‘Feeding the Monster’: Life Behind ‘Roseanne’ : Television: A BBC documentary view of the ABC sitcom reveals a parallel universe to the ‘Jackie Thomas Show'--with writers living in terror and the Arnolds as the show’s driving force.
As he looks to the camera, ruminating on the distinct possibility of firing the head writer of his hit sitcom, Tom Arnold’s expression alternates between sympathy and smirk.
“His job has the highest turnover,” notes Arnold.
Cut to head writer Bob Myer: “It’s possible I could be gone from the series,” he says. “It’s not without historical precedent. There’s no such thing as job security here.”
A scene from the “The Jackie Thomas Show,” in which Arnold portrays the tyrant star of a hit sitcom? Not at all. It’s a snippet from a British Broadcasting Corp. documentary that takes a backstage look at the making of the ABC hit “Roseanne.”
After several months of requests, a British film crew was given unprecedented access to see how one episode of the comedy is produced. The episode was last year’s Christmas show, which was taped in November 1991.
The resulting 50-minute film is entitled “Feeding the Monster,” and while the monster in question is the show itself, not its star Roseanne Arnold, her domineering presence sometimes makes that distinction hard to remember.
In Britain, where “Roseanne” is one of the top-rated programs on the commercial station, Channel 4, the documentary was televised recently as part of a six-episode series on the comedy business. But while the rest of the documentary series will appear on Showtime in the U.S., the segment on “Roseanne” will not, an omission attributable to the star’s ties to rival cable network HBO.
American viewers will get, instead, a backstage look at the making of “Murphy Brown.” “Feeding the Monster” never mentions “The Jackie Thomas Show,” which stars Tom Arnold as an overbearing comedy star. That show didn’t come along until after the documentary was filmed. But nonetheless, the documentary unveils a real-life, parallel universe to the new series.
As the documentary proceeds chronologically through the scriptwriting, rehearsal and shooting of the episode, viewers are hit repeatedly with two dominant themes.
The first is that Roseanne Arnold and her husband are clearly the creative force behind the show. Little happens without their approval.
The second, directly linked to the first, is that the show’s writers live in constant terror, their exhausting work-weeks punctuated by Pepto-Bismol swigging and all-night writing sessions. They are emotionally battered and their life expectancy on the show is short.
And what do they get for it?
Up to $45,000 a week, we’re told.
The documentary records the initial reading of one week’s script for Arnold and the rest of the cast, and the star’s reaction.
“It stinks,” she says. “I hate it.”
Before she and her husband meet with Myer to order changes, Arnold turns toward the documentary crew and smiles, “Now you’re gonna see the (expletive) hit the fan. And remember--I’m being nice cause there’s a camera.”
She’s joking around, yet there’s no doubt the head writer is about to be mauled.
As the documentary progresses, it seems clear that, to the Arnolds, the task of running the show is simultaneously serious and a game. They are truly loud and rude, but completely aware of who they are and what they’re doing--hence, the ability to convert the backstage goings-on of the “Roseanne” show into the premise of “The Jackie Thomas Show.”
The Arnolds emphasize that they have not lost touch with the real world of working class, middle-American families, and have nothing but disdain for Hollywood.
Hollywood writers are so out of touch with the real world, Roseanne Arnold says, that they have no idea how to honestly portray working people.
“They’re commenting on this subclass of people that they have no idea who they are or what they’re about,” she says. “What they’re writing about is other working families that they’ve seen on television.”
Greg Brenman, who produced the British documentary, says he found the backstage environment on the “Roseanne” show “incredibly charged. You feel like you’ve lost pounds.”
He also came away convinced that Roseanne Arnold’s creativity and talent are what make the show such a huge success.
“She feels it’s her flesh and blood,” he says. “She thinks every word, every script, every episode is a reflection of her. To that degree, she sweats every line.”
And he theorizes that the TV star’s controversial ways are a necessary part of her creative process. “I think she thrives on controversy,” he says. “I think it fuels her creativity.”
That probably provides little comfort to the show’s writers, however, who come off as necessary, but individually expendable, cogs in the machine.
It is head writer Myer who characterizes the “Roseanne” show as a monster that “eats up a lot of human beings.
“You see 10 writers because it takes, I suppose, 10 writers to feed this monster,” he says. “And I think the writers are basically the food of the monster.”
While documentary producer Brenman was left with a feeling of great respect for Roseanne Arnold after watching her in action for a week, British TV critics reviewing his film were not.
Said Craig Brown of the (London) Sunday Times, “Roseanne Arnold herself, as disgusting and domineering as can be, was keen to boast of her closeness to the downtrodden. In fact, she was so keen to have the downtrodden around her that, sheltered in her studio, she personally created a new underclass of downtrodden scriptwriters, whom she then bullied with garish pride.
“Her husband and co-producer, Tom Arnold, seemed even creepier, exhibiting a mean, tight-lipped smile, nonstop hand-pummeling and a gross delight in his power to hire and fire.”
At the end of the documentary, viewers see that the Christmas episode has been completed successfully. The studio audience at the taping laughs in all the right places and the show’s writers are smiling. Bob Myer even dances a playful jig.
And as he dances, a message appears at the bottom of the screen: “Bob Myer is no longer Head Writer.”
CAN A MEAN GUY MAKE IT?
“The Jackie Thomas Show” is trying to beat the odds with its hateful “hero.” F3