I really thought, God, I wish I could have voted. Not that it would have made much difference. But you just want to join in. It's liberating, actually. I feel like I can say a little bit more on the show because I really feel a part of it.

You're friends with Arianna Huffington. Does she know you're parodying her in your show?

I just dropped off an episode at her house. But she's busy writing her book, so I don't think she's watched it. [Affecting a Zsa Zsa Gabor accent] “Oh my goodness, I have so much to do.”

I think she will [like it]. She's very confident and curious. She's a very positive person. And I think I portray her positively in the show.

Ronnie Rooney, Andy Rooney's older and crankier brother, is a fairly grotesque parody of Andy Rooney. Do you like Andy Rooney?

Oh yes. I admire him. I think he's amazing. When you get into your 80s, you say whatever you want. It must be a relief. But I love him. He's been on TV ever since I arrived in America. Sometimes it gets a little pointless. [Imitating Rooney's whiny delivery] “Umbrellas! You can't live with them. You can't live without them. I bought this one and it broke immediately.” But then he'll say something really truthful and concise. I hope he never sees my piece. I'll just die.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both have appeared on Saturday Night Live. Do you think either of them has any comedy chops?

I like the way Saturday Night Live has become so relevant for them. They look like they're enjoying themselves. I think it's got to be a relief from being so serious all the time. I always thought Saturday Night Live had great value in political satire. Now I think there's much healthier and more political satire in America than when I first moved here, with Jon Stewart's Daily Show and Stephen Colbert.

Where do you get your political news?

I'm an MSNBC junkie. I love watching Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann and Tucker Carlson. They're hilarious. I'd like to [parody] Tucker Carlson. I'd love to show the moment when he was a kid and his big cousins came over and beat him up as he was wearing his bowtie. I'd like to find the cousin who beat him up and say: “Well done, man.”

Is it liberating to portray all of these different characters?

Oh yes. I love it. There's a character I do [Gretchen Pincus, who marries Death Row inmates]. I love her: the smeared makeup and the horrible top with the chain links in it and the smoking. I haven't smoked in years. I was so sick…to make yourself cry and smoke and smear all your makeup and wear cheap clothes. I'm in heaven. I realized I never wanted to be glamorous. I never wanted to be Snow White. I always wanted to be the ugly sisters. I love moments like that.

It feels great. It feels great to be a black woman. It feels great to be Renee Zellweger. It feels great to be Tony Sirico. It feels great to be Helen Mirren, flashing her breast. I realize: I'm so lucky.

So, do you not like being yourself?

Oh no. I'm not some sad psychological case. I'm a pretty sensible person. I sit and watch PBS documentaries and knit. I'm quite happy to be me.