Roseanne Barr has earned her place in history as one of TV’s original desperate housewives. The comedienne’s ABC sitcom, Roseanne, was a provocative look at the life of a working-class family. Not only was it a commercial smash, with some 222 episodes running from 1988 to 1997, but it won accolades from critics, earning Barr an Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. But she couldn’t build on her prime time power.
Once the series ended, her next TV ventures, which included talk, reality and cooking shows, flopped. Now, the 52-year-old is getting back into the standup game. Her performance at the New York Comedy Festival a week after the 2004 presidential election had a decidedly political edge: Barr hammered away at George Bush and the conservative Christian agenda.
Since then, she’s played it safe: recording music and taping videos for children. Barr talked to B&C’s Jim Finkle about television, politics and sparking controversy.
Why do you think your sitcom was such a hit but your subsequent projects failed?
I see now that it’s almost a fluke when anything actually works on TV. The variables are infinite. My talk show had a huge audience, but got caught in the middle of corporate politics as King World became CBS. My reality show was dropped when I got ill. I was totally connected to the sitcom, and was treated with comparatively great respect by the network, producers and writers, who serviced my ideas. All that changed. I subsequently worked with people who wanted me to shut up and do it their way. I wasn’t too good at doing that, though I did give it a try.
Why do you think they wanted you to shut up?
The voice I represented—a working-class person—is virtually gone from our culture’s media. It’s been reduced to a mocking sideshow, presented Springer/Povitch style. Ironically, the working class itself no longer exists in our culture. The “demographic” that used to be able to work for wages, that could buy a home, while still saving money for the children’s college educations, is gone. It has been outsourced and replaced with a class of wage slaves, who increasingly cannot afford housing or medical care, let alone college.
Is that who you speak for?
In some related political way, it fell out of fashion to speak for laborers, or anything left-of-center. I always thought the reason Roseanne was never nominated for an Emmy [as Best Comedy Series] was because it meant the people who vote for such things might actually have to think about giving their maids and nannies a raise. Class in America is a taboo subject.
Do you plan to try producing another TV show?
I think about it, but it does take enormous energy. I don’t have it in me to fight with anyone anymore.
What shows do you watch?
I am not interested in television much, and do not watch it, except for Court TV and the “Hitler” Channel.
Why Court TV? And what is the Hitler Channel?
I’m fascinated with the justice system. I mean the All-Hitler-All-the-Time History Channel, of course.
I also watch Arrested Development, which is just great and has the ability to usher in a fresh new genre behind it. Besides that, all network TV is about models who can’t get laid. It desecrates the value of the people who do all the real work that brings food to our tables.
What are the odds Arrested Development will survive?
It’s smart and edgy, so it probably won’t make it. There are no worms being eaten or women being humiliated. The writing is great, and the characters are entertainingly flawed. If they grow it right, it could be a new Seinfeld.
Your standup show was anti-Bush, anti-war and very dark.
It is about conquering fear and telling the truth. It seems to be in fashion now to fight fear with lies. I think that is very funny, because that kind of thinking is doomed from the start. Only truth can dispel fear.
Did you write the material for the show?
Yes, I have been writing it since 9/11. Some stuff was co-written with my partner, John Argent.
Is it a comeback for you after your hysterectomy [in 2003] and the canceled TV shows? Were you scared to jump back into work?
It’s a comeback to do standup. It has been about 14 years since I did a 70-minute show. Yes, performing in public gave me huge fear. I had fierce stage fright. I’d freeze up on stage, too. But I just kept doing it, because for some reason, I have always been possessed by performing and writing. And now it’s fun again.
At the end of the show you tap dance in a black bustier and girdle.
I say, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself, and to show you that we have no need for fear, I shall now tap dance in my underwear.” Then I do. But I have less anxiety about tap dancing in my underwear than singing in public, which is also a part of my show.
What are you doing right now?
I am working with my family in my own studio and doing exactly what I want to do. I’m singing rocking little songs about moderation, kindness, overcoming monsters and properly fighting with your sister.
You’re also doing videos for children.
The videos are mostly me acting like I’m four years old, which is what I really am, in truth. I go to the doctor. I fight monsters. I ride horses and jump rope and yodel like a proper Utah cowgirl. I tell some stories about trees and other stuff that the kids seem to like. My daughter is an animator, and there are cartoons, too.
In your stand-up act, you repeatedly say you expect the world to end within 1 ½ years. What’s that about?
Talking about the end of the world is something I want to encourage people to do and think about. What really matters to you on Judgment Day?
You’re kind of infamous for singing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
I always loved to sing, but when I finally got the chance to do so in public, I let my fear strangle me. And I didn’t sing too well. In fact, I sang worse than anyone ever has in the entire world. I tried to make a joke of it at the end by imitating the baseball players’ cup—arranging and tobacco chewing. I was a little too hip for the room on that one. The death threats made me afraid to even go outside, let alone sing in public again.
What made you decide to give it another try?
My kids told me they saw an article on the Internet that named me (and my rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”) the No. 1 worst singer ever. I really don’t want to be remembered for being the worst singer in the world.