In 2018, the question in both comedy and social media has been: How far is too far?
At 11:45 Monday night, Roseanne Barr, and the hundreds of people employed by ABC’s reboot of “Roseanne,” found out.
Replying to a tweet about a WikiLeaks report claiming that the CIA spied on French presidential candidates during the Obama administration, Barr, almost as an aside, referred to former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett as the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and the “Planet of the Apes” film franchise.
Within hours, “Roseanne,” a revival of the beloved program that had unexpectedly become the most successful new TV series in years, had been canceled. The announcement, from Channing Dungey, president of ABC Entertainment, was breathtaking in its force and brevity.
“Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.”
And that’s all she wrote.
For weeks, ABC had been wrestling with Barr’s volatile presences on social media; this was not the first outburst on Twitter to draw negative attention to the star and her show.
But this time the racism of the statement was too bold to ignore. As outrage erupted, Barr deleted the tweet and subsequently apologized for what she called “a bad joke about [Jarrett’s] politics and her looks.” But the damage had been done.
By early Tuesday morning, Wanda Sykes, Barr’s longtime friend and fellow comic, had announced she would not be returning to “Roseanne” after acting as a consulting producer on the rebooted series. Costar Sara Gilbert, who had been the driving force behind the show’s resurrection, quickly denounced the tweet as “abhorrent,” and less than an hour later, Dungey issued her statement.
“There was only one thing to do here, and that was the right thing,” Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger said in a tweet responding to the decision.
Though self-administered, it was a huge blow to ABC, which only two weeks ago had been touting the broad appeal of show and its star during a presentation to advertisers in New York. At the time, “Roseanne” looked like it might finish the season as television’s No. 1 show — a feat ABC hadn’t achieved in 24 years. (In the end, CBS’ “Big Bang Theory” won the top spot with an average of 18.8 million viewers to “Roseanne’s” 17.9 million.)
There was only one thing to do here, and that was the right thing.
The Burbank-based entertainment giant has a reputation for placing a premium on diversity, in its workforce as well as on the shows and movies it makes for big and small screens. After Barr’s tweet, top leaders of ABC and its corporate parent Disney came together; Dungey and Disney / ABC Television Group President Ben Sherwood were adamant that Disney had to fire its top-rated star, according to an insider familiar with the situation but not authorized to publicly discuss it. Iger immediately agreed.
The network was praised for it swift response. “Roseanne Barr’s comments were appalling and reminiscent of a horrific time in our history when racism was not only acceptable but promoted by Hollywood,” wrote NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson in a statement released Tuesday. “We applaud ABC for taking a stand against racism by canceling ‘Roseanne’ today.”
In an appearance on MSNBC Tuesday, Jarrett said she agreed with ABC’s decision and said Iger had called to apologize before it was announced. “I think we have to turn it into a teaching moment,” she said. “I’m fine. I’m worried about all the people out there who don’t have a circle of friends and followers coming to their defense.”
“I think ABC did the right thing,” Danny Deraney, a Los Angeles-based public relations executive, told The Times. “It’s hard — when it’s a show like ‘House of Cards,’ you can replace Kevin Spacey. You can’t replace Roseanne.
“Those comments are abhorrent. And she’s not just affected her career with this but everyone else involved.”
As word of the cancellation spread, her collaborators on “Roseanne” responded with a mix of grief and disappointment.
“This is incredibly sad and difficult for all of us, as we’ve created a show that we believe in, are proud of and that audiences love — one that is separate and apart from the opinions and words of one cast member,” Gilbert tweeted. “I am disappointed in her actions to say the least.”
“On behalf of all the writers and producers, we worked incredibly hard to create an amazing show,” said executive producer and showrunner Bruce Helford in a separate statement. “I was personally horrified and saddened by the comments and in no way do they reflect the values of the people who worked so hard to make this the iconic show that it is.”
Throughout Tuesday, the dominos continued to fall. After the cancellation was announced, Barr was dropped by her representatives, ICM Partners. “We are all greatly distressed by the disgraceful and unacceptable tweet from Roseanne Barr this morning,” the agency said. “What she wrote is antithetical to our core values, both as individuals and as an agency.”
The latest season of “Roseanne” has been removed from the network’s website and its press portal, and ABC announced that it was suspending the show’s Emmy campaign. Viacom announced it was pulling the show from syndication on TV Land, CMT, the Paramount network and Hulu.
By Tuesday afternoon, it was as if the new version of “Roseanne” had never existed.
Barr has always been a controversial figure and in early promotion for the new show (actually the latest season of a show that last aired in 1997), Barr had sounded as if she had learned from her prior experience on the network, which was marred by clashes with the show’s writers and executives during its nine-year run.
“I always thought [the show] needed a 10th season. That’s my lucky number,” Barr told The Times in advance of the show’s return in March.
I thought I would be able to clean up a lot of dirt from before,” Barr continued. “I thought I would be a leader in a better way, that I would once again be the boss but be more tempered and old and wise. I’ve learned a lot of things about people. I have life skills that I feel I was not great at before.”
But Barr’s provocative nature — as well as her recent embrace of far-right politics — made her a lightning rod, both on Twitter, where she shared far-flung conspiracy theories, and on the show. Her character’s identification as a supporter of President Trump brought her criticism and congratulations; at a rally two months ago, Trump congratulated Barr on her success after the show earned 18.2 million viewers in its season premiere. “And it was about us!” Trump said as he extended his arms toward his audience.
A joke in the third episode about the sitcoms “black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” proved more controversial.
“We missed all the shows about the black and Asian families,” Dan (John Goodman) complains one night. “They’re just like us,” her character said of the sitcoms. “There, now you’re all caught up.”
Many complained that the exchange was, at worst, racist and, at best, dismissive to the diverse perspective of both ABC shows. Barr claimed the joke was misinterpreted and had been intended as a show of support. Dungey agreed. “I do stand by the ‘Roseanne’ writers in terms of the decision to include that line,” she said during a conference call leading up to ABC’s presentation to advertisers earlier this month. “I think they felt that they were expressing the point of view of the Conners.”
Still, there was a sense that the network was wary of Barr’s divisive views and had asked her to tone it down. During a recent stand-up performance in Las Vegas that came shortly after the comic engaged in a Twitter spat with alleged Trump mistress Stormy Daniels, Barr refused to take the bait from her clearly conservative crowd to respond further.
“‘I’ve been silenced, I can’t say nothing about Stormy Daniels. I’ve already been warned,” she said with some resignation.
As her fans groaned, she added: “You guys just want me to get fired from my TV show.”
Additional reporting by Jackie Calmes was used in this report.
Times staff writers Jackie Calmes and Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.
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