Roseanne Barr on ‘hater-ism’ and her ABC do-over: a ‘second chance to clean up bad habits’
Roseanne Barr was in no mood to mince words.
Just a few days after she had wrapped the ninth and final season of “Roseanne,” her sitcom about the blue-collar Conner family coping with harsh economic times, the lightning rod at the center of the show that revolutionized television when it debuted in 1988 assessed her impact on pop culture.
“I did more things than anybody had ever done on TV,” she said on that day in 1997 as she sat in a West Los Angeles office. “I broke through so many barriers that probably only I know what they are. And that is great. I moved the center to the left. I forced the networks to read demographics in ways that were women-friendly, which they had never done before.”
She also took stock of the TV landscape she was leaving behind. And she was not impressed.
“When I watch other shows now, there’s all these supermodels doing this self-deprecating humor about how they can’t get laid,” Barr said. “I’m happy to see that because I know there’ll be room for me to come back later on. And probably do the same thing I did and maybe even better.”
Caught up in the glow of being the linchpin for one of TV’s most iconic shows, Barr at that moment had no clue how true her words — particularity her thoughts about doing “the same thing” — would turn out to be. Starting March 27, herstory is repeating itself.
Twenty-one years after the series finale, a rebooted “Roseanne” arrives on ABC, complete with original cast members John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert, Michael Fishman and even the two actresses (Lecy Goranson and Sarah Chalke) who took turns playing daughter Becky.
At the core, of course, is Barr, the former stand-up comedian and self-described “domestic goddess” whose unique creative sensibility, acid-tipped wit and fierce, unpredictable personality swept through Hollywood and the cultural landscape like a volcanic force.
The show’s popularity often clashed with news of behind-the-scenes explosiveness. Barr battled — and fired — writers who fought against her tone and vision. Much of the uproar was also because of her tempestuous relationship with former spouse Tom Arnold, who was a producer, writer and actor on the series.
“I think about when the show was at its peak,” Barr says, “it was just a terrible time in my life.”
But this time around, instead of backstage dynamite, the production has been dominated by harmony and joy over bringing a new vitality to the old “Roseanne.”
At her production offices in El Segundo a few days before the premiere, Barr is quietly celebratory about putting a new spin on the most successful chapter of her diverse career.
“I always wanted to do a 10th season,” she says. “I’m superstitious, and it’s my lucky number. And it was a blast when we got back together. We just laughed and laughed, cracking jokes. And it was easy. These characters have a lot of history. We’re comfortable and know each other so well.”
The entertainer also has a more personal agenda.
”I’m getting a second chance to clean up bad habits and trash left lying around,” she says. “I thought I would be able to clean up a lot of dirt that I left, that I would be a leader in a better way. That I would once again be the boss but be much more tempered and old and wise. I’ve learned a lot of things about people and how to deal with them. I have life skills that I feel I was not great at before. I felt that this was karmic and also spiritual.”
She realizes that viewers have been swamped with reboots — “Will & Grace,” “SWAT,” “American Idol,” “The X-Files” and “Twin Peaks,” to name a few. But she feels that “Roseanne” has a mission beyond comfort food-nostalgia: The country needs it.
“The fun part of doing the sitcom before,” Barr says, “was when people would come up and say, ‘My favorite line was this,’ or ‘I loved it when you guys did this.’ People would talk about the show around the coffee machine. At this time when nobody is talking to nobody, this might be good. It would be good to get people talking to each other. I just want to start a conversation that should be happening.”
One element that already has a lot of people talking is that Roseanne Conner is a Trump supporter, reflecting the real-life views of the actress. That position has surprised a lot of “Roseanne” fans and is one of the topics tackled in the first episode of the new series. Roseanne’s feud with her sister, Hillary Clinton supporter Jackie (Metcalf), is illustrative of how many families were torn apart by the presidential election.
“There’s been several moments when that has been brought up,” Barr says. “I try to keep a lid on my emotions on this. What I think is the way lots of things are never spoken of, and it’s scary. It’s a deeply personal and cultural thing for me. I don’t want to go into it, but I will someday. All I know is that there’s a lot of hate. I call it ‘hater-ism.’ ”
But more than political differences, the major challenge for the new “Roseanne” is living up to the standards of the old “Roseanne.”
“We have a big legacy,” executive producer Bruce Helford, who also worked on the original series, says by phone. “And we didn’t want the show to fall short of the standard we set up back in the day. Some family reunions are not so good, but this one was really great. Not only was it wonderful to get back together, but it was clear we had great perspective on what we had then and how important it was.”
Those stormy times are still vivid to Helford. “Roseanne had a lot to prove. She was in an industry dominated by men and had to get her voice heard. She had to be loud. I also remember the pressure of being the number-one show. When you go from a stand-up comic doing well to being the number one face in America and the idol of millions, that’s a lot of heavy stuff to deal with.”
The new show appears to be in a heavy-free zone. Joining Barr in the writers’ room are top comedians Wanda Sykes and Norm Macdonald.
Gilbert, who plays Darlene, says by phone that revisiting “Roseanne” started out as a “surreal experience. When I left the first read-through, I thought I was on another planet. I couldn’t get grounded in the reality of the whole thing. But within the first week or so, it felt so normal. We had spent so much time together in the past, and the chemistry was so strong. It quickly became what it was.”
The actress, also the co-host and creator of CBS’ daytime series “The Talk,” was the driving force behind getting the Conners back together.
“Nobody thought anyone else would do it, including me,” Gilbert says. “Everyone had their idea of who wouldn’t want to do a reunion, and it stopped all of us for many years.”
But when Goodman appeared on “The Talk” as a guest, the idea came up again and Goodman said he would be up for it. “Once I knew John would do it,” Gilbert says, “I started asking everyone else.”
Barr says when talks escalated to reviving “Roseanne” as a regular series, “I thought about it and thought about it some more and wondered if I was strong enough. Then I thought about working with John again, and he’s my favorite actor. Then I thought about working with Laurie again — she’s my favorite actress. So I thought it would be fun. I told Sara she would have to do all the support work, and she said she would do it.”
In addition to reprising her role, Gilbert is an executive producer along with Barr and Helford.
Barr’s creative journey since the finale of “Roseanne” has included several misfires, including a talk show, a couple of reality series and a lifestyle cooking show. And she unsuccessfully ran for president. Attempts in the past few years to develop projects at NBC, including one with Goodman that would have featured her as the proprietor of a mobile home park, fizzled.
Now Barr has come full circle, touched by the realization of a do-over that feels so right.
“Going back into the writers room was really emotional for me,” she says. “It was sometimes overwhelming. I used to call my sister every night and say, ‘This is the exact opposite of what it was before. I felt valued and respected. There was no fight. Everyone cared about the show more than anything else. It was like a dream come true.”
She adds, chuckling. “Sometimes comics think you have to be suffering to be funny. This was on another level. It’s easier to be funny when you’re happy.”
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