The Blue-Collar Backgrounds Behind a Blue-Collar Hit

Times Staff Writer

The couch and chairs are straight out of a Sears catalogue. The kitchen was modeled after an Indiana grandmother's. And husband Dan Conner's shirts all were sandpapered to show where his ubiquitous pencil-in-the-breastpocket would wear them out.

"The details are what make this show," explains Matt Williams, who until his ouster Jan. 6 was the executive producer, creator and chief writer of "Roseanne."

Let's face it. The average TV producer, writer or star living high on the hog in the Hollywood Hills doesn't know squat about blue-collar Midwest America. And even if they did know about it at one time, they've probably spent years just trying to forget.

But Williams, the son of an Evansville, Ind., assembly-line worker? Roseanne Barr, whose stand-up career was centered around her blue-collar comedy? Marcy Carsey, who, despite the fact that her production company (Carsey-Werner) has three shows in the Top 5 of the Nielsen ratings, is still the daughter of a Quincy, Mass., shipyard worker?

"A lot of us grew up in the same circumstances as the Conner family," Carsey says.

"I wasn't writing about 'those people we fly over,' " Williams notes. "If I hadn't gone to college on a football scholarship, I would have been a bricklayer."

Instead, Williams became an actor, director and playwright and wound up as a writer for "The Cosby Show" in September, 1984. After three seasons, he decided to "go off and do something on my own" and in mid-1987 pitched to Carsey and Tom Werner his concept for a new TV sitcom about three blue-collar working women.

"The idea originally was to take one married woman with kids, one divorced woman with a child and another woman who is single, put them in a factory in Indiana--because that's my background--and explore all the things they confront and how they survive, in almost every case because of their terrific sense of humor," Williams says.

What Williams didn't know was that Carsey and Werner had been wooing Roseanne Barr to do a series for them. "They said, 'We have someone we want to pitch to you. We think she has something to say about women in America. Here's her HBO special. Would you look at it?' "

In fact, Williams recalls, "I didn't know who Roseanne Barr was."

After watching the tape, however, the writer agreed that Barr not only was "very funny" but also had "something to say."

To get the characters and story lines just right, Williams went back to his Midwest roots to do research, visiting both Evansville, Ind., and Elgin, Ill., to create his fictional town of Lanford, Ill. He sat down with about 50 women and "listened to their concerns. And I realized that, my God, they're doing everything--raising kids, working full-time, keeping a house, supporting their other friends, dealing with family problems. And they did it with this stoic but fatalistic frame of mind of 'Well, hell, it can't get any worse. So what are you going to do but laugh?' "

Barr had "a lot of input" in shaping her character, Williams emphasizes. "I lay no claim to her character. That is the character she developed in her stand-up routines, and I wanted everything I could get from her about it."

Also, he says, "what Roseanne brought to the mix that I didn't was the strong feminist point of view."

At Barr's suggestion, Williams made the focus of the show a working woman with three children--two girls and a boy, "just like her real-life family." Barr also made it clear to the producers and writers that "she didn't want her character to be mean, or to be a bad mother," Williams says. "We all wanted to show a realistic mom. But it was going to be more Roseanne's responsibility than mine to decide how much of an edge to keep on the character."

The casting of John Goodman as Barr's TV husband was almost immediate. "We did a search but we had seen his work in various movies and on stage and we suspected that he would be perfect for the role," Carsey recalls. "And when Roseanne and John got together in a room for a little informal reading together, it was beautifully clear that he was everything that we could possibly have hoped for."

Williams knew from the outset how he wanted the set to look: "Worn and lived in. Nothing should look new." He even sent the set designer to his grandmother's house in order to model "Roseanne's" kitchen after hers, down to the louvered windows above the sink. And the couch and chairs in the living room were bought out of the Sears catalogue.

Together, Williams and production designer Garvin Eddy opened up the boxy set that most sitcoms employ so that directors could simultaneously shoot someone standing at the stove, someone sitting in the living room and someone going to the front door.

"I said, 'Let's invite the audience to come in and sit around the table.' That way it feels real because the whole point is that life in a household is continuous and rambunctious," Williams says.

Williams found that "Roseanne" was a tougher show to write than "Cosby" "because you're dealing with real life and you still want to be interesting and still be funny and still have an edge." But he also learned from "Cosby" that the ingredient for a successful TV show could be summed up in a single word: "Identification."

"I took many things away from 'Cosby,' but I always remembered Bill saying he wanted the people at home to ask, 'How did you get inside my house?' It's when they sit at home and go, 'Boy, that's exactly what my kids do,' or 'that's exactly how I feel' or 'that's exactly what my husband says.' And I don't care if they're astronauts in outer space, or they're construction workers in Elgin, Ill., the viewers have to identify with the characters."

Williams instigated what he calls "playwriting rules": Don't say it; play it. Embody it. Show it in character, relationship and action. He wanted to avoid "typical" TV writing because "the greatest curse of working in television is television," he concedes. "I personally never watch it."

That's why "Roseanne" does not have that predictable sitcom rhythm--"the set-up, set-up, slam! " as he calls it. And why its humor focuses on the "little things that people find funny when they're sitting around the kitchen table and arguing about who leaves the crumbs on the butter. When you start locking into the characters foibles and obsessions, then the humor becomes character-oriented rather than joke-oriented."

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