The Tracey Ullman Show was one of the startup FOX network's inaugural programs, premiering on April 5, 1987 and running for four seasons. It was the second longest-lasting show on FOX's original primetime lineup, behind Married... with Children (eleven seasons).
Hosted by Tracey Ullman, the series was a Variety Show that featured comedy skits and musical numbers. Among the players in her troupe were Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Sam McMurray and Joseph Malone, as well as a slew of guest stars. The show also had Paula Abdul as its choreographer.
Among the recurring characters Ullman played included:
- Kay Clark: An timid, Cockney-accented office worker who tends to her sick mother. She later appeared on Ullman's HBO series Tracey Takes On...
- Francesca McDowell: A teenage girl living with her father Dave (Castellaneta) and his partner William (McMurray).
- Kiki Howard Smith: An Australian professional golfer.
- Summer Storm: A Los Angeles disc jockey.
Of course, the reason most people today know this show even existed is because of a series of animated skits that were used as interstitial material on the show: The Simpsons, featuring Castellaneta and Kavner as Homer and Marge. After becoming the show's Ensemble Darkhorses, producer James L. Brooks spun them off into their own series. Besides Castellaneta and Kavner, many of the Ullman writers also went to work on The Simpsons full time after this show went off the air. Ullman herself guest-starred in season 2's "Bart's Dog Gets a F".
The main show provides examples of:
- Calling Me a Logarithm: One of the Tina and Meg sketches had Tina asking Meg what "satiated" meant, and then phoning her boyfriend to apologize for what she had done after he had said he was satiated following sex.
- Exiled to the Couch: In the Francesca sketch "I Hate Paris", William is furious that Dave is going to France without him and opts to spend the night in the bathtub.
- The "Fun" in "Funeral": The sketch "Goodbye, Butchie" features a funeral for Summer Storm's beloved dog. She didn't take the death well.
- Funny Answering Machine: The sketch "Answering Machine" involves a sad-sounding woman being criticized for her machine recording (with one caller, a wrong number, referring a suicide hotline), so she decides to record an elaborate song message with a studio band to the tune of "Something's Coming". Then when she tries to listen to her messages the next day, she gets a series of tones and beeps, indicating that callers got fed up from waiting and hung up.
- Go Mad from the Isolation: "Weather or Not" had an isolated military weather station manned by a lone serviceman. Every day, after practicing talking, he would play with his pet patch of air.
- Promotion to Opening Titles: The Simpsons were given their own spot in the title sequence in Season 3. They were removed the following season, as they got their own show during that season.
- The Shrink: The sketch "The Little Neurotic from Down Under" involved Kiki seeing a psychiatrist for her fear of flying.
- Sketch Comedy: The big selling point was that it was a sketch show produced more like a Sitcom than a Variety Show. Fox even used the term "skitcom" to promote it.
- Signing Off Catchphrase: "Go home! Go home!"
- Spin-Off: The Simpsons, probably one of the most famous examples in television history.
- Three Shorts: The typical format for the show was three separate sketches, with their own title cards and credits. When the creative team moved on to The Simpsons, they were able to adapt the format to things like Treehouse of Horrors with ease.
- Vacation Episode: The sketch "Kay on Vacation" involves Kay going to a beachside resort and not exactly fitting in with other vacationers.
The Simpsons shorts provide examples of:
- Accidental Hero: "Bart the Hero" revolves around Bart inadvertently thwarting a candy store robbery. He is offered a $10,000 reward, but chooses to be paid in candy bars instead.
- Always Second Best: Bart was already a trickster here, but kept finding himself bested by Lisa and sometimes even Maggie, who often proved shrewder than him. For example, they outperform him in skateboarding, they steal the cookie he managed to hide from his parents, and they manage to sneak in a funny face on the family photo while Bart gets caught and violently disciplined by Homer.
- Animation Bump: The first shorts were incredibly crude and reused frames on many occasions. By the end of the series the characters' designs are more or less finalised and the animation is much more crisp and fluid, if still looser and more cartoony than what was used in the actual series after.
- Art Evolution: The Simpsons' designs were initially crude and very prone to being Off-Model (due to the artists basically tracing over Matt Groening's rough storyboards), but they were eventually streamlined. By the end of their run they look essentially like they do at the start of the spin-off series.
- Batman Gambit: Marge sets one up in "The Money Jar". She warns Bart, Lisa and Maggie not to touch the jar of money in the kitchen. Bart falls for this ploy, only to discover that she put a single dollar inside.
- Characterisation Marches On: It should come as no surprise to fans of The Simpsons, but the shorts were not very accurate to the Simpsons' eventual personalities in their own show. Special mention goes to Bart in the first short (who asks a philosophical question about the nature of the mind) and Lisa in general (who, throughout the entirety of the shorts' run, was just as much of a Bratty Half-Pint as Bart).
- Dartboard of Hate: In "Punching Bag", Homer forces the kids to play with a punching bag and they get into it by drawing his face on it. Marge eventually joins in.
- Dung Fu: "Zoo Story" has Homer getting a face full of dung when he teases some monkeys.
- Dysfunctional Family: The Simpsons. In fact they were arguably more dysfunctional in these shorts then they would eventually be in their own show.
- Eat the Evidence: In "Shoplifting", Bart gets busted for trying to steal candy bars and is taken into security. Bart is left alone with the goods for a moment and he eats them before the guard comes back, expecting not to be held accountable without evidence. He then looks in a mirror and sees chocolate smeared all over his face and hands.Bart: Uh, is it too late to make a full confession?
- The "Fun" in "Funeral": "The Funeral" involves the Simpsons going to a funeral for their Uncle Hubert. Bart is excited to see a dead body, but turns green when he finally sees it. He then has some fun misdirecting the progression to his grave.
- Good Angel, Bad Angel: "The Money Jar" features Lisa, Maggie, and Bart contemplating whether or not to steal Marge's money from her jar, represented tiny angels and devils of themselves. Bart's angel actually encourages him to take the money.
- Hiccup Hijinks: Bart gets the hiccups in "Bart's Hiccups". Lisa and Maggie try to cure them by blending an anti-hiccup serum, spinning Bart around in a chair and scaring him with a picture of Homer. Neither works.
- Hypno Fool: The parents using hypnosis to make the kids behave in "Home Hypnotism" backfires on them by turning them into zombies, though whether they really were mindless zombies or just faking it is unclear.
- Hypocritical Heartwarming: In the short "Family Therapy" The Simpsons go to a psychiatrist due to driving each other crazy and while there proceed to be their usual dysfunctional selves. However, once the annoyed psychiatrist gets sick of them and starts listing their faults, the Simpsons get indignant on each other's behalf. They then have a good laugh about the situation after being kicked out of the office.
- Hypocritical Humor:
- In "Watching TV", Bart and Lisa argue about changing the channel, and then get angry when Maggie changes the channel.
- In "Family Portrait", Homer says to Bart, "You watch your mouth, you little smartass!"
- Jump, I'll Catch You!: "Bart Jumps" revolves around Homer encouraging Bart to jump into his arms, only to get distracted or sidetracked and ends up leaving Bart to jump onto the ground in a painful manner.
- Kids Shouldn't Watch Horror Films: Bart drags Lisa and Maggie with him to watch a scary alien invasion film rather than the latest installment of the Happy Little Elves. Lisa and Maggie wind up dealing with the movie just fine, but Bart ends up screaming in terror when one of the aliens in the film happens to look just like him.
- Lies to Children: Throughout "Making Faces", Marge repeatedly gives the stock "your faces will freeze that way" warning to her children. She eventually gives them an "I Warned You" speech and tells them to look in the mirror, so Bart and his sisters look and see their completely normal faces... and freak out, yelling, "We're doomed!"
- Mock Cousteau: "Bathtime" has Bart pretending to be "Bart Simpseau" while taking a bath.
- Multi-Part Episode: "Maggie in Peril" was a two-part sketch.
- Narrative Shapeshifting: In "The Perfect Crime", Maggie informs the family who stole the cookies by pulling her hair back to look like Bart.
- Nightmare Fuel: The first short has two in-universe examples. First, Marge tells Lisa not to let the bedbugs bite which keeps Lisa awake. Second, Marge sings "Rock-a-Bye Baby" to Maggie who imagines herself rocking on a treetop and falling. Homer and Marge later invite the two daughters to sleep in their bed.
- No Name Given: Marge isn't named in the shorts; the credits list her as either "Mom" or "Mrs. Simpson". She would not be named until the series proper.
- Off-Model: In the football short, Homer promises "chocolate milkshakes", however the family clearly drinks strawberry milkshakes.
- The Perfect Crime: "The Perfect Crime" has Bart bragging that stealing cookies and pinning it on Maggie is this. Later, the others follow a trail of cookie crumbs to find Bart on the floor with a tummy ache from gorging on cookies, moaning "There's no such thing as a perfect crime."
- Shell Game: "The Shell Game" involves Bart using this on his parents to avoid getting in trouble for taking a cookie.
- Society Is to Blame: In "Grampa and the Kids", Lisa blames Bart for Grampa's apparent death, and Bart instead claims that "society killed Grampa".
- Theme Tune Cameo: In "Watching TV", Maggie changes the TV channel and the show's theme song, "You're Thinking Right", can be heard coming from it.
- This Is Not a Drill: "World War III" has Homer repeatedly waking up the family, saying that it's World War III, and taking them down to the fallout shelter before berating them for not making it sooner. They eventually turn the tables on him by making up their own drill and locking him in the shelter for the night.
- Unnamed Parent: In the credits, Homer and Marge were referred to as either "Dad" and "Mom", or "Mr. Simpson" and "Mrs. Simpson". This is strange in the case of Homer who is actually referred to by his final name on several occasions in the shorts themselves.
- Unreliable Narrator: "Maggie in Peril: The Thrilling Conclusion" opens with a Previously On narrated by Bart, who of course wasn't paying attention to Maggie in the first place and insists that nothing is wrong.