The first of five episodes of Tracey Ullman’s new Showtime series, Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union, debuted last night. It’s her third go on TV with her multi-character comedy sketches, following previous Emmy-winning runs on FOX in the late 1980s and HBO in the late 1990s. Once again, she’s got a lot of voices in her head just waiting to come out, and thanks to hair and makeup, she melds into many varied roles here, too.

This time, the show’s structure, a narrated mocumentary that follows a day in the life of America and Americans, hops and leaps from one scene to the next — in the debut episode alone, Ullman introduces 16 different characters in 24 minutes (39 characters overall this season). Some are real people (Laurie David, Arianna Huffington, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Sirico, Rita Cosby, David Beckham, Campbell Brown and Dina Lohan) while others are imagined impressions on everyday and not-so-everyday folk to comment upon the issues of the day. Here’s a clip of Ullman as Huffington:

The debut kicks off with a Bangladeshi woman who has to work three jobs, and returns to her at episode’s end, with narrator Peter Strauss intoning, "There are approximately 12 million undocumented workers ni the United States. Nine hundred joined us within the last 24 hours. Good night, America." Other voiceovers aren’t quite so serious. Nor are all of Ullman’s characters. There’s Padma Perkesh, the pharmacist in Oak Ridge, Tenn., who doles out prescriptions in song-and-dance that looks and sounds like Bollywood meets Oompa Loompa. Gretchen Pincus is a serial death-row wife-turned-author out to make a buck off her convicted companions. Sally Knox appears in four of the episodes as an investment banker involved in an affair with her boss (played by Scott Bakula). Chanel Monticello is a sassy black TSA worker. And Linda Alvarez is a self-involved morning TV anchor from Buffalo.

A recurring feature mocks celebrities and movie press junkets. Ullman plays Tony "Paulie Walnuts" Sirico in the debut trying to stretch as an actor in "I’m With This Inuit." Future pairings likewise have Renee Zellweger in "Home Frontal Lobe" ("Oh, doctor, anything but my right frontal lobe! How bad is this squint gonna be?"), Dame Judi Dench playing an Alzheimer’s victim in a Martin Scorcese film, "Who The F*ck Was I?", a belching Cameron Diaz in "That Terrible Time of the Month" and Helen Mirren stars in "Fish Out Those Old Teats."

Ullman gets repeated laughs and digs out of Dina Lohan, Arianna Huffington and Linda Alvarez. Highlights in the second episode include that Zellweger bit and a look at an Army solider and mother who takes a film crew with her to visit her son while on a very limited leave from Iraq.

Not everything works. Perhaps that’s OK when some scenes barely last a minute. But I also felt that at times, Ullman is approaching the work more as an actress and a performance artist than as a comedian. Translation: Few big laughs. Even watching the first two episodes with my parents, who were fans of Ullman’s previous TV offerings, elicited only a few audible laughs. They still like her, calling her unique and talented. But funny? Then I saw this TV Guide interview with Ullman, and I began to understand it better.

TVGuide.com: Who are your greatest influences?
Ullman:

Peter Sellers. I’m not a stand-up comedian — I don’t tell jokes. But I
really like incredible character actors like Sellers, who would just
get into characters and see the endearing, sad side of people. He
wasn’t just trying to do funny, on-the-surface impersonations, but also
to get into a character. I also used to watch The Carol Burnett Show,
and she’s an extraordinary actress. She was always real. Even though
that show is wacky and zany, she is just so true. People who can really
become someone else I find very exciting.

After the jump, another video from the program, plus a full list of all the characters Tracey Ullman takes on, so to speak, in Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union.

Video: Behind the Scenes

The 39 characters Tracey Ullman portrays in her 2008 Showtime program, Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union, in order of appearance:
1) Undocumented worker from Bangladesh
2) Marion Churchill, Jamaican caregiver
3) Buffalo morning TV anchor Linda Alvarez
4) North Carolina farmer’s wife Lacey Harris
5) Laurie David
6) Arianna Huffington
7) Nancy Pelosi
8) Irma Billings, a Nebraskan who tells it like it is
9) Padma Perkesh, a Bollywood-loving pharmacist in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
10) Tony Sirico
11) Texas death row wife Gretchen Pincus
12) Rita Cosby
13) David Beckham
14) Campbell Brown, as bearer of bad news
15) Investment banker and adulterer Sally Knox
16) Dina Lohan

Episode 2
17) Homeless hospital patient
18) Chanel Monticello, sassy TSA agent
19) Sgt. Lisa Penning, back in Macon, Ga., on a half-day leave from Iraq
20) Renee Zellweger

Episode 3
21) Mother Superior Rose Pennitella from Pennsylvania
22) Ohio yoga master and public access host Chandra Perkette
23) Rosa Batista, Arianna Huffington’s housekeeper
24) Malawi star Ozma Kassim(sp?) actress who adopts an American child
25) Cheryl Lynn O’Dale, a Colorado Episcopalian partaking in a "walk a mile in their shoes" experiment
26) Dame Judi Dench
27) Oklahoma WNBA coach Sandra Stevens

Episode 4
28) A forewoman at the Port of Long Beach, Calif.
29) A Jet Blue flight attendant stuck on the runway
30) Mary Ann LeFrak, pregnant in her 70s in Mississippi
31) Andy Rooney
32) Cameron Diaz
33) Annette Thomas, musical theater vet in Saint Paul, Minn.
34) Ronnie Rooney (Andy Rooney’s older brother)

Episode 5
35) Doris Basham, smuggling prescription drugs from Canada
36) U.N. translator for Vladimir Putin (Elaina Sharkovsky?)
37) Abby Melinda Harris, spokeswoman for "Dignity Village" in Arizona
38) Suzanne Somers, promoting a new product (the Vagisizer)
39) Helen Mirren