Roseanne, Seriously : Love-Hate Relationship With TV Viewers Fuels ABC's Top Comedian


Roseanne Barr, serious and businesslike, settles into a couch in her suite in an elegant Westside hotel. It's temporary quarters while she and her husband, comedy writer Tom Arnold, wait to move into their new house nearby.

It has been a good day. The national television ratings have come in, and Barr's ABC series, "Roseanne," ranks No. 3 among all shows for last week. More than 30 million people tuned in.

Barr and Arnold, meanwhile, have just returned to the suite after buying a motorcycle. "We got one so I can drive her around," says Arnold. "We rode it around the block." Then he departs for most of the next hour, leaving Barr to speak for herself.

In two explosive years on ABC, Barr has become an extraordinarily controversial show business phenomenon--the most popular woman performer on TV and, at the same time, a public figure with a remarkable knack for getting into hot water. The image has worried ABC and her producers because of the high financial stakes involved in "Roseanne."

Barr acknowledges the image problem and seems intent on doing something about it.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Times, she gave her views on the backstage furor surrounding her show, the firings she demanded, Hollywood's snub of her at the Emmy Awards, her sometimes risque public behavior and the controversy provoked by her screeching rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner" at a San Diego Padres baseball double-header.

She also admitted to her now-legendary outbursts of temper when she felt things were going wrong during the production of her half-hour series:

"I have a really long fuse. But once it's gone, everybody's outta there. And I have to learn to not do that."

Barr says it is only since the arrival of ABC Entertainment President Bob Iger that she is back on working terms with the Carsey-Werner company, which produces "Roseanne." Tension had set in when the series' creator, Matt Williams, was fired because he and Barr could not agree on the direction of the show. Williams now is executive producer of Carol Burnett's NBC series, "Carol & Company."

Iger, says Barr, "really was for me, and he understood what I was doing. He helped me a lot. He was the first person that really listened to me and heard what I was saying and felt I was right--about everything on the show. I am really grateful to him.

"I feel that things are cleared up as well as they're gonna be. I have a working relationship now with my producers, Carsey-Werner, which I didn't have since Matt was fired."

Above all, Barr is proud of "Roseanne," a blue-collar comedy in which she plays a married, working mother. It gives her a weekly forum to continue her stand-up comedy thrust of looking at the world through a woman's eyes.

"I think people get it--what I'm saying and doing in the show. I don't think the press gets it," says Barr. "The people get that it's really anti-glamour. It's really anti-everything that the media tries to shove down our throats. It's not about all the traditional things that TV or entertainment is supposed to be about.

"I wanted to fly in the face of all traditional expectations about television, women, gender, class. More than anything, I wanted it to be about the class system, class distinctions. And I wanted to explode the traditional media image of a woman. And family. And work. Everything that the show is hasn't been on TV before.

"TV is kind of like a mirror that they hold up to our civilization, but it reflects the opposite of the truth. If it was close to the truth, we'd be able to swear and go around in our underwear, which I really think would be perfect TV."

Barr, who offers a comedy concert tonight at the Universal Amphitheatre, knows that both she and "Roseanne"--which is clearly an extension of herself--divide people into pro and con camps. Why does she think she has that effect?

"Well, because I think the show is two opposite things at once. Somebody called it savage and loving. I like that description. That's what human beings are. That's what I am. I wanted to show a three-dimensional woman on television, and three-dimensional people are at once savage and loving, and at once very intellectual and very base. So that's what's in my head.

"Some people just see crude, and some people see the intelligence, and some people are really cool and see both of them."

Barr's detractors might regard as crude her public baring of her now-famous tattoo, but she says of her impulsive act: "Who cares?"

Why, she wants to know, is the showing of the tattoo "such a big deal"? But she does have misgivings about some of the intimate quotes about her personal life that have wound up in print:

"Sometimes I just get carried away if I sit with somebody for too long. I'm a real open person anyway. But I've learned not to do four-hour interviews because that's what happens. You become friendly. Then you forget you're talking to everyone in the world and you think you're just talking to this one person."

She says she was "very embarrassed" at some of the vivid personal revelations she gave People magazine. But she's nonplussed at the attention paid to her rather open displays of affection with Arnold in public, which has resulted in more colorful coverage: "I guess for a while I didn't think it would be picked up. I watch it more now, but I just never could believe that people cared."

Barr's recent ratings on "Roseanne"--which had slumped a bit--prove that she has survived all the flack in pretty solid shape, but she says that those who put on the series "always had concern" about her image.

"Like, after I showed my tattoo," she recalls, "they said it was going to hurt the show. After the People magazine thing, they said it was going to affect my ratings. The 'Star-Spangled Banner' isn't the first time that they all said that I was self-destructing or that the show was going to go down."

Of last summer's uproar over the national anthem, when she spat on the ground and grabbed her crotch--mimicking the actions of ballplayers--she says:

"I apologized for anyone being offended. When the President says your act sucks, that's pretty much taking a beating. But I know there's been fallout from it. I think most people that like me got what I did. But I know that people who didn't like me before really don't like me now."

Barr is not popular with the Hollywood Establishment, either, and she knows it. Despite the enormous success of "Roseanne," for which she is principally responsible, she has yet to be nominated for an Emmy. Is she upset?

"The first year it really bothered me. The first year it really hurt, because I didn't understand. But after that, I didn't care anymore because I found out that you nominate yourself and you have to pay a certain amount of money, and then it just seemed all phony. It seemed like just another infrastructure, self-congratulatory thing."

(An Emmy Awards official says that entrants who submit their work to be considered for nominations must pay a small fee, although there is no charge for first-time candidates who are members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.)

Barr says she understands that the awards are "for television and everything, but I kind of felt it was a compliment after the second year that I never got nominated. I mean, of course I'd rather have everybody like me, but I care more that the viewers like the show than I do about awards."

Does Barr think the Emmy snubbing was personal?

"Yeah. The first year I do because there was also this controversy because I fired Matt. And I didn't do any interviews for like a year after Matt was fired. That was the thing that started me having bad feelings about the press because when I did speak, they would never give my side."

Barr concedes that she was coming across like a heavy: "Yeah. And that really bothered me." But she says she was advised that "if I didn't say anything, it would die down. So I let it go a really long time, so that this image took on a life of its own. It became like an avalanche. And I wish I had stopped it sooner because when I did speak out about it, it was too late."

But Williams wasn't the only person bounced by Barr. Jeff Harris soon was gone as executive producer. Others departed. Stories circulated of a nightmarish atmosphere behind the scenes on "Roseanne." Barr, however, maintains that everything stemmed from her not getting the best deal or protection in the first place: "Everything is that simple. I would keep getting lawyers and people that tried to get things better and better, and in fact nothing worked.

"I made a lot of mistakes in people I trusted. But that's just the Hollywood story, and that's just what happened to me."

But what about Barr's part in the scenario? Isn't she also pretty difficult?

"Yeah, I probably was difficult to work with, now looking back," she says. "I had a very tough time making myself clear because I didn't speak corporate-speak and I didn't speak show business. There's a whole language called show business. You don't talk that way in any other state in the union.

"I don't think I was as especially clear as I could have been. It's like being a woman and an administrator--I never had any background like that. I didn't know how, like I do now, to go in and say, 'This is what I want you to do.' I think that's common with women in business. I would go in there and try to get them to agree with me rather than tell them what I want to do.

"I just let things build up and build up and build up until I'd blow. I think I took too much (stuff) for too long and then blew up. Now I realize that my responsibility is to not let that happen again. When you get screwed over--and I got screwed over a lot--you get maybe a little too paranoid. Now, I still will have blowups, but the people working on the show, and Bob Iger, they'll listen to me, so I don't get so frustrated.

"I want to have people I trust that go, 'You're wrong here, you don't see it right,' instead of, 'Well, if you had any . . . talent. . . .' And I did deal with people who were talking to me that way."

Will Hollywood and the rebel Barr ever find common ground? She's been free with her critical views of the town.

"Well, I'm a comedian," she says, adding in her trademark dry, flat delivery, "I'm not gonna go and get real grateful. It's part of my act. Of course I would say things like, 'Thanks for the money--I hate the town.' "

But does she mean it?

"Yeah, in a way. But I've said that what disgusts me also attracts me here because I really do think it's cool that, considering what I came out of, I'm allowed to speak and work on projects that hopefully have something good to say. But I'm really a reclusive person. That's why I don't go to Hollywood things. It's not that I hate anybody. I feel a real difference between myself and other people. I just don't mix well."

Barr says she's quite serious about her publicized desire to move her series to Minneapolis in several years--and not, she adds, just to get away from the tabloid reporters with whom she has a running feud:

"I just like it in Minneapolis. That's where I met Tom, and we have friends there. We're Midwestern people. It's a slower pace, a little less hectic. And I miss seasons. And I miss the Midwestern-type people. I get too tense here."

Does that perhaps contribute to her blowups?

"Yeah, maybe it does. I'm in a real high-pressure business, and all the pressure's on me. I don't suppose the pressures of that would be any less in Minnesota. But at least if I got in my car and wanted to go drive somewhere to blow it off, I wouldn't be going three miles an hour on the dead-stop freeway."

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