One Big Happy Family? : Why ‘Roseanne’s’ Creator Left Hit Show After Dispute With Its Star
The new TV series was going to be called “Life and Stuff,” or so its creator, head writer and co-executive producer, Matt Williams, thought.
He even put the title on the cover of the pilot script. “I wanted to establish it as an ensemble piece,” he recalls.
So when the star, Roseanne Barr, insisted that the sitcom should be named for her, Williams balked. The fear, he says, was that by calling the series “Roseanne,” it was going to be a star vehicle from the outset and put the comedian in too powerful a position to influence the show’s creative development.
In the end, Barr got her way. And Williams’ fear was borne out--ultimately at his expense.
That flap was just one of many that have plagued “Roseanne” during its first TV season, which is unusually early for any show to be so troubled, let alone one that jumped into the Top 5 of the Nielsen ratings so quickly.
More importantly, however, the situation at “Roseanne” spotlights what happens behind the scenes when producers, writers and actors battle for control over a series--a scenario that seems to be replaying itself more now than ever before.
In the last two years alone, Valerie Harper and Lorimar went to court over her removal from “Valerie”; creator and executive producer Glenn Gordon Caron was forced off “Moonlighting” because of wrangling with star Cybill Shepherd, and co-creator Terry Louise Fisher was ousted as a producer and writer on “L.A. Law” because of differences with executive producer Steven Bochco.
In the case of “Roseanne,” the owners of its production company, Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, resolved the ruckus by bowing to an ultimatum Barr delivered in December: that she would walk off the series after only 13 of the 22 episodes ordered for this season had been made unless Williams was thrown out. On Jan. 6, the Carsey-Werner Co. announced that Williams had “elected to move on” because of “creative tensions” with the comedian.
Carsey, whose company also produces the megahit “The Cosby Show” and its spinoff “A Different World,” declined in an interview this week to explain the reasons behind the decision.
“Matt is a fabulous talent, and Roseanne is a fabulous talent, and it would be wonderful if they got along famously, but it didn’t happen that way,” she said. “But I don’t want the subject of anyone’s interest in the show to be who is staying and who is going, and creative tensions and stuff like that. It’s wrong for us and it’s wrong for the show for that to be the focus of anyone’s attention.”
Williams, however, sees his ouster as “symptomatic of an industry disdain for writers in general. The feeling is that writing isn’t important, that what’s important is the star. And to me, that’s very, very sad,” he said in his only interview since his ouster.
“The problem was who was going to have the final say on stories, scripts and the overall thrust of the show. As the creator and executive producer, I automatically assumed, rightly or wrongly, that I would have the final say. And, obviously, Roseanne thought she had the final say. And that, in essence, was the central conflict.”
Barr, through a spokesman, declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article.
But others associated with “Roseanne” said in interviews that Carsey-Werner executives considered dumping her from the show last November because of the production problems she was causing, which included throwing temper tantrums, screaming at co-workers, locking herself in her dressing room, storming off the set and threatening on several occasions to quit.
Carsey denies this. Yet one Carsey-Werner associate explained at the time, “I don’t know that she’s indispensable.”
Looking back, one writer said that “the feeling among the writers and producers was that we (still) had a show with John Goodman (who plays Barr’s husband). But ultimately ABC owned the show and had the final say. And to them it was keep the star at all costs.”
Carsey says that Barr has not been difficult to work with this season. “Of course, she’s passionate about what she does and she cares very deeply about the character that she had created in her stand-up routines. And for whatever part of that she’s using in this show, she cares very deeply about that. After all, she spent years on it.”
Last week, ABC Entertainment President Brandon Stoddard acknowledged that he was “keeping an eye” on the turmoil at “Roseanne.” But he also noted that following Williams’ departure, “I think the problems have been resolved. . . . And I think things seem to be going along very well right now.”
Stoddard’s comments did not sit well with Williams, especially since ABC wants him to do another series. “The impression that’s been given by everyone involved is that I just quit. I did not just walk off the show. I reluctantly stepped aside,” said Williams, whose agent negotiated a sizable financial settlement for him--reportedly seven figures a year for several years--as well as a substantial interest in the series’ profits.
It’s not, Williams contends, that he didn’t want Barr’s input. After all, he readily admits that “the show truly was a collaboration with me, Marcy, Tom and Roseanne, a blending of ideas.”
But quickly, he said, the normal give-and-take that exists between the writers and the star, or the producers and the star, on prime-time series deteriorated into a day-in and day-out struggle for control over the tone, texture and content of every script.
“In a bizarre sort of way, it helped the show because you’re constantly challenging each other to back up your ideas,” he explained. “But ultimately it depends on how tense the creative tensions get as to whether you can function that way year in and year out. And it finally just got to the point where it was, ‘Are we going to have a series or not?’ ”
Williams maintains that he didn’t want to simply hand Barr the reins to “Roseanne,” “because I believe that for a TV series to run successfully, you need someone at the top who is objective and can stand back and maintain an overview of the entire series. And I think it’s very difficult, though not impossible, for an actor who is in the midst of working within that show to maintain that overview.”
Nevertheless, before the first airing of the series Barr publicly began to claim credit for what was good about the show and to blame everything that was bad on Williams. And, by December, at the height of the comedian’s power struggle with the series’ creator, Carsey-Werner was no longer offering reporters any interviews with Williams so as “not to upset Roseanne.”
“Matt was not to be either in the limelight or to be given credit for anything,” said one insider.
Rick Leed, vice president of the Agency for the Performing Arts and the talent agent for Williams and two of the show’s other writers, believe that Barr is typical of some stars “who by the nature of their personality don’t want to trust other people and who see the show only through their vision. And what they try to do is make everybody bend to their vision and they destroy the most important aspect of TV shows, which is collaboration.”
Williams tried to prevent that from happening, Leed said, but found little support. “Because, when a production company and a network have a hit show, and when the show is named ‘Roseanne,’ and when the star takes off in the media as the darling of this season’s television season, it became pretty clear the show was hers,” he explained.
Carsey, however, maintains that “it’s only natural to want Roseanne’s input as much as possible. Because you have to love the talent you’re using, and we do with Bill (Cosby) and we do here. You have to have a great admiration and respect for it. And therefore you incorporate it.”
Barr reportedly went to ABC and to Carsey-Werner even before her series had premiered and asked them to choose either her or Williams as boss. But both the network and the production company backed Williams.
Then, after eight episodes, Barr went back again, with no success. “And that’s when there was a major thrust by her to get Matt out at all costs because Matt was the one who had the final say,” according to one writer.
Then, just after the 13th episode was completed on Dec. 16, Barr reportedly told Carsey-Werner that her husband Bill was in the hospital and that she “didn’t know if she could continue the series because she was feeling a lot of stress,” said one insider.
At first, she didn’t mention Williams directly. “But then she said there would be ‘less stress’ if Williams was no longer with the show,” the source related.
And, for the first time, Williams said, hewas not included in the production company’s talks. By the end of the month, he was out.
Meanwhile, Barr has increasingly claimed credit for both the creation and the writing of the show. In October she told Newsweek that she wrote much of the pilot episode herself. One month later, she told Time magazine that she was rewriting scripts.
Williams, however, maintains that while Barr’s input has always been “unique” and “important,” especially in melding the “domestic Goddess” of her stand-up comedy routine with the blue-collar working mother she plays on the show, she has considerably overstated her writing contributions.
“We have a great staff of writers, the best I have ever worked with, who would stay there until 6 a.m. making the scripts right,” Williams said. “Roseanne obviously helped shape and form the show, but that staff writes the scripts.”
Insiders said it wasn’t always easy for the writers to know exactly what changes Barr wanted to make because she seemed to flip-flop from day to day and week to week. For instance, they said, the comedian would tell the writers she “didn’t want any jokes” in the scripts anymore, and then “complain why there weren’t any jokes.” Or she would accuse the writers of making her character “too mean” and then charge them the next day with writing scripts that didn’t give her “any kind of edge.”
For their part, some “Roseanne” employees complained that Barr often wouldn’t learn lines or memorize blocking. “I think she read somewhere that Jackie Gleason never rehearsed for ‘The Honeymooners,’ and so she didn’t want to, either,” said one staff member. “She had a preconceived notion of what it was to be a star but never what it was to be an actor. And there’s a big difference in terms of hard work and discipline.”
Carsey, however, describes Barr as “an amazingly quick study” as an actress. “We were amazed at how much she learned and how quickly she learned about what she didn’t know. And I think she’s just going to get more and more comfortable with the medium and with the format.”
Currently, insiders describe the mood on “Roseanne” as “very calm.”
Jeff Harris, whose TV credits include “Diff’rent Strokes,” was brought in as chief writer, and Williams smoothed over the transition by meeting with his hand-picked team of writers and persuading them to stay on the show at least until the end of the season.
As for Barr, neither her public image nor professional career seems hurt by the reports on her show’s turmoil. Journalists are still beating down her door for interviews, and she finally hired a PR agency last week. When she’s done on “Roseanne” in April, she begins shooting her first feature film, “She Devil,” in which she co-stars with Meryl Streep.
Plus, with a season of TV experience already under her belt, she will be in a stronger position than ever to call the shots on her series next year. Already, since Williams’ ouster, she finally has the rewrite power she has sought. “If she comes up with something, there’s now more inclusion of what she wants,” said one writer on the show.
Will the American public notice any difference? Even Williams says probably not, at least this season. “Maybe not until the second season will they really notice the difference, because a lot of the stories and what we had worked on are intact for the rest of the year. But people say that if you can keep a show in the Top 10 for one year, then it’s going to run five years just on that alone. Because it becomes a habit.”
For his part, Williams is more than ready to put “Roseanne” behind him as quickly as possible. “On the one hand, I’m relieved it’s over. On the other, I’ve still got that tug. It’ll be interesting to see what happens now that I’m gone. Right now, there’s a honeymoon period because ‘Matt’s out.’ And I know that will not last through the back nine.”
Already, he is dreaming up ideas for his next TV series because he believes he has “at least a couple more TV shows within me.
“I just want to be known for my work,” he said. “And I don’t want to be known as the guy that’s fighting with Roseanne Barr forever.