Through her long-running television series, Roseanne injected a dose of reality into the situation comedy genre. Born Roseanne Barr on November 3, 1953, she grew up feeling like an outsider as one of the few Jews in Salt Lake City, Utah. While still in her teens, she survived a nearfatal car accident and a mental breakdown that required months of hospitalization. At 19, Barr moved to Colorado, where she married postal clerk Bill Pentland. While raising their three children, she worked a series of low-paying jobs, living the life of the working poor she later chronicled in her comedy. During the 1970s, she became active in the women’s movement. Her commitment to feminism was at the center of a stand-up act she developed in 1981. Insisting on being called a “domestic goddess” instead of a homemaker, Barr joked about the abuses women suffered at the hands of their selfish husbands and children. The look of her onstage persona was itself radical: She stood before her audiences unabashedly frumpy and overweight, refusing to make quips at the expense of her own appearance, unlike most female stand-ups. After performing at comedy clubs throughout the West, Barr appeared at Los Angeles’s Comedy Club. The gig won her a spot on The Tonight Show in 1983. Barr starred in several HBO comedy specials before being lured to ABC to star in her own situation comedy.
Premiering in 1988, Roseanne softened Barr’s stand-up character and placed her at the center of the Conner family, which included two workingclass parents and their three smart-mouthed children. Although Barr exuded more warmth onscreen than onstage, the show had an edge that distinguished itself from other sitcoms of the time. Rather than painting a idealized portrait of family life, Roseanne looked clear-eyed at the Conners’ constant economic and personal struggles. The show’s comedy arose naturally as these intelligent characters used humor to help them cope. According to Entertainment Weekly, Roseanne quickly emerged as “the finest, truest, most nuanced, and best-acted sitcom about blue-collar people since ‘The Honeymooners.’” The show was an instant hit, even though, behind the scenes, Barr was launching an all-out war for creative control. Midway through the first season, she succeeded in elbowing out Matt Williams, who was billed as Roseanne’s cocreator.
Throughout the show’s nine-year run, Barr would repeatedly fire producers and writers. While she was criticized as a prima donna, some insiders credited her actions with keeping the scripts fresh and innovative. Offscreen, Barr also generated controversy. In 1990, she was asked to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a baseball game at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium. Singing off-key amidst booing from the crowd, she ended her appearance by grabbing her crotch and spitting in imitation of professional sports stars. What she thought was a comic performance sparked a national debate. Many Americans branded her as unpatriotic, including President George H. W. Bush, who called Barr’s rendition of the national anthem “disgraceful.”
Barr’s massive success continued to inspire increasingly extreme behavior. She had repeated plastic surgeries, claimed to be possessed by 24 different personalities, and revealed that she had been the victim of sexual abuse as a child, a charge her family vehemently denied. Divorcing Pentland, Barr married comic Tom Arnold in 1990 and alienated many of her associates by her vigorous promotion of Arnold as the star of two failed sitcoms, The Jackie Thomas Show and Tom. Calling herself Roseanne Arnold, she stunned her fans by announcing that she and Arnold were “marrying” her young female assistant. By 1994, her relationship with Arnold had ended in an ugly divorce, and she changed her stage name to simply Roseanne. She subsequently married her bodyguard Ben Thomas, with whom she had a son, Buck, in 1995. Roseanne filed for a divorce from Thomas three years later.
While still appearing on her series, Roseanne tentatively started a big-screen career. She performed to lukewarm reviews in She-Devil (1989), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994), and Blue in the Face (1995). She had more success providing the voice of a baby girl in Look Who’s Talking Too (1990) and acting in two popular television films costarring Tom Arnold—Backfield in Motion (1991) and The Woman Who Loved Elvis (1993). Roseanne also served as the executive producer of the late-night sketch comedy series Saturday Night Special (1996) and as the guest editor of an issue of The New Yorker magazine in 1995. She made the bestseller list with two autobiographies, Roseanne: My Life as a Woman (1989) and My Lives (1994). In 1997, after a critically savaged final season during which the Conner family won the lottery, Roseanne went off the air. Roseanne returned to television the next year with The Roseanne Show, a syndicated daytime talk show. Although she received her first Emmy nomination for her hosting, the show failed to find an audience and was canceled in 1999. Even the provocateur, she has since announced her intention to appear in a nude centerfold to show off her 75-pound weight loss.
Arnold, Roseanne. My Lives. New York: Baltimore Books, 1994.
Barr, Roseanne. Roseanne: My Life as a Woman. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
She-Devil (1989). MGM/UA, VHS, 2000.
The Roseanne Barr Show (1987). HBO Home Video, VHS, 1990.
Roseanne Arnold: Live from Trump Castle (1992). Columbia/Tristar, VHS, 1996.