Roseanne’s Profound Ingratitude
As anyone with Internet access or a television has probably learned by now, Roseanne Barr’s red-hot revival—which was the lynchpin of ABC’s 2018-19 upfronts with untold mega-millions in pre-sold ad billings and the number three show of the last season—was summarily canceled after she made a particularly outrageous (and since deleted) tweet calling former Obama senior aide Valerie Jarrett the love child of “Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes.”
My thoughts on the revival’s launch are here (and Rod Dreher’s here), But they hardly do justice by themselves to this latest episode, which was both entirely predictable (that Roseanne, in her current and well-documented social media mental state, would finally cross an unforgivable boundary and melt down), and was also the one plot twist that ABC bet next year’s house on not happening.
Roseanne could have been (and at its best sometimes was) an important, high-quality look at Trump-era America from all sides, not just Roseanne Connor’s. Thanks in part to a resurgent hard left, we have arrived at a stage where the failure to be politically correct is often regarded as one and the same as white supremacy, and where someone like Roseanne, who unapologetically supported Trump, can be considered a torch-bearing racist for that reason alone.
What is truly deplorable is that Roseanne proved them right by her very own words. As one Twitterista I happened to see among the social media dump over the past two days said (I’m paraphrasing): Roseanne Barr had a colossal comeback, the number three show in television, and zillions in profits—and all she had to do was NOT call a prominent black woman an ape on social media. She couldn’t even do that.
Perhaps the best explanation of Roseanne’s world came when she wrote, in her own words (and with considerably more self-awareness and lucidity than her Trump-era Twitter feed), a mini-memoir of her show for New York magazine in 2011.
While “both sides” has become a snarkadelic weasel phrase in today’s ongoing cultural meltdown, there truly are two valid sides to Roseanne’s story as told in 2011. On the one hand, Roseanne was right. No doubt a lot of her treatment was sexist and classist, including the undisguised disdain that the writers and producers whose job it was to serve her show felt for her as a person.
On the other hand, maybe the Roseanne Barr of 1988-89 simply hadn’t earned the deference and respect that a legitimately trained actor or actress, or a decades-established and proven comedian (like, say, Joan Rivers, Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett, or David Letterman) had. When a star automatically thinks the worst of her writers and producers, refuses to cooperate, throws tantrums, and isn’t shy about letting them know she thinks they’re nothing but a bunch of misogynist no-talent douchebags (including some of the women), maybe those writers and directors will angrily pay her back.
And maybe there were other equally talented and funny comedians—including female ones and people of color—who would have cut off their left arms for the eight-figure paychecks, top ten ratings, and Hollywood clout that Roseanne arrogantly took for granted the second she signed her first ABC contract.
It is this profound ingratitude and unprofessionalism that is the great Achilles heel to Roseanne’s often hilarious, groundbreaking, and sometimes brilliant career. Just an hour after I was commissioned to write this article, I was having breakfast in Las Vegas with two friends—a brilliant New York writer and longtime colleague, and his friend, a talented and accomplished composer and conductor. Inevitably, the subject of Broadway musicals and musical comedies came up. I asked what happened when there was a conflict between a show’s director and an equally clout-wielding name star, especially if the star wanted to take a musical number in a new or different direction. Which side did the conductor or musical director have to take?
The answer the composer gave me cut to the heart of Roseanne’s behavior. He told me that when you have a true professional, a Meryl Streep or Patti Lu Pone, as difficult and demanding as they may be, these things are all worked out in advance. Likewise, directors and stars on feature films also fight, but sooner or later something (or someone) has to give in order to get to the final cut.
Roseanne’s utter inability to do this, underlined by her racist and conspiracy-minded beliefs, is what brought her down. There’s a difference between an 11-year-old in his gym clothes honking on his trumpet or doing riffs on his guitar, and a Jimi Hendrix or a Randy Brecker playing a red-hot solo. You have to know what the rules are in order to break them. Childish though she may have been at times, Roseanne certainly wasn’t a child barely learning her talent—on the comedy club stage she was a pro who could knock ‘em dead. But you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out why Roseanne has almost never been the star of anything that didn’t have her name on it. (A notable exception that proves the rule being her hilarious study in contrasts with Meryl Streep way back in 1989’s She-Devil.)
Roseanne could only work in an environment where she was the one indispensable figure, where she literally could not be fired or punished without the network or studio losing everything (and it could only be HER show). Note how almost every other cast member of the original series went on to top-level success—Laurie Metcalf returning to the stage and deservedly nabbing an Oscar nom for Lady Bird, John Goodman in innumerable feature films, and Sara Gilbert co-hosting The Talk every day on CBS.
Former Roseanne showrunner Chuck Lorre didn’t extend his (very much reciprocated) hate-on for Roseanne’s star to her cast mates, giving Johnny Galecki the co-lead (and mega-millions in salary and royalties) on The Big Bang Theory, along with recurring guest spots for Metcalf and Gilbert.
As one perceptive commenter to my previous article noted, people can talk about “white privilege” all they want to, but one of the biggest cultural themes of the past decade was the comparative and profound loss of the “center” place that straight white people had in mainstream culture. When Beyonce insists on all-black marching bands and overwhelmingly black or Latina female musicians and dancers, when Meghan Markle has a gospel choir and a black preacher officiate her royal wedding, when movies and TV shows like Precious, For Colored Girls, 12 Years a Slave, The Help, Moonlight, Empire, and Blackish rule the roost, when gays get married and trans teens hit the showers and Obama wins the two biggest landslides since Reagan-Bush—the message is clear. You’re welcome to join us, but we don’t need you anymore. We’re driving the bus. It’s our turn now.
Now combine that with the erasure of white working class movie and TV stories during the worst of the Great Recession. (How many Norma Raes, Karen Silkwoods, or Erin Brockoviches did you see compared to The Wolf of Wall Street, The Social Network, Up in the Air, Too Big to Fail, Wall Street II, and comic book blow-em-ups?)
Roseanne’s revival could have—and almost did—provoke a necessary if messy and painful “national conversation” about all this and more. But while most of Roseanne’s white and economically struggling viewers do not have anywhere near the “privilege” they are accused of having, Roseanne Barr certainly did have privilege, and she never failed to push the limits of it. It was the same privilege that Howard Hughes, Courtney Love, and (until recently) Harvey Weinstein and Roseanne’s fellow 80s comedy icon Bill Cosby had: the privilege to destroy other people’s lives for no good reason and/or to act straight-up crazy in public, without having to face even half the consequences that you or I would if we behaved even a tenth as badly.
That explains why Roseanne did what she did. She was used to being insulated from consequences, and up until this week she was rewarded for “trolling” her adversaries, in much the same way that people from Bill Maher, Jimmy Dore, and Michael Moore, to Rush Limbaugh, Steve Bannon, and, yes, President Trump have been. She got attention (whether it was positive or negative was beside the point) and a Norma Desmond-level comeback. Why shouldn’t I push the limit?
Roseanne can be deplored or pitied, depending on your level of forgiveness and charity. The careers of the people (many of them young and no doubt multi-racial, including established women producers like comedienne Whitney Cummings) who got jobs on her show in the desperately competitive piranha pool that is Hollywood didn’t deserve to lose them. And her record-breaking audience was counting on her to be back for more. But Roseanne had her chance—and another one, and another one. And she blew it. As her last reality show said all too accurately, Roseanne’s Nuts. And at the end of the day, that’s all she wrote.
Telly Davidson is the author of a new book, Culture War: How the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”