Racism is never funny. Making fun of racists often is. Suffice to say there’s plenty to cry and laugh about right now. The show “Roseanne” did both.
But the rebooted comedy, which was the highest-rated and most watched “new” series of the 2017-18 season, was canceled Tuesday after a racist tweet by Roseanne Barr in which she proved to be far more repugnant than the designed-to-be-repugnant character she played on TV.
Roseanne Conner, the central figure that the now-canceled ABC sitcom revolved around, was a bigoted conspiracy theorist whose narrow-minded views triggered the better instincts of those around her, i.e. her family and the few friends she hadn’t already alienated. “Roseanne’s” wise-cracking matriarch was infuriating but necessary in an entertainment industry whose noble push to diversify has often meant painting a more integrated and tolerant world than the one we live in.
The problem is the other Roseanne.
Barr, the creator and star of the ABC sitcom, is also a bigoted conspiracy theorist whose narrow-minded views triggered the better instincts of those around her — in this case, ABC executives who canceled “Roseanne” after the blowback over Barr’s racist tweet.
The reaction to her tweet, in which she described President Obama’s advisor Valerie Jarrett using references to “Planet of the Apes” and the Muslim Brotherhood, was swift and decisive. Within a matter of hours, Barr went from TV’s greatest comeback story to its latest disgrace (and there’s a lot of competition there).
Network President Channing Dungey said the social media post was “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values…” when she announced that the show had been canceled.
Writer and comedian Wanda Sykes, whose work as a consulting producer helped make “Roseanne” a contentious, smart and funny tightrope walk over blue- and red-state debates, announced she was leaving before ABC had a chance to cancel the show.
Boycotts of the show had been called for on Twitter before it even premiered in March due to Barr’s politics. Part of the outcry was partisan: She had voted for Donald Trump, as did her character on the show, and stood by her decision even when he made comments about immigrants that rattled the rest of Hollywood. But controversy is where Barr has always been most comfortable. She ruffled the feathers of the Moral Majority in the 1980s with her domestic goddess routine (which was embodied in “Roseanne”), flew in the face of 1990’s patriotism when she mangled the national anthem and rolled in the mud with Obama-era conspiracy theorists on social media.
It seemed her time had finally come around again when she received shout-outs across Twitter from POTUS himself.
Yet Twitter, which has proved so instrumental in Trump’s efforts to rally his base in places like the Conners’ fictional Illinois hometown of Lanford, and the platform where he’s been celebrated by at least one mainstream news network for expressing views similar to those of both Roseannes, is now the source of Barr’s demise. And her ratings were higher than his!
Her social media racial slur, and her other weird tweet about Chelsea Clinton that was so divorced from reality that it could have been transmitted to her through a tin foil hat, represent the low-hanging fruit that “Roseanne” would poke, prod, explore and make fun of. Then, of course, everyone on the show would come to their senses.
When the fictional Roseanne talked about her Muslim neighbors in a string of Xenophobic buzz words, it was offensive and stupid — and that was the point. She was challenged by sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), who had her own knee-jerk reactions based on knee-jerk PC-isms. Between them, they unpacked some ugly and painful truths about modern America in the controlled space of a 22-minute comedy series.
But that was the show. Barr apparently wasn’t in on the joke, or perhaps didn’t realize that her character’s bad behavior was the joke. It’s too bad, because it was one show that was willing to go backward to push forward.
Roseanne Conner, as many have observed, was a modern-day Archie Bunker, whose political leanings and social beliefs ran counter to those who gave rise to series like “black-ish” (a show that was bashed on her show) or even the “Will & Grace” reboot. She was an anomaly; a character who on other present-day series would have been written in as the nut-bag neighbor or obnoxious coworker, not the show’s namesake.
Roseanne Conner’s perspective, culled from “alternative” news sources, was pitted against that of her liberal sibling, and challenged by the presence of a gender-fluid grandson, an African American granddaughter, the scary neighbors from “I-RACK” and the rest of the 21st century. She was exasperating, but a necessary and often funny irritant, reminding an entertainment industry situated on the coasts that representation isn’t always pretty.
Sara Gilbert, who not only played Roseanne Conner’s daughter Darlene but also was instrumental in pulling the show back together after it went off the air 22 years ago, also tweeted Tuesday.
“This is incredibly sad and difficult for all of us, as we’ve created a show that we believe in, are proud of, and that audiences love — one that is separate and apart from the opinions and words of one cast member.”