Impossible Ego, Shifting Politics and Zero Filter: Inside 30 Years of Roseanne Barr and All That She's Put Us Through

It's been three decades since her eponymous sitcom debuted on ABC and all our lives changed.

By Billy Nilles Oct 18, 2018 10:00 AMTags

Roseanne Barr will not go gently into that good night.

The Conners may have killed off the iconic character of Roseanne Conner in ABC's quest to keep her show alive without having her involved whatsoever, a move made possible when she agreed to relinquish all control and involvement (creative, financial, etc.) in the future of the series after her toxic Twitter behavior brought the successful revival to a swift cancellation, threatening the jobs of hundreds, but that doesn't mean that the brash Barr is going to just sit idly by as it happens.

Already, she's attacked the story choice as "cynical and horrible" when she spoiled it a month ago, reminded her Twitter followers "I AIN'T DEAD, BITCHES!!!" and, in a joint statement with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach released immediately after the premiere, preached about the "twin American values" of repentance and forgiveness while taking ABC to task for denying America "a shared moment, once a week, where we could have all enjoyed a compelling storyline featuring a witty character – a woman – who America connected with, not in spite of her flaws, but because of them."

So much for that move to Israel and "staying neutral," as she promised Boteach she would in early September.

TV Shows Canceled Following Controversy: From Roseanne to Honey Boo Boo
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

But, to be fair, should we ever really have expected her to? After all, if there's one thing that Barr has made abundantly clear since she came bursting into our living rooms 30 years ago with the premiere of Roseanne, it's that it's her way or the highway. And for a while, that sort of behavior worked for the caustic comedienne. Hell, it was even something she was championed for as she blazed a trail for women in a male-dominated industry.

But over time, the charm of Barr's boisterous behavior wore off considerably, leaving us with nothing more than a tarnished reputation, a never-ending stream-of-consciousness that is her Twitter feed, and a persistent puzzler asking where it all went so horribly wrong.


When Roseanne premiered on October 18, 1988, it was an instant success, perfectly transitioning Barr's "domestic goddess" stand-up comedy persona into the matriarch of a white working-class family the likes of which had never really been seen before on television. With Barr and John Goodman in the central roles of Roseanne and Dan Conner, audiences were watching two lead actors who were considered overweight, but not ridiculed or diminished in any way because of it. Between that and the tough and honest way the show unflinchingly portrayed blue-collar life, often venturing into heartbreaking and hard-scrabble territory, the show was an overnight success, finishing its first season at No. 2.

But its early success was not without behind-the-scenes squabbles, as Barr was instantly incensed—and, some might say, rightfully so—with executive producer Matt Williams earning sole creator credit for the series based on her life that he helped her create. "I always assumed that the show would be created by Matt Williams and Roseanne Barr," she wrote in her 1994 book My Lives, detailing how Williams had studied her stand-up act, interviewed her for hours on end, and even observed her at home with her family. "After I had rewritten all those scenes and we had filmed the pilot, I was invited to see it. When the credits rolled, it said, 'Created by Matt Williams.' And that was all. I felt robbed and began to wail."

Roseanne Barr Fires Back After The Conners Kills Off Her Iconic Character

With her and the show's stars on the rise, Barr became increasingly adversarial towards Williams, challenging his authority and refusing to say certain lines. Eventually, she boycotted her own show, refusing to say lines, walking off set, and threatening to quit if Williams wasn't removed from his post. And she got her way. Williams departed after the show's 13th episode.

"Not long after that, I cleaned house. Honestly, I enjoyed firing the people I'd checked on the back of my dressing-room door. The writers packed their bags and went to join Matt on Tim Allen's new show, Home Improvement, so none of them suffered at all. Tim didn't get credit either," she recounted to Vulture in 2011. "But at least everyone began to credit me. I was assumed to be a genius and eccentric instead of a crazy bitch, and for a while it felt pretty nice."

While she was feeling nice, the same couldn't be said for those still working for her. She forced then-husband Tom Arnold onto the writing staff and into the show's cast and he became her enforcer, executing her demands and routine firings of the writing staff. Between her wild relationship with Arnold and the tales from the Roseanne set, she became fodder for the tabloids. And then came her National Anthem nightmare.

On July 25, 1990, two months after the show closed out its second season as the most-watched show in television, Barr took the field at what was then known as Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego to perform the Star-Spangled Anthem at the start of a Padres game against visiting Cincinnati Reds. What she delivered became instantly infamous, what with the screeching off-key vocals followed by spitting and a grabbing of her crotch. Why was Barr even chosen for the performance? Roseanne producer Tom Werner owned the team at the time, though he's since tried to pin the decision on Andy Strasberg, then the team's vice president of marketing. 

Barr later told The Washington Post that the attempt at humor came courtesy of some of the Padres players and that she merely started singing too high to have any chance of finishing the notoriously difficult song cleanly. President George H.W. Bush slammed the performance as "disgraceful."

The Conners: The Family Is All Smiles in New Portraits

As the show went on, Barr's marriage to Arnold became increasingly toxic and played out publicly in the press, with their volatile arguments carried out on set reported on with breathless fervor. They divorced in 1994, with Barr claiming that he had been physically abusive—a claim he's always denied—and took her for as much money as he could get. In turn, he claimed she'd made sure ABC banned him from working for the network for life.

By the time Roseanne ended in 1997 with a disappointing finale that undid much of its equally maligned final season, Barr had undergone multiple cosmetic surgeries, publicly branded herself an incest survivor as she accused both of her parents of sexual abuse (claims that were considerably walked back during a 2011 interview with Oprah Winfrey), married her one-time personal security guard Ben Thomas (they divorced in 2002), and earned her place in the TV history books for ushering in positive representation of many of her progressive ideals. If it seemed like, in the near-decade we'd known her, that she'd done all she could've possibly done to generate headlines, little did we know she was just getting started.

Scott Everett White/NBC

While her immediate attempts at maintain a television career following Roseanne's cancellation proved less than successful—there was a talk show, The Roseanne Show, that lasted from 1998-2000, and a reality show, The Real Roseanne Show, that only lasted two episodes in 2003—she started a new life with current boyfriend Johnny Argent, whom she met after he entered a writing competition on her blog. After a year of phone conversations, they began dating in 2003 and currently live together on a macadamia nut farm in Hawaii, which was documented in her 2011 Lifetime reality series aptly titled Roseanne's Nuts. (It only lasted a season.)

As she returned to the world of stand-up, she began making headlines more for the things she was doing off-stage. There was the alarming 2008 interview with The Guardian, where she wrote humanity off as a "failed experiment" and proclaimed, "I think I'm God and I'd like to start over. I don't want to die, I just want everyone else to...I think I should be here alone to rethink the world, I do. I want these lesser humans gone."

Then there was the remarkably ill-advised photo shoot for Heeb magazine in 2009 in which she posed as Adolf Hitler complete with mustache and swastika arm-band, holding a tray of burnt gingerbread cookies—described as "burnt Jew cookies" in the accompanying article—in front of an oven. 

That was followed by her attempt to run for president in 2012 as the Green Party's candidate. She lost the nomination to Jill Stein, which somehow led to her making transphobic comments on Twitter. She later won the nomination of the Peace and Freedom Party, with activist Cindy Sheehan as her running mate. Almost immediately, Sheehan clashed with Barr on just about everything and left the campaign. Failing to appear on the ballot in her home state—she voted for Barack Obama as Hawaii doesn't even allow for write-ins—she finished sixth in the race with only 0.05 percent of the popular vote.

That same year, she shared the home address and phone number belonging to the parents of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, but was later acquitted of murder and manslaughter. A year later, she said that then-National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who happens to be black, was "a man with big swinging ape balls" in a now-deleted tweet.

Somehow, she followed that up with a return to TV as a judge on NBC's Last Comic Standing, joining the show in 2014 and sticking around for two seasons. And then in 2016, as the PTSD-inducing presidential election held America in its grips, she went full-blown conspiracy theorist. Not merely content to support Donald Trump in his bid for the White House, she became intent on tweeting about and retweeting Pizzagate theories (which claimed that Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, were somehow running a child-trafficking ring out of the basement of a D.C. pizza parlor), making comparisons between Islam and Nazism, and further dismissing the existence of trans people.

John Goodman Says Roseanne Barr Is "Missed" on The Conners

And even after all that, ABC still went and gave a Roseanne revival the greenlight. At first, nostalgia outweighed the mounting evidence that Barr had irrevocably changed. The show premiered to larger ratings than it earned in its final season, making it one of the biggest TV success stories in quite some time and earning a congratulatory phone call from President Trump himself. (After all, Trump saw the big ratings as much a victory for him as it was for one of his biggest supporters.)

But while Barr should've been celebrating, she couldn't help herself and, in a now-deleted tweet, called David Hogg, one of the survivors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla. who'd gone on to become a vocal activist for gun control, a Nazi. On the very night her show returned to the air.

She was rewarded with a second season—Roseanne's 11th overall—renewal.

Of course, her emboldened Twitter behavior eventually got the best of her on that fateful day in May when she called liberal billionaire George Soros, who had survived the Holocaust as a teenager, a Nazi "who turned in his fellow Jews 2 be murdered in German concentration camps & stole their wealth" and followed that up with an attack on former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett, calling her the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes. Barr called it a bad joke, blaming the whole racist debacle on Ambien. ABC thought otherwise, with president Channing Dungey calling the tweet "abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values" as she swiftly rescinded that second season order.

And so, on a week when she could've been celebrating the 30th anniversary of her groundbreaking sitcom's debut with the launch of its revival's second season, she's instead forced to watch as the project that brought her into our lives moves on without her. It would be easy to say that the rest is history. It might be for ABC, as they've found a way to successfully excise Barr from their operation and come out the other side relatively unscathed. (The Conners debuted to pretty successful numbers, despite Barr's rancor and her fans' grumblings on Twitter.) But as long as Twitter remains at her disposal, it might not be that easy for the rest of us.

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