Question: I've seen you cover behind-the-scenes problems with stars and producers before and wondered why you never wrote anything about the mother of all "difficult" actresses, Roseanne. Was she as bad as so many people said? Thanks. Laurel W., Mount Pleasant, Mich.
Why? Because nobody asked, Laurel. But since you just did, here you go.
"Bad" is a relative term, and no more so than in Hollywood, where condemning someone for bad behavior is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. Was Roseanne truly bad? It depends on who you ask and when you ask them. Certainly, she had her detractors and she sure could call attention to herself.
When the show launched on ABC in 1988, Roseanne Barr's story was already a good one. A poor girl who found her true calling in stand-up comedy with routines built on being a mother and housewife, her series was solidly in the Honeymooners, blue-collar sitcom vein. The viewing public responded to the Conners' constant financial woes, and to a strong-willed mom whose love for her husband and kids hid behind her caustic wit. ABC had a number-two hit and TV Guide had a story in the series's backstage battles, but nobody dreamed how downright weird Roseanne's years in the spotlight would get.
The signs were there from the beginning. Roseanne walked off the set for the first time while taping the show's second episode. She battled constantly with the producers, who she felt didn't take her seriously. (And, to be fair, some crew members agreed that was the case.) Co-star John Goodman later recalled that in the first year, he found himself thinking, "How the hell can I get out of here?" For her part, Barr maintained it was all about respect, and her biggest problems came when she wanted changes in the script and butted heads with the writers. "They did real degrading things to me," she told TV Guide in 1991. "They'd attack me, then ignore me, treat me like I was stupid. It was all a class thing and a women's thing. I wanted them to write more from the women's point of view and they thought it meant putting in tampon jokes and castration jokes."
Roseanne gave as good as she got, though, and with the show a runaway hit, she had the last laugh and the last word. "What you've got to look at is that a lot of people who write comedy, they don't have families, they're not married, and they aren't funny," she said. "If they have anything to do with women, it's like in a bar, or being served coffee. And they all hate their mothers."
By 1991, Roseanne's image problems extended way beyond the show, which somehow stayed atop the ratings despite or perhaps partly because of all the bad press. She screeched the National Anthem at a San Diego Padres game and then did some vulgar pantomime for good measure, a performance that hit such a sour note that even President George H.W. Bush dumped on her. The tabloids had a field day with her and her children's difficulties (one daughter struggled with alcohol, another with emotional problems), and the star herself opened up a huge can of worms when she accused her parents of sexually and physically abusing her when she was growing up.
And her parents didn't exactly help their case. On one hand, they passed a lie detector test when they denied molesting her and her sister, but on the other her dad admitted to roughing her up on more than one occasion. Roseanne's sisters, who the actress said were also victimized, denied the story and called the sexual charges the product of a publicity-mad woman who thrived on controversy. "She just has to have someone to hate," said one.
Either way, the tone of Roseanne's childhood stories changed the more she told them. In an early interview, she used the tale of stepping out into traffic and halting it at the age of two to illustrate her early hunger for independence. Later, she explained she was actually trying to kill herself. At 17, she nearly succeeded when she took a walk down a highway and the hood ornament of a passing car pierced her skull. Roseanne called the accident liberating. Her mother said it marked the moment she headed down the wrong path.
Her marriage to Tom Arnold kicked things up a notch as the couple courted controversy in more ways than I can list here. That all culminated in a bitter and very public divorce (Roseanne accused Arnold of, among other things, physically abusing her), but not before, according to those behind the scenes, the two made life very difficult for those working on the Roseanne set. Executive producer Rob Ulin said that during that time he was only allowed to communicate with his star through Arnold. And she refused to learn staff members' names, calling them by the numbers they wore on T-shirts.
Through much of that, though, Roseanne reigned supreme in the Nielsens, tying for the top spot with The Cosby Show one season, sitting comfortably in the top three through April 1993 and dropping to number four the season after. By the time it left the air in August 1997, its ratings were a shadow of what they'd been, but there was no denying its star paved the way for funny ladies to come. And she managed to do it, despite all the poisonous headlines, with what was at its best a top-notch comedy. "[W]e've got a damn good show," Goodman said in 1995. "When people write about us, I think they'd rather see us just as a couple of fat loudmouths screaming at each other. Or say that we're just trying to sex things up... rather than look at the craftwork of the show. I'm very proud of this show."
And well he should have been. You'd run out of breath naming all the series whose stars behaved as badly as Roseanne without putting on nearly as entertaining a run in front of and behind the camera. And the business is, after all, about entertainment.