Roseanne: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

A new special? Oh, this should be good.
Roseanne: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Roseanne is back -- again.  After getting the boot from the revival of a show that bore her name in 2018, Roseanne has been laying low, at least when it comes to mainstream media.  That’s about to change with A Roseanne Comedy Special set to air early next year on streaming service Fox Nation. We’re pulling for the volatile comedian to actually get this baby on the air (no sure thing given recent behavior). Fox Nation is promising a show that will “feature Ms. Barr’s signature comedic take on a variety of topics, with no subject off limits.”  This … should be good.

Broadway Video

Before she tweets something bonkers and kills the whole deal (we put the special’s chances of making it to air at about 50/50), let’s take a moment to revisit Roseanne’s turbulent comedy career: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good: Domestic Goddess

From her first Tonight Show appearance in 1985, Roseanne Barr was a star.  That’s an even bigger deal than it sounds -- at the time, she was the first female stand-up comic to break through on a national scale since Joan Rivers.  She was immediately booked for more Carson appearances, landed an HBO special, and got her own sitcom less than three years later.  No one had seen anything like Roseanne.

“I was fascinated by her,” says comic Allan Stephan in We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy. “I thought she was very original. And her closing joke was ‘A lot of people say I’m not feminine. Well, they can suck my dick.’ And I said, ‘Wow, I have to meet this woman.’”

That Tonight Show appearance really broke things open, says Mark Lonow, co-owner of the Improv. “When she became the domestic goddess, that was a big, big statement, and that was a definitive moment. It was like when Rodney came up with ‘I don’t get no respect.’” 

Who was the Domestic Goddess? “She (represented) women telling their husband to shut the f—— up,” said comic Louie Anderson. “Phyllis Diller was not interested in any social commentary. There’s social commentary written all over Roseanne.  She’s completely authentic.”

Audiences, especially women, related to a persona rarely before seen on the stand-up stage. The Domestic Goddess character was a natural for situation comedy. 

The Good: Roseanne (the TV show)

But prior to airing, Roseanne was no slam dunk. In the mid-1980s, the sitcom model was The Cosby Show, with its well-dressed characters living in an upscale brownstone.  Was America ready for average-looking shlubs in a filthy house full of dirty dishes? Cosby was aspirational, a vision of how people hoped to live. Roseanne showed people as they really were. 

“It was a real show with real people and not all pretty and lovely and handsome and everybody’s hair done,” says Brandon Stoddard, then president of ABC Entertainment.  “It was the real dilemma of a working woman juggling five different roles and really having a very difficult time doing it.” 

Stu Bloomberg, ABC’s vice president of comedy development, was down for it. “It was very blue-collar, and yet really smart,” he says. “You didn’t see that person on TV. As soon as they pitched the idea and talked about Roseanne, it was a no-brainer to me.”

America was down as well.  Roseanne took over as TV’s highest-rated show (ironically seizing the title from The Cosby Show) by December 1988.  To celebrate, ABC sent her a huge chocolate bar in the shape of the number 1.  “A big piece of chocolate, like a fat girl would be real happy with. I’m like, ‘Are you s—tin’ me?’ Roseanne told Entertainment Weekly.  “George Clooney (who played Jackie’s love interest) took a baseball bat to it.” 

Which leads us to …

The Bad: Behind the scenes of Roseanne (the TV show)

Success can go to people’s heads, but life on Roseanne got contentious even faster than usual.  “I think Roseanne started screaming quite early,” remembers Stoddard. “In general they are not screaming in year one.” 

The big issue early on was over who created Roseanne.  The show's producers, Carsey-Warner, and head writer, Matt Williams, contended they took Roseanne’s stand-up persona and crafted an entire universe around it.  Roseanne saw it differently, and she was incensed that Williams got the “created by” credit. She gave him the boot after only 15 episodes.

Williams’ replacement, Jeff Harris, barely lasted a season.  On his way out the door, he took out a full-page ad in Variety:  “I have chosen not to return to the show next season. Instead, my wife and I have decided to share a vacation in the relative peace and quiet of Beirut.” 

Then there were the writers.  “There was sexist and offensive and stupid stuff in the script all the time,” says Roseanne. “And I changed it, ’cause I was able to write. I’m pretty damn good at writing a joke.”

In case the rotating writers (they were regularly fired) had any question about who was in charge, Roseanne and Tom Arnold issued numbered t-shirts to each of the show’s 19 staff writers so she could refer to them by digit.  One of the show’s producers, Jay Daniel, tried to pass it off as a light-hearted joke, intended “to make everyone feel welcome and at home.”

Er, no.  Barr herself revealed what she was really up to: “I wanted to strip them of their huge, colossal self-entitlement. ‘Hey, you’re just a cog in the wheel here! It’s not about you.’ I think they learned something from it.”  Yikes!

Staffers were constantly in the crosshairs. According to Stealing the Show, a producer told the wardrobe department to ignore Barr's requests for different costuming choices. Barr confronted the producer with a pair of scissors.  "B--tch, do you want me to cut you?"

The Bad: The Star Spangled Banner

We’ll let this crotch-grabbing performance speak for itself.

WARNING - Graphic discussion of racism to follow.

The Ugly:  Twitterstorm

Roseanne made an improbable comeback in the late 2010s, with most of the original cast reassembling for the show. The fictional Roseanne, like the real one, had gone from left-wing provocateur to full-blown Trump fan. That didn’t seem to bother viewers all that much -- the reboot was the highest-rated new show of 2018. Then came the tweets.

ABC News

Supposedly doped up on Ambien when she dropped this beauty, Roseanne tweeted that Obama senior advisor Valerie Jarrett was the offspring of Muslims and the Planet of the Apes. Jarrett is Black. This did not go well.  

Despite a hasty apology, Roseanne was fired the following day.  Soon after, ABC announced a spin-off of the reboot, The Connors, carefully noting that Roseanne would have no financial or creative involvement.”  One episode in, the fictional Roseanne was killed off, the victim of an opioid overdose. 

In reality, her social media presence killed her career.  But that didn’t stop her from shooting off incendiary posts after she was fired. Distrusting TV interviews, she took to YouTube, shouting an explanation for her offensive tweet, an obscenity-laden diatribe insisting she thought Jarrett was white. Hoo boy.

More videos and tweets followed, insisting that the real reason she lost her job was that she voted for Trump.  It’s the kind of persecution complex that her candidate of choice might embrace.  Her kids actually changed her Twitter password when she wasn’t around, trying to stop her amplification of Pizzagate, anti-Muslim memes, and other conspiracy theories one finds on the fringes of the Internet.  She posted a video calling AOC a “Farrakhan-loving . . . bug-eyed bitch.”  If you want more, Roseanne has provided plenty on her social feeds.

But that hasn’t stopped Fox Nation from giving her one more shot.  We’re eager to see what Roseanne serves up on her new comedy special. It might be combustible, and it might cost her some more Hollywood friends, but whatever it is, it likely won’t be boring.

For more ComedyNerd, be sure to check out:

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Dark Humor Comedians For Tonight

Why Do So Many Huge Comedians Refuse to Be Funny on Twitter?

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