Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
In 1980, feminist writer and homemaker Roseanne Barr started performing stand-up comedy in Denver nightclubs and bookstores, and within five years, she had built a national audience for her sardonic observations about life as a “domestic goddess.” In 1988, Barr began starring in the sitcom Roseanne, which ran for nine seasons on ABC, and became a perennial Top 10 (and syndication) hit, even as Barr used the show to subvert the clichés and platitudes of the conventional American family sitcom. In 1989, Barr released a book, My Life As A Woman, in which she described growing up in Utah—a Jew among Mormons—and wrote about her struggles with mental illness, her escape into the hippie lifestyle in Colorado, and her fight to find a foothold in male-dominated show business. In 1994, after marrying comedian Tom Arnold, Barr came out with a second book, My Lives, in which she swore that even the raw truths of My Life As A Woman were a whitewash, covering up what Barr described as a childhood of physical and sexual abuse by her father, and a first marriage damaged by her husband’s alcoholism and emotional cruelty.
In the years since My Lives and the end of Roseanne, Barr divorced Arnold, married her security guard Ben Thomas, divorced Thomas, bought a macadamia-nut farm in Hawaii with her boyfriend, hosted a talk show, starred in a reality show, wrote more books, appeared in commercials, returned to stand-up, ran for president, and gave interviews in which she disavowed a lot of what she previously said about her past.
Which of Barr’s incarnations is “the real Roseanne?” And which would we like it to be?
Barr became famous because she was eager to expose truths about marriage, womanhood, and working-class life that few were talking about on television at the time. But then she pushed away even some of her staunchest fans through her oft-bizarre behavior and her willingness to keep ripping herself open. To be honest, I’ve been one of those people who sometimes found both Roseanne and Roseanne to be too intensely real. I grew up in a lower-middle-class household—two of them, actually, after my parents divorced—and when I was younger, I looked to TV more as an escape, not to see a reflection of my own life. That’s changed over time, but during the years Roseanne was on the air, I was in my late teens and early 20s, and more drawn to NBC’s stable of sitcoms, which tended to be about attractive young professionals who didn’t share my constant worries about money. I really only caught up with Roseanne after it went off the air, and while the quality of the show was indisputable, it still made me uncomfortable at times, just because the milieu of the show itself was so reminiscent of my own youth. I’ve sat around that kitchen table, with that cluttered pantry in the background. The image is homey, but also reflects my own memories of want.
Watching Roseanne for the first time outside its original context has its rewards, though. Given how groundbreaking the show was, it’s remarkable how much Roseanne resembles so many other late-’80s/early-’90s ABC sitcoms. Content aside, the form of Roseanne isn’t that far removed from Full House or Home Improvement, which is something people who watched the show at the time might not have noticed. But it matters. Roseanne was a mainstream show, and any advances Barr made in her commentary on gender, generational divides, and the complicated lives of people struggling to make ends meet were all in the context of a sitcom with an enormous audience.
The fifth-season Roseanne episode “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home” premièred on February 9, 1993, and features a script credited to Amy Sherman, now better known as Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls and Bunheads—two shows that for all their good qualities, skew far more toward fantasyland than Roseanne typically did. In season four, working mother Roseanne Connor and her sister Jackie (played by Laurie Metcalf) discovered that their father had been openly cheating on their mother for years, which led them to reflect on what a shit he’d been to them all their lives, the way he belittled them as women, and all the times he physically abused them. In “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home,” Roseanne and Jackie learn that their father has died, and they fret over the funeral arrangements while trying to figure out whether to be civil to their dad’s longtime mistress, Joan (Kay Arnold).
That’s the plot, but that isn’t what drives the episode. As Barr writes in My Lives, Roseanne was intended to be “A show about America’s unwashed unconscious. Every episode sprouts at least a seed of something banal turned on its ass, something so pointedly ‘incorrect,’ filtered through a working-class language that claims every MALE-defined thing from family to economics to God as belonging, rightfully, and at last, to the realm of women.” In the case of “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home,” that required looking for the dark, incidental humor in funerals: the endless surprises of “the grief buffet” brought by friends and neighbors, having to call the airport baggage claim to see whether the corpse has arrived, passing along the bad news to a deaf relative, deciding what photo to give to the mortician who’s trying to re-create the deceased’s proper look, pricing out a casket, and so on. Throughout, Barr and Sherman go for a wry, sometimes cynical quip to deflate the seriousness of the occasion. When Joan meets Roseanne in a bar and points to her beer, asking, “Can I get you a second?” Roseanne answers, “You could if you’d have gotten here an hour ago.” When Roseanne and Jackie’s mother meets Joan, she snarks, “What a shame we don’t have some kind of flavored coffee to celebrate this moment in our lives.” There’s a whistling-past-the-graveyard quality to this Roseanne—and many others, for that matter.
But there are also moments of real heft in “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home.” Jackie admits she blames Roseanne because she turned the family against their dad, and confesses that she wishes she’d gotten to spend more time with this man she loved before he died. “When did you love him more?” Roseanne hisses back. “When he’d come home and beat us with a belt, or when he didn’t come home at all?” Later, when Roseanne meets with Joan, the mistress explains that Roseanne’s father thought of himself as a devoted family man, whose kids were distant toward him because he’d spoiled them rotten. “If by spoiled, you mean wrecked,” Roseanne snaps, angry that her father died without ever owning up to what he did to her, even to the woman with whom he’d been the most intimate.
Barr’s first two memoirs reveal that much of the hostility in this episode is autobiographical. In My Life As A Woman, Barr complains that her parents encouraged her to be a writer when she was younger, then crushed those dreams as she got older. In My Lives—released a year after “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home”—Barr goes even further, describing her home life as more hellish. Similarly, My Life includes anecdotes about how Barr honed her comic skills while working for tips as a Bennigan’s hostess, while in My Lives, Barr says she actually earned extra money at Bennigan’s by having sex with the customers in the parking lot. She makes fun of her first husband, Bill Pentland, for being cold and chauvinistic in book one, then makes him out to be a deceitful scumbag in book two. Nearly everything Barr wrote about her life in My Life gets re-written as something darker in My Lives.
In recent years, Barr has said in interviews that she’s actually close with Pentland now, and that she credits him with helping her hone her act in the early years. And after having a falling-out with her parents and siblings over the incest accusations in My Lives, Barr later backtracked, saying that while she wasn’t making everything up, she did exaggerate some claims just to hurt her family at a time when they were getting on her nerves, and while she was under the influence of multiple legal and illegal drugs. Barr has always been known for speaking her mind, but her mind changes. In My Life As A Woman, for example, she writes, “To this day I’m crazy about Jews who cut off their noses, change their names, starve off their Jewish fat, and then talk about how proud they are to be Jewish.” But in My Lives, she writes about the how transformative it was when she had an operation to trim her belly. And over the years, she’s had multiple other cosmetic surgeries and multiple other names. Barr has never worried so much about staking out a position and staying there; she’s more than willing to range far from where she started for the sake of a joke, or to make a point.
That sense of a more fluid truth comes through in the closing scene of “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home,” when the mortician asks Roseanne to officially identify the body, and she spends a moment alone with her father’s corpse, reading off a list of grievances. Then she ends with, “Thank you for your humor,” acknowledging that not every memory has been sour. It isn’t the usual sitcom catharsis, but it’s honest, and satisfying.
Barr fought hard for her vision of Roseanne over the decade it was in production, tormenting her writers and producers in ways that became fodder for sensational stories in the trades and tabloids. Barr told her side in My Lives, describing her fights with original showrunner Matt Williams (who got a “created by” credit over Barr’s objections, and whom she says gave the best lines to the male characters while sticking her with dumb jokes she refused to say), and with ABC (which Barr says always took the side of any semi-authoritative-seeming man in her on-set disputes, blaming “that bitch Roseanne” rather than the people who were making their top star unhappy). Barr also talks about how she leveraged her temperament, her blue-collar language, and her physical size to intimidate college-educated writers and businessmen into paying attention to what she had to say.
Barr doesn’t always come off well in her own books. Beyond the strange contradictions of the first two memoirs, she’s also unapologetic about her own narcissism—“What’s wrong with loving yourself as I do?” she asks in My Life As A Woman—and at times comes off as opportunistic and self-serving when she tries to connect her raging egotism to her association with the feminist movement. Barr’s commitment to unflinching honesty also would be a lot more admirable if she didn’t admit to making up a lot of stuff about her own life—or at the least, to changing her mind about some of her past passions. My Lives, for example, is largely about Barr’s love affair with Arnold, whom she divorced just a couple of years later. (Then, after bad-mouthing each other over the ensuing decades, Arnold appeared at Barr’s Comedy Central Roast earlier this year, and the two seemed not just civil, but happy to see each other.)
But Barr isn’t necessarily wrong when she argues that she had to be obnoxious to get what she wanted. There’s a striking passage in My Life when Barr writes about working in a feminist bookstore in Denver, and describes how what began for her as a revelatory, self-actualizing movement, with outward-directed anger, soon turned into a morass of identity politics, marred by internal debates over who was really qualified to call herself a feminist. (Meanwhile, the contents of the store’s shelves changed, from poetry and screeds to diet books and workout tips.) Barr has had to deal with trust issues even in her “safe” places. After going through all that, why should she take the word of network executives and entertainment journalists? In My Lives, Barr says, “To them, I’m the fat housewife who stumbled out of the trailer and accidentally said something funny once or twice.”
Besides, it’s hard to argue with what Barr’s cantankerousness produced—and not just because Roseanne was so popular. Roseanne was a radical show in many ways, primarily for telling stories about ordinary people who were struggling to pay bills, recovering from abuse, and dealing with complicated families filled with people of differing social standings and sexual orientations. A decade after the Norman Lear era, these kinds of characters and concerns had all but disappeared from television, except on Roseanne. And yet the show was hardly some grim polemic. It was lively, funny, and playful, sometimes breaking the fourth wall—usually during the closing credits—to acknowledge what was being said about the show in the press. (“Wait Till Your Father Gets Home” ends with Roseanne and Jackie going inside to watch The Jackie Thomas Show, the sitcom that aired right after Roseanne, and starred Tom Arnold.)
That kind of attitude led to Roseanne’s strange final season, in which the Connor family wins the lottery and has wacky free-spending adventures that many longtime viewers found far too off-model to enjoy. But the willingness to acknowledge the artificiality of television also led to Roseanne’s poignant series finale, which ends with Roseanne Connor saying she’d been writing the series the whole time, “fixing” certain inconvenient facts about her family’s life to suit her whims. This is more than just a meta moment; it’s a reversion to Barr’s original girlhood dream to be a writer, and an admission that to get to a deeper truth, sometimes a writer has to lie.
There is a lot of truth to Barr’s work, both in her books and her show. In My Life As A Woman, she writes about how much she hates the idealized small town/middle-American life of Garrison Keillor stories and John Denver songs, saying she prefers yelling, sarcasm, and pain, because they’re funnier. She tells an anecdote in her first book about how at her grandmother’s house, she’d fight with her siblings to see who’d get to use the one mismatched fork in the silverware drawer, which was perfect for eating spaghetti. That’s the kind of real, relatable detail that distinguishes Barr as a stand-up, author, and sitcom producer. In “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home,” for example, Jackie complains about her stomach hurting, which is a sensation I remember myself from when my own father died: a feeling of inexplicable weight pressing on my shoulders, back, stomach, and legs, making me feel tired and achy for a full week.
Even when Roseanne was dealing with something deeply sad—like the death of an estranged, abusive relative—it looked for lighter moments that viewers could connect to, even if it was just Roseanne and her sulky teenage daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert) jabbing at each other lovingly. At the very least, fans could count on the warmth of Roseanne’s opening credits, which in season five had the Connors laughing over a dinner of pizza and generic soda, while passing around canned parmesan and a paper-towel roll. That’s such a well-drawn tableau of the family too busy to cook and too strapped to eat out, but still able to enjoy a cheap, unhealthy, delicious meal together. In her heyday, Barr had an innate sense of how to set these kinds of scenes; her drive to expose what was really going on transformed her from everywoman to eccentric. It’s like the difference between, “We all pick our nose sometimes, right?” and, “We all save our boogers to make tiny figures of our parents that we burn in effigy, don’t we?”
One of the best scenes in “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home” is the episode’s cold open, in which Roseanne’s son D.J. (Michael Fishman) presents her with a contract she signed when he was younger, saying that when he turned 12, he could do whatever he wanted. “Well, it’s been great being your mom,” Roseanne says, before taking a closer look at the paper and telling D.J. that unfortunately, he forgot to get the contract notarized. When D.J. says she lied to him, his dad shrugs, “There are kids in China whose mothers have no lies to give them.” It’s a funny scene, filled with punchy Amy Sherman dialogue, and some fine work by John Goodman as Roseanne’s husband Dan, who plays along with the gag while also expressing some irritation that his wife is treating their son differently because he’s a boy. This scene has everything people loved about Roseanne when it was a Top 5 show: It’s about a real family being smart-asses to each other in the way only a real family can.
Then the phone rings, and this Roseanne takes a turn.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: The Bob Newhart Show, “Bob Has To Have His Tonsils Out So He Spends Christmas Eve In The Hospital”