What Happened to Roseanne Barr
ABC had all the information. The network chose to place that information aside and hope for the best.
In a better than anyone even anticipated result, the Roseanne reboot dominated prime time on arrival, attracting millions of appreciative, nostalgic and downright curious viewers. Enthusiasts waxed rhapsodic about an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump beating liberal Hollywood at its own game. The commander in chief even personally congratulated Roseanne Barr on her ratings, which remain the former Apprentice host’s benchmark for success. ABC quickly renewed the show for a second season.
All Barr had to do was not tweet. Or at least not tweet something that, as a pioneering stand up comedian and sitcom star as a 65 year old woman knew darn well was an unequivocally racist remark. She failed. But not at making a “joke,” as she claims comparing Obama aide Valerie Jarrett to the spawn of the Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes was supposed to be.
And so ABC’s risky gambit blew up in its face Tuesday. Its biggest scripted hit of the season imploded, torpedoed by the titular star whose unarguably galvanizing presence provided the wind in Roseanne’s lofty sails, until her lack of self control sank the whole enterprise.
Despite a tweet about leaving Twitter before ABC Entertainment Group President Channing Dungey declared Roseanne officially canceled, Barr was back at it Tuesday night and all day Wednesday, at first telling supporters not to defend her because she did something “unforgiveable,” but also retweeting supporters (seemingly all of whom had very strong “conservative” leanings) who were all too happy to bash the so called intolerant left. She also insisted she’s not racist, but rather was just acting like an “idiot” on Ambien. She also denied she was blaming Ambien, instructing someone who implied as much to “stop lying.”
To which Ambien maker Sanofi replied, “People of all races, religions and nationalities work at Sanofi every day to improve the lives of people around the world. While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”
Peeking into someone’s medicine cabinet can be revealing. Being an “idiot” under the influence of a sleep aid may well be an “explanation not an excuse,” as Barr tweeted. Yet being exhausted or feeling a little loopy just means that stuff you’d in all likelihood still come up with while clear headed and on eight hours’ rest has found an easier route out of your brain.
And in so doing, she explained it all.
So that begs the question: What the hell happened to Roseanne Barr?
The answer is, a lot of things happened to her. She’s had an incredibly fascinating life, and her entr into the comedy world and what she managed to achieve meant a lot, to a lot of people. It still does, and probably still will in the future, though it will never be the same.
And now she means all new things to certain people who are handily adopting her for their own agenda as they engage in a lopsided debate now taking place about free speech and a nonexistent double standard.
There was a point to Roseanne 2.0, important social commentary that was struggling to be heard (unlike with the 1988 ’97 go round, when it was heard loud and clear and widely applauded, especially in hindsight) above the noise over whether the show should exist in the first place. And amid the hype, there was enough likability left in Barr’s portrayal of Roseanne Conner that if you don’t agree with the star’s politics provided for some enjoyable, albeit conflicted, viewing.
We’ll never know if the rest of the cast would’ve been able to shake the “we’re back, wink” gloss that coated some of every episode had they returned for a second season. Barr, however, had slipped right back into her role like a comfortable slipper, a scenario that ultimately made far more sense to weary, wary audiences than the arc of her character in real life.
Roseanne Barr, when she got her start as a stand up comedian like so many other famous names have, recently departed Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore for giving her a boost like now, a tough, acid tongued woman with blue collar roots who’d been around and seen some stuff.
The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, she was born in Salt Lake City, where her parents kept their religion a secret to better fit in with the heavily Mormon community in their working class neighborhood. As she’s said in various interviews, her mother would freeze and make her kids hide in the basement when the doorbell rang, still traumatized by the horrors of the Holocaust.
“You weren’t supposed to think there,” Barr later told The Guardian about her stifling upbringing. “First of all it was frowned upon to be a girl, and second of all to be a fat, dark haired girl who had no waist, and third to be a loudmouthed, short, fat, dark girl.”
They divorced in 1990, but Pentland wrote the foreward to Barr’s 2011 book Roseannearchy: Dispatches From the Nut Farm, recalling that after about five years of traditional domesticity Barr “began to explore radical feminism and Wicca and went to work at a women’s collective bookstore, staffed by the angriest bunch of ball bustin’ babes” he had ever met in his life.
His “rad lib” sister in law Geraldine inspiration for Laurie Metcalf’s Jackie Conner living with them at the time, Pentland wrote, and she applauded Barr’s evolution.
Interestingly, Pentland also noted in the foreward that he didn’t think Sarah Palin would have been so Sarah Paliney “had there never been a Roseanne Conner.”
Starting in Denver comedy clubs, Barr built an act around her hardscrabble beginnings, armed with lots of opinions on the differences between men and women and the haves and have nots. As many comedians have said over the years, she counts her first ever five minutes on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, in 1985, as her true moment of arrival in Hollywood.
Three years later, Roseanne premiered on ABC in all its groundbreaking glory. The Conner family was solidly working class, not your average how do they afford that nice house family that people were far more used to seeing on a network comedy. The show dealt with economic hardship and the pain of unemployment, sexual harassment on the job, substance abuse and teen sex. Eventually the show had multiple gay characters, and in the 1994 episode “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (named after the unfortunate Clinton administration policy of the same name) Barr shared a kiss with guest star Mariel Hemingway.
“The religious right was very upset, and there were other upset people,” Hemingway recalled to The Hollywood Reporter in March. “When you’re doing something, you’re in it and you don’t realize the impact that it will have. But then, it was several weeks later, and they were about to air it, and it was so controversial.”
ABC almost didn’t air it, but Barr demanded they stay the course. And they did.
”I like playing a guy like this without making him a knuckle dragger,” John Goodman told the Washington Post when the show first premiered. You make each other laugh.”
Meanwhile, Barr’s life off screen was a tabloid fever dream.
## ## “This has been the hardest year I ever lived through,” she told People in 1989 as her sitcom’s second season got underway. “I lost my marriage, my children got very messed up. Then in a three month period I ended up with a new man, a new daughter, a new house. But I almost died. It was just so insane the behind the scenes s t around the show. That’s why I’ve never talked about it before. It was just too insane.”
She battled the network for the Roseanne credit she rightly felt she deserved, relaying on multiple occasions, including in her first memoir, Roseanne: My Life As a Woman, that it was a gut punch to see her show premiere and have the credits read “created by Matt Williams,” when the series’ entire premise was based on her life. That, of course, led to her being painted as difficult or otherwise demanding and diva like by the press. She admittedly did not get along with Williams, but there were also reports true, she said she was feuding with Goodman and Laurie Metcalf.
“When I threatened to quit, that’s when they fired Matt,” Barr said. “Or ‘removed him from the creative process,’ but he still has a ‘created by’ credit on the show. Two weeks after Matt left, the show went to No. 1.”