Life onstage with Roseanne Barr has always been a mixed bag, consisting of a few choice goodies mixed in with a hefty load of trash, and her HBO special, “Roseanne Barr Live From Trump Castle,” which airs tonight at 7 on HBO, offers little to change the ratio. That’s been her deliberate choice, it should be quickly noted, in one of the most intriguing careers in modern show business.
Barr has grown some in her ability to theatricalize herself since the early days of her stand-up career, when she stood like a lump onstage and meowed her complaint in a self-satisfied, indolent voice. A lot of her articulation is more forthright now (she even quotes Shakespeare with commendable clarity and expression), and with her hair softly styled and wearing a glitzy hot pink and silver-sequined dress, there are moments when she looks genuinely pretty, a cousin to the blown-up Delta Burke whose pictures we’ve been seeing in the gossip tabloids lately. She even arrives onstage in a Duesenberg chauffeured by none other than The Donald--Trump himself.
But aggressive amateurism has always been the hallmark of Barr’s routine, part as an expression of her peculiar Jekyl & Hyde personality, and part as the anti show-biz posture that has always been one of the principal sources of her appeal--and we see it here once again. Barr has become a celebrity in part by parodying celebrity; here she plays a show-biz diva who never fails to remind her audience that she’s playing a benefit. She sings parts of several songs in a style that ranges from clumsy to execrable; most of her jokes have good set-ups and dumb payoffs; her structure rarely gets beyond the rough-cut stage; and the flatness of her material is punched up by robust expletives--a general sign that a joke won’t carry on its own.
Still, dealing with Roseanne in all her coarseness is never a simple matter. She came along as an answer to the Reagan Administration-"Dynasty” years, an antithesis so complete that it extended to performance style itself. Glib smoothness and slick grace, to Roseanne and the audience that collected around her like a hungry constituency, seemed part of a larger hypocrisy, the acquired expression of a rich and famous caste that left the rest of us working stiffs outside looking in.
It isn’t only fat, lonely, unhappy women who see a champion in Roseanne, it’s the people who struggle to make ends meet, who’ve learned all the Hamburger Helper recipes, and don’t see their lives reflected in the media. It’s the same people who, a decade or so after Roseanne began her major career offensive, embraced Bart Simpson.
Suddenly even Tom Arnold-- that yokel who never would’ve made it out of a small-time comedy club roster without her--seems likable in this context. And she does have her moments. Even to a male viewer, her “28 different women you see during a 28-day cycle” is savagely funny. And in a time such as ours when show-biz values have become breathlessly canonized, it’s great to see someone go after that towering symbol of entertainment sycophancy, Arsenio Hall.
Maybe not at $40 a pop, however, which is what her Trump Castle audience paid to see her. At the outset of her show, she sends Arnold out to warm the audience up by giving him this admonition: “Remember, these people don’t matter.” Maybe someday her audience will become convinced that she means it; then she’ll be through.
Right now, however, as artless and crude as she is, she’s managed the unequivocal feat that’s the first rule of artistic success: She’s forced people to accept her on her own terms.
Other playdates include: Wednesday, Jan. 14, 17 and 20.