Roseanne Returns: Is TV Ready for a Trump-Loving Comic With "Nothing Left to Prove"?
Christopher Patey

Roseanne Returns: Is TV Ready for a Trump-Loving Comic With "Nothing Left to Prove"?

by Lacey Rose
February 21, 2018, 6:00am PST

The opioid crisis, illegal immigration, gender identity: 'Roseanne' returns after 20 years with a ripped-from-the-headlines depiction of a working-class family's fears and foibles as the show's all-star creative team gathers to debate the politics of television's most anticipated reboot of the year: "I said, 'We got to have a Hillary slam.'"

Roseanne Barr vowed this time would be different.

“I’m way too old to be fighting,” the 65-year-old comedian told Roseanne co-star Sara Gilbert, who reached out in the spring of 2017 about jumping in on TV’s current reboot craze and reviving their iconic sitcom. If Gilbert could reassemble the entire Conner family, including Roseanne’s husband, Dan (John Goodman), and sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), Barr would return. Her only stipulation: Gilbert, who would serve as an executive producer as well as her onscreen daughter Darlene, would need to take on any battles that arose, be it with the series’ writers or its host network, ABC.

Barr had, after all, endured enough fights during the sitcom's original run, from 1988 to 1997. In those nine seasons, she took pleasure in firing writers (whom she referred to by number, not name) along with the series' creator, Matt Williams, even as the show hovered at the very top of the Nielsen charts with an audience of more than 20 million. Barr regularly feuded with network execs as well as the series' producers, Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, and on more than one occasion threatened to walk away herself. There was a series of PR gaffes, too, at least a few of which snowballed into full-blown scandals, including the time she shrieked the national anthem at a San Diego Padres game and multiple tabloid episodes from her tumultuous four-year marriage to comedian Tom Arnold.

By all accounts, this time around has been different. While Barr's vocal support of Trump (the self-described "radical" says she voted for him to "shake up the status quo") and occasional alt-right Twitter rants have fanned flames, she insists she has "learned to control [her] anger a lot better." The disagreements have been largely contained to the spirited writers room, where a politically diverse staff, led by co-showrunners Bruce Helford (who ran one season on the original) and Whitney Cummings (who was still in grade school when Roseanne premiered), has tackled controversial issues from immigration and health care to drugs and gender fluidity. If the show scores an additional season, Barr would like to lean more heavily into such third-rail topics as race and religion.

Unsurprisingly, the series' March 27 return, which will revive Dan (by sidestepping a fatal heart attack referenced in the series finale) and introduce a next generation of Conners, is generating heavy interest, with 30-second ads fetching ABC a robust $175,000. Its star, who also has a heavy hand in the show's scripts, will reportedly pocket more than $2 million from the new batch of episodes, on top of the tens of millions she made off the original. Over an afternoon in late January, THR gathered Roseanne's highest-profile off-camera talent, including Helford and Cummings, writer Wanda Sykes, and stars Barr, Gilbert and Goodman, for a discussion touching on old battle scars, boundary-pushing storylines and the Hillary Clinton barb Barr insisted on.

Did you consider having Roseanne vote for anyone besides Trump?

ROSEANNE BARR No, I wanted to do it this way. It's the conversation everybody is having. Families are not speaking to each other. People are still shocked and upset about it. It's the state of our country.

What happened in the room when it came time to write those scenes?

BRUCE HELFORD Contrary to what you might think, the room was not totally liberal …

BARR It wasn't?

HELFORD There were people who had points of view that you'd consider conservative, and we had those discussions, and they ended up being what goes on between Darlene and Roseanne and Jackie.

WHITNEY CUMMINGS We so often surround ourselves with people we agree with, so going into the writers room was often like, "Eeeeek." We were challenging each other, and I definitely wanted to go back into my Huffington Post or Vulture cocoon where everyone agrees, but it's really important to be with people you disagree with when you're writing to make sure you're not being elitist assholes.

BARR I thought everybody was pretty liberal, so I was keepin' an eye on it, making sure that it was evenhanded. But the day we went to shoot [the pilot], I got with the writers, and I'm like, "You guys have to have a Hillary slam." 'Cause they were all Trump slams.

SARA GILBERT Although we never say anybody's name.

BARR But we do say, "How could you vote for him?"

HELFORD And we say "pantsuit" …

BARR That's the line you gave me, and it was a great Hillary slam. I wanted to represent the country and how divided we are.

GILBERT People think this show is more political than it is. It's more about how a family deals with a disagreement like that. But I get it, it creates website clicks.

If Hillary had won, would there have been an appetite for this show?

JOHN GOODMAN Yeah, because the family is still sunk no matter who gets in [the White House].

HELFORD It might have been different arguments, but it would be the same heat.

What were your biggest reservations about coming back?

BARR I got a call from Sara. I said, "I don't know." And she goes, "John's in." I go, "Yeah, I'm in."

GOODMAN It took three weeks from that call till we had a deal at ABC.

GILBERT Then there was the moment for me where I was like, "Uh, now we gotta do it, and it's gotta be good." I was nervous.

BARR It's a great writers room. The best one I've ever been in.

I don't know if that bar is high or low given how you felt about the writers during the original run.

BARR Oh, it's a really high bar. But this one was different because I had nothing left to prove.

HELFORD In the old days, there was a certain amount of buffering for us to get to you. You had a million things going on; it was the No. 1 show in America and everything else. This time, I was able to sit down with Sara and with Rosie, and they both had a million ideas.

Roseanne, in a famous New York magazine essay that you wrote in 2011, you said, "I was not crazy before I created, wrote and starred in television's first feminist and working-class-family sitcom (also its last)." Why do it again?

BARR I certainly weighed all of that, and in conversation with Sara, I said, "I'm way too old to be fighting, so you're gonna have to do it." She promised she would.

GILBERT I lied. (Laughs.)

GOODMAN The way we do things in show business.

BARR Sara can communicate with people at all levels. She's not confrontational, which for me, I'm still that same girl. And a stand-up comic, too, [which means] you're just waitin' for the heckler.

GILBERT Honestly, I was prepared to take on any battles for Roseanne, but there were none.

GOODMAN Maybe you're not trying hard enough.

HELFORD I'm sure we made ABC completely crazy. The standards and practices people were constantly like, "Are you really gonna say that?" But in a way, we were grandfathered in.

In that same piece, you said that you so admired Dave Chappelle for walking from his show. Why?

BARR I admired him for knowing when the fight isn't worth it. Sometimes you've got to walk if you're feeling like your whole thing is so compromised and you've lost your voice and the authenticity. But I didn't get it put to me like he got it put to him. I just kept fighting. I wasn't about to give in. I just wanted to win.

Looking back, did you win?

BARR Oh yeah, absolutely. And it was worth it. And here we are.

Writers were famously hired and fired off of the original. Bruce, why did you put yourself through that?

HELFORD First of all, it was the most interesting show on TV to write for because you really got to dig in as opposed to most everything else, which was pretty superficial. And there's a little bit of moth-to-flame that goes on with writers; everyone feels like they can conquer it. But it really was the cast and quality of the show. It was beautifully set up for writers to come in and do great work, and everybody got paid really well, too. For me personally, it was also the first time I got to run a show, so I knew it would be a great learning experience. But my agent and lawyer clearly said to me, "You will get fired."

Given that history, did you have any hesitation about returning?

HELFORD None. Rosie and I had a great relationship [when I started season five], but then as we got to show 21 or 22 of 26, I started to sense some discontent, and everyone was like, "Yep, here we go." [Helford was out at the end of the season.] A couple of years after, she and I met up, and we made our peace. This time, I knew she wanted to enjoy this.

Given Roseanne’s prior success, why isn’t the landscape littered with copycats?  

CUMMINGS It’s not for lack of trying.

HELFORD Everybody’s tried. I went off and immediately made a deal with Disney and created a show for Gaby Hoffmann. It was about a 12-year-old girl who was obviously gay and it was about three stages in her life and about her friends. And everything that I'd learned on Roseanne, I brought into it. I was handed back the script, they said, "This is dangerous. Cannot be aired."

But why after Roseanne had broken open those doors, did they close again?

HELFORD Because it was a hit show and Rosie had the power to say, "We're doing this." Even when we got to the fifth year, we had to fight for some of those stories, but you (looks to Barr) would just say, "We're doing it," and they would do it.

CUMMINGS You don't have 10 people compromising on a crappy idea. You had one person fighting for a great idea.

HELFORD It was also the PC-ness that came in later on and the fear of rankling people — even though they had seen it work, they were scared to try it. 

As the world has become more PC, has the line for what's funny on this show moved, too?

BARR No, I think the world is ready for controversy.

CUMMINGS And comedy.

BARR About real people.

WANDA SYKES The thing about the Conners is they were a Midwestern family who have limited means, and you don't see that a lot on TV — except for black people. Black people are allowed to be poor on TV. (Laughs.) But when the Conners came on, it was like, "Here are real people talking about real problems."

CUMMINGS I became the PC police this time. I was the "you can't say that anymore" and "now this is the word we use" one. And they were like, "Yeah, but that's not how people in this town at this age in this income bracket talk." And I learned, it's not about what we would say, it's about what they would say.

GILBERT I had those same conversations where I was like, "Ooh, I don't think we should say this or that."

GOODMAN The Conners are good people, though, and they're also trying to adapt to the world. They're learning.

BARR Darlene's son is gender fluid, and we fought about that one for a while.

CUMMINGS The word, even. Is it "gender fluid"? "Gender nonbinary"?

GILBERT But he's not gender fluid; he just likes to dress in more feminine clothing is where we landed.

BARR We read so many kids for that part, and it was always too nail-on-the-head. And we had big discussions about it because I'm like, "You guys, we're biting off a big bite of trouble here, so let's do it right."

CUMMINGS: And by "right," it doesn't mean the most PC version with an agenda; it's what would actually happen in this family.

One of the other grandkids is a black girl, which is also something that was not part of the original version, and I'm curious what those conversations entailed?

BARR That was something that I always wanted to do because of DJ not kissing a black girl [in season seven]. So that's important to me.

Why?

BARR I like diversity, and it's so much a part of the working class where it is not so much part of middle-class stuff. And I know so many people who have mixed families. My godson is African-American, and we've known him since he was 3. Now, he's 23. And the conversations that my family was able to get into because of that with his parents and his siblings is just a wonderful part of my life. And if we get another season, I'd like to discuss that more.

CUMMINGS This season, we decided it's not about her being black. It's not like, "Here's a black story about the black kid."

GILBERT We never talk about it.

HELFORD It was Wanda who put it into my head, and it came through in the script: Not only does there need to be some diversity in this show, but we have to show that everybody is going through the same problems.

SYKES Because part of the division of the country is people have the same problems, but they're arguing it as if they aren't suffering the same thing.

You have talked about breaking taboos on this series. How do the taboos differ from 20 years ago?

HELFORD We wanted to make sure that all sides were represented in the show, which seems to be taboo today. We did an episode about a Muslim neighbor. I can tell you that the hair of the standards and practices people went on end.

CUMMINGS Muslim neighbor versus a Muslim neighbor. Just the tense — how do we say it? And are we saying it right?

HELFORD Health care was another one. Rosie said, "We gotta discuss health care." Who else is taking that on for comedic purposes?

It doesn't sound very funny.

HELFORD And that's the beauty of the show: The more tension there is, the funnier it is. We also took on Dan facing the competition from people hiring illegals, and that's not anything anybody really wants to touch.

GOODMAN Mixed with a concerted effort to get rid of labor unions.

BARR The town that ours is based on — Elgin, Illinois — is changing. It was majority white, now it's majority Hispanic. We went and interviewed people there.

Who did?

HELFORD The producers. We did a focus group with primarily women, 35 to 55, and we found out some really fascinating things.

CUMMINGS The things we thought their problems would be were not.

HELFORD We're all Los Angelenos, so one question we asked was, "Do you try to buy organic food?" And they're like, "Nah." That was the end of the discussion.

CUMMINGS Another taboo we addressed was the opioid crisis, which is this thing we're seeing in the news, but it's not being tackled on [scripted] TV, certainly not network TV. But what I've always loved about Roseanne is the show's ability to have these incredible dramatic moments in a multicamera sitcom with an audience sitting there, not laughing 'cause an incredible dramatic moment is playing out, whether it was when DJ wouldn't kiss the black girl at the school play or Jackie's domestic abuse. We thought maybe this could be one of those episodes.

GILBERT I was talking to our DP about the look of our show, which is a little darker, too. It's not a bright, glossy sitcom. I said, "It's barely a sitcom," and that is the way I'd describe Roseanne.

Looking back, what were the biggest fights, contentwise?

HELFORD If it was dark, like Jackie being abused. That was a very tough one. And I don't know if you remember, Rosie, but when George Bush was going out and [Bill] Clinton was coming in, you guys said something like, "Well, we hope there's gonna be a change in the White House."

BARR They wrote a whole bunch of stuff in some newspaper, maybe the Chicago Sun-Times, that what we had said helped Clinton win.

HELFORD When the Conners say something, it carries weight.

GOODMAN I am Walter Cronkite. (Laughter.)

BARR People have asked me, "Would there be a Hillary Clinton without Roseanne?"

How do you answer?

BARR No, there wouldn't be. And I think I accused her of stealing my act, too. (Laughs.) Race was always a no also. And I couldn't figure out how to crack that. I made some mistakes there. I was angry about [the lack of diverse casting on our show], and I went to The New York Times, and in an interview, I said, "Carsey-Werner just hired a whole bunch of black people to stand in the background in the factory." We used to make fun of it 'cause the only thing they'd do is, like, check the fuses.

GOODMAN Ohhh jeez. (Laughs.)

BARR Things have become more integrated since, but when I said it, they were angry at me because I was talking about the producers of The Cosby Show [Carsey-Werner produced both shows].

John, you're laughing now, but how did you deal with the wars your co-star waged back then?

GOODMAN I'll give you the good answer and the bad answer. I was at a point in my life where I didn't need any more stress. I was creating enough of my own. [Goodman, now sober, battled alcoholism during the original run.] So I just didn't do anything. I hid in the dressing room a lot.

Another theme of the show was female empowerment. Offscreen, what was the environment like when you were basically the only powerful woman at ABC?

BARR That's why I wrote that New York magazine piece. It was rough. But I had some women to talk to. Marlo Thomas and Lucille Ball, and they'd help me a lot. They'd tell me what it was like for them, especially Marlo. 'Cause [That Girl] was her show and her idea. It was good to speak to somebody who had done it, and she helped civilize my reactions. (Laughs.) I have to say, when Bob Iger came to ABC, he was a modern man, and there was a huge change.

Change for the better?

BARR Yeah, because he just got it. I'd go in and tell him my troubles, and he listened. It's because of Bob Iger that we are on ABC now.

CUMMINGS When we talk about Hollywood now, where every day you hear the scandal about this guy or that guy, I think this show could be healing. I think Dan Conner shows that you can be masculine without harassing women or cheating on your wife.

How much do you worry about Roseanne's personal politics eclipsing the show? You've said your kids took over your Twitter ...

BARR They did. "[Mom,] all you say is, 'You anti-Semitic pig' and shit.' " It wasn't going well. (Laughter.)

Has anyone asked you to hold back in the run-up to the show?

GILBERT Well, I've wanted her off [Twitter] forever.

CUMMINGS It's mostly prayers at night. (Laughter.)

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.