LOS ANGELES -- A wild-looking woman with unkempt red hair is mashing her face forlornly against her own kitchen door.

Behind her comes the painter. The painter is supposed to be Greek. "Meesus," says the painter. "Did you decide on what color for lovely kitchen, meesus?"

Wild woman's shoulders straighten. She turns, gazes at the painter. "Yeah," she says. "Yeah, I decided."

Flat voice, American, faintly New York. Brown eyes, filling now with manic resolve. The painter waits. "What color you like, meesus?"

"Black," she says.


"Yeah." All America in this yeah, the sound clipped, gangly, the hint of a brusque Yankee nod; what have we here? Sound track up. Old Rolling Stones. Now she is singing, she is belting it out, she is brandishing a paintbrush overhead like the Statue of Liberty: " 'I see a red door and I want it painted black' ... "


Not quite.

The mood is still wrong. The director's hand goes up. "Tracey," the director says.

Tracey Ullman puts down the paintbrush, nods, studies the stage set's kitchen door. "I could cry," she suggests.

Who said that? Pure London cockney, this voice; different register, different timbre, her face is utterly recast.

"I could cry there, yeah," she says, and the impulse is to dart behind her to check for the wiring system. Such a small body. Where are these voices coming from?

Tracey Ullman voices. There's a whole television show to air them now. She has Australian voices and Midlands England voices and Lower East Side voices; she can do a sweating New York postal clerk and then flip midsentence into the broad vapid drawl of a Palm Springs golf wife. "They don't listen, they're talking and there's nothing" -- her eyes have become round and stupid now, her voice irretrievably American until the sardonic cockney darts back in -- "You could say, 'Look, your {rude reference to mammary gland} is hanging out,' and they would say, 'Pardon me, I know, it's so gorgeous, and the baby, you nursing him, you nursing the baby?' 'Yes, well, it's a girl, actually.' 'Oh, he's gorgeous, going to play baseball like daddy.' 'It's a girl, actually.' 'You nursing him?' "

Ullman grins; she is devastating, and she knows it. Some critics are crazy about the "Tracey Ullman Show" and some critics think the material is kind of dumb, but nobody seems reserved about the 27-year-old Englishwoman who over the last three months has become the mad bright beacon for Rupert Murdoch's fledgling Fox Broadcasting network. Every week for half an hour, with a supporting cast of regulars -- the show airs in Washington Sundays at 9:30 p.m. on Channel 5 -- Ullman mugs her way through a series of sketches that call for three or four role changes a night: now she's a brisk English ambulance attendant fending off a lecherous patient, now an officious American mommy barely containing her hysteria as her child auditions for preschool, now an Australian golf queen named Kiki Howard-Smith, who has resolved to cure her fear of flying by visiting a psychiatrist.

In walks Kiki, all shoulders and backslapping good cheer. "This may be the first time anyone from Australia has seen a psychiatrist," she announces. "We're basically a proud race of carefree beer-sucking mulletheads."

Ullman doesn't have very big shoulders; her carriage, somehow, has created them. Her gait puts 20 pounds of muscle on her. When the director stops her midrehearsal she sags, momentarily, and the golfer vanishes at once. "PINKY!" she cries. The nanny has brought her 16-month-old daughter. "Hallo, my gorgeous pig! Give Mommy a hug!"

Rather an exhausting business, spending four hours with Tracey Ullman, not unlike trying for linear conversation with an entire improvisational theater troupe. If Ullman is destined for the chair once occupied by Imogene Coca and Carol Burnett, she is pursuing it at a numbing pace; even the core self, which appears to be a cheeky red-haired Englishwoman of cockney voice and enormous gift, is at least part invention, since Ullman says she was raised in an uninteresting London suburb that lacked the cachet of real English class.

"I became a professional cockney, I suppose," she says. "The confidence of the pure working class. The I've-got-no-airs-and-graces-'cause-I-am-what-I-am type of approach. If you were like -- oh, you know, a Girl From the Suburbs" -- her voice goes thin and milky here, her face crumpling a little, and then the cockney brass comes charging back. "Better to be JUST DEFINITE ABOUT SOMETHING, isn't it?" Ullman says.

She dropped out of school at 16. Her father was a Polish emigre' and died when she was 6 years old. She can still sing the theme music to "Bewitched," and she grew up with Mary Tyler Moore, but she never did figure out what the Beaver was and why things were being left to it.

She has, she says, a very old soul. "I've always been cynical beyond my years," she says. "My heroines were women that were great character actresses. Jean Stapleton. 'Songs we had and songs we made' " -- high-pitched now, quavering, forced through the lips; she is singing in pure Dingbat -- " 'Songs that made the hit parade.'

"There was this wonderful play in England with a classical character actress like Jean Stapleton, named Patricia Hayes, and it was all about this woman vagrant, like a bag woman," Ullman says. She winces. "Every time I say 'bag woman' now, I panic, because everybody's done such stylized bag women. It's like" -- she's vanishing again, replaced this time by a tough little Pekingese dog of a woman with clenched fists and no teeth -- " 'okay guy.' Documentary type stuff. I love that. It was so real. And for a couple of years, I went around believing I was this vagrant. All the other kids wanted to be Superwoman, or Catwoman. I was running around being Edna, the Inebriate Woman."

She never has known precisely why, except that she was so extraordinarily good at it. She was awarded a scholarship to stage school at 12, danced professionally in "Gigi" at 16, won a London Theatre Critics award at 21. She has done West End theater in London, BBC television comedy series and gold-certified pop recording -- the album was called "You Broke My Heart in Seventeen Places." And Meryl Streep's 1985 movie "Plenty" heated up a few degrees every time Ullman appeared on the screen playing Streep's resolutely unconventional best friend.

Ullman was performing, she says, when she was 4 years old. "When you do it for other people and they think it's interesting, that's the clue, isn't it?" she says. "I could impershonate dis goil" -- whoops, gone again; now she's a slushy sort of google-eyed singer, lisping along in low throaty voice.

"And she talked like thish," Ullman says. "And her hit song was 'It'sh a myshtery.' All these s's, right? And you know, just doing that for your mum and sister, and they think it's hysterical, and then when Auntie Brenda thought it was hysterical, and so did Uncle Sid, and so did the end-of-term school play -- that gives you confidence. The first hearing the laughter. Getting attention by doing something. It's as simple as that."

This time, at the kitchen door, she weeps. Her husband has just stomped out of the kitchen after yelling at her about her indecisiveness and so she is gazing after him and her shoulders shake. Dan Castellaneta, who plays the painter, stands behind her looking distraught.

"You decide on what color paint for lovely kitchen, meesus?" he says.

Ullman turns, stares at him, composes herself. "Yeah," she says. The director holds his hand up, and then someone knocks over a can of paint. Great yellow puddle, spreading slowly down the kitchen floor. Ullman breaks up. "My God," says Sam McMurray, who plays the husband. "That looks like the world's largest load of" -- family newspaper cleanup here, but the reference is to what babies produce a lot of. McMurray leers jovially at Ullman. "Not that I know about that," he says.

Ullman grabs the paint color wheel, which her addled housewife character has been hurling to the floor again and again in rehearsal, and waves it under McMurray's nose. "I'll show you Breast Feed Mustard," she says. "Mashed Banana Yellow! Spinach! Long Car Journey Spinach!"

Hoots from the stage crew. "Aeroplane!" Ullman cries, waving the color wheel. "Aeroplane You Think the Baby's Sick Beige!"

She is dressed as though preparing to dance, black stretch pants rolled at the waist, blue and white striped tube top that pulls tight across her small torso. Her shoulders are bare. They are soft shoulders, no hours-at-the-gym muscle in them, but they work nearly without respite for the full afternoon's rehearsal; Ullman sobs, shrieks, yells, leaps, flings her hair around, imitates a go-go dancer, streaks herself with imaginary black paint.

The choreographer is working through her steps, the director is redoing her timing, and Ullman is in motion through all of it, muttering the music to herself under the background noise of argument and milling extras. "Dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah" -- she is humming "Paint It Black" under her breath, walking it out, swiveling, bending her body forward and then back in the slow-motion jerk that she will repeat two minutes later, for the 15th time, at full speed.

"Sometimes this show is like the biggest nightmare, it's so frightening," she says. "We had a brilliant rehearsal yesterday, and then the run-through was so appalling. You have to keep up so much energy and enthusiasm and love, and spontaneity. And to maintain that for every rehearsal, every run-through -- it's so unbelievably hard, and I was never a method actress. I used to laugh at actresses who did all that preparing for a character."

New voice, little-girl dumb. "You know, 'Imagine me, I'm a baby, and I'm here for the first time in my life.' All that sort of stuff. And I find now that I need to do that, because if I'm switching four different characters in an afternoon, you've got to take five minutes and just think of 18 words in that character."

Ullman has done television sketches before, whole series of them, but never 26 programs in a row, which is what she will have completed by the end of this first season. "It's exhausting physically and mentally, because I've got to move around so much," she says. "But it's great to be given the opportunity to do something you really want to do. And this team ..."

Ullman's executive producer is James L. Brooks, who already has programs like "Lou Grant" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" behind him; Brooks also won Oscars directing "Terms of Endearment."

"Jim Brooks is brilliant in any country," Ullman says. "And I'm making no compromises doing the show. I didn't have to do a care-and-share silly sitcom where I'm just a nice person solving people's problems."

Live American audiences were a novelty for her when she began, and that made her nervous at first, she says. America still seems to her rather a bland and relentlessly upbeat place; her husband is an English producer and they keep homes both in London and Los Angeles.

"But what's funny is funny in any country," Ullman says. "The secretary I do, Kay, the little polyester-bums spinster who's got the disabled mother at home, she's kept prisoner by her mother, and who's never going to get married, she's just going to care for her mother until she dies -- this sweet little woman, with a lot of spirit, is such a British character, and she would never ever come to America."

Enter Kay, of course. Whispery, confidential voice; the face closes in on itself and puts on 40 years. "I mean, you know, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, they were mahvelous, deah, thatsh my era of Hollywood. We saw 'Jaws,' but you know, muvver didn't loike it, upshet her something terrible."

The American voices now in her repertoire took some work, she says; her first American visit was five years ago, a low-budget number memorable chiefly for its utter lack of glamor. "Hollywood should look like Disneyland, and it doesn't, does it?" Ullman says. "It was 'orrible. And everytime I turned on the telly, it just seemed to be bright orange, just people with bright orange faces, trying to sell me stuff." Tawny Schneider, on the telly, helped her learn how to talk. "She's a local," Ullman says, with a nasty little grin. "She was Miss America, but they let her read the news."

Here she goes again -- American Newscaster of Limited Intellect, Female Genus. "And she has" -- extremely sincere emphasis here, as though reading straight off the TelePrompTer -- "NO IDEA WHAT SHE'S TALKING ABOUT."

Ullman is beside herself. "You just want to go, 'Tell us about Angola, Tawny. Just ad-lib for a while, we haven't got the news ready yet, just tell us your views on the situation in Angola.' Can you imagine what she would do, you know? Just give her articles on acrylic nail parlors opening up in Beverly Hills." Back to Tawny, poor thing, struggling with Angola: " 'I think they're probably very nice people, and they have problems, and, um, everybody has problems, and, um.' "

Whispering now, eyes darting wildly about, as per desperate newscaster. Ullman is delighted. "I love having to do characters," she says. She loves the gestation nearly as much as the glory onstage; at 21, taken on by an avant-garde English theater developing an improvisational play, she spent a revelatory two months creating a part that eventually won her the Theatre Critics award.

"I would sit in a room, with this wonderful director, and talk as this character I'd created called Beverly, who was a born-again Christian, a nightclub singer, who was staying in a boardinghouse with some other entertainers, and drove them crazy trying to convert them to Christianity," she says. "And I would sit and just talk for hours with the other actors. Sometimes we'd do about six hours of improvisation. We'd go shopping as these people. I loved this person so much -- she made me laugh."

Came opening night, and Beverly went public, and Tracey Ullman still gets goosey when she talks about it. "The audience was just falling about, and loving it," she says. "And believing in these people -- and the same feeling I'd had creating it -- and it was just brilliant. And that was it. You suddenly know. Sometimes when it gets hard for me, I wish I'd never discovered it, because you know how wonderful it can feel..