Film and drama

Screen Themes: The fall of Roseanne

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Roseanne Barr appearing on satirical magazine 'Heeb' dressed as Hitler (image supplied).

From the most popular program on American TV to nigh on unemployable, entertainment editor John Turnbull charts the spectacular fall from grace of TV comedian Roseanne Barr.

On Tuesday 29 May, the U.S. ABC network announced that their high-rating comedy Roseanne would be cancelled immediately, with re-runs also pulled from the schedule. This cancellation was in reaction to a tweet that Roseanne Barr sent attacking a former Obama staff member named Valerie Jarrett. The cancellation statement from ABC called Roseanne’s statement 'abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values', and staff writers and cast members have also been quick to condemn her.

So what did Roseanne tweet?

Okay, that’s pretty racist. But should we really be surprised at this sort of comment from an avowed Trump supporter? Let’s explore that question by taking a look back at where Roseanne came from…

Born in the Mormon haven of Salt Lake City, Utah, Roseanne was hit by a car at age 16, resulting in a traumatic brain injury and behavioural changes that saw her institutionalised for eight months at Utah State Hospital. It would be supremely unkind to suggest that brain damage may be responsible for her rightwing views and associated racism, so I’ll move on.

At age 18, Barr moved to Colorado and tried her hand at stand up comedy. It took a solid 15 years before she got her break, performing on 'The Tonight Show' and 'Letterman' before getting her own comedy special on HBO. After turning down the role of Peg Bundy on 'Married with Children' (a role which went to the supremely talented Katey Sagal), Barr was offered her own sitcom, premiering in 1988.

The show grew in popularity, with the working class setting and caustic humour attracting broad audiences across America and around the world. Despite an omnipresent laugh track, the series was quietly amusing rather than laugh out loud funny, with Barr often portraying the least likeable character on her own show. The series ran until 1997, with Barr being paid a reported US$40 million (AU$53 million) for the final two seasons.

Over the next 20 years, Barr released a bunch of comedy specials, did a reality show set on a nut farm in Hawaii and pitched a bunch of sitcom ideas to network execs, all of which were rejected or fell apart during early stages of development. She flirted with the idea of running for president in 2012 as a candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party, then declared her support for Donald Trump in 2016 with the well thought out justification that, at least, the president "wouldn't be Hillary".

In late 2017, ABC announced that they had commissioned a new series of Roseanne, with almost all of the original cast members returning — including John Goodman, whose character died in the previous season. Or was that all a dream? Embracing Barr’s rightwing views, the new series made jokes about "deplorables" and building walls and was desperately unfunny — which didn’t prevent the series from attracting over 18 million viewers in the U.S.

Based on this success, an additional season was greenlit three days after the premiere and it seemed that the world was once again at Roseanne’s feet. But she couldn’t resist the lure of Twitter…

Who is Valerie Jarrett? Born in Iran to American parents, the multilingual Jarrett grew up in London and Chicago, and received her doctorate in law from the University of Michigan in 1981. Jarrett became involved in Chicago politics in the 1990s and joined real estate development company Habitat in 1995, quickly rising to the position of CEO. She served on the board of the University of Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry and the USG Corporation, and in 2008 was selected by Barack Obama to serve as senior advisor to the President. Jarrett served with distinction for the remainder of Obama’s term and then worked as a non-salaried advisor to the Obama Foundation.

After the backlash, Barr Tweeted:

'I apologize to Valerie Jarrett and to all Americans. I am truly sorry for making a bad joke about her politics and her looks.'

This pseudo-humility lasted about half an hour, as Barr then turned on her on-screen children after they tried to distance themselves from her opinions.

Michael Fishman, who played her son DJ in the series, tweeted:

'Today is one of the hardest days of my life. I feel devastated, not for the end of the Roseanne show, but for all those who poured their hearts and souls into our jobs, and the audience who welcomed us into their homes. Our cast, crew, writers, and production staff strives for inclusiveness, with numerous storylines designed to reflect inclusiveness.'

Barr shot back:

'I created the platform for that inclusivity and you know it. ME. You throw me under the bus. Nice!'

She then tried to excuse herself, by saying that she was on Ambien and it was also Memorial Day, perhaps hoping the fact that she was drunk and sleepy might make everything go away.

It didn’t.

Sanofi, the French pharmaceutical giant that makes Ambien, immediately hit back:

'While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication'.


While Barr is far from the first comedian to excuse racist rhetoric as a "bad joke" (Michael Richards, anyone?), it should be pointed out that this is far from a first offence for Roseanne. In 2009, she appeared on the cover of satirical Jewish magazine Heeb dressed as Hitler and holding a tray of "burnt Jew cookies". In 2013, she threw her support behind holocaust-denier jazz musician Gilad Atzmon, then steadily continued to go off the rails with conspiracy theorist Twitter rants.

So, what next for Roseanne? Her show has been cancelled, but there are enough right-leaning media outlets in the U.S. that she could likely have a job next week if she wanted. From a financial perspective, she probably doesn’t need to work, but she seems determined to maintain her spot in the limelight, even if it comes at the expense of her reputation. Perhaps Barr could take a tip from Mel Gibson, who took a 10-year break from directing after his anti-Semitic rant, then returned wearing a cloak of humility — but that doesn’t really sound like Roseanne’s style, does it?

At the end of the day, it’s unfortunate that a lot of actors, writers and crew on Roseanne have lost their jobs — but from a viewer perspective, all we’ve lost is another unfunny American sitcom. I suppose it’s too much to hope for the kid from Young Sheldon to start using the n-word…

Books by John Turnbull are available on Amazon and Kindle, including supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame; action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: EuropeDamnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in paperback in the IA store HERE (free postage).

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