"Suddenly It's Over": How 'Roseanne's' Stunning Demise Felt in the Writers Room

Roseanne Still Twenty Years to Life Episode - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Adam Rose/ABC

On Tuesday, veteran writer and executive producer Dave Caplan expected to wake up and go to work on what would be the first day of prep on TV's No. 1 show. Instead, he ended the day without a job after ABC, following a racist tweet by star Roseanne Barr, opted to reverse course and cancel the second season of its Roseanne revival.

The network's shocking decision came after Barr attacked Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama, writing: "Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj." Barr quickly deleted the tweet and apologized for her "bad joke," adding late Tuesday night that she was "ambien tweeting."

Caplan was among the new and returning Roseanne writers and exec producers who woke up to viral news of Barr's tweet on what was to be their first day of work on the 11th season of the comedy. Caplan, who wrote an episode of the original Roseanne, returned as an executive producer on season 10, which ended its run as TV's No. 1 scripted series on all of broadcast. Caplan has been in the industry for nearly three decades and has worked with Roseanne showrunner Bruce Helford on series including The Norm Show (with Roseanne consulting producer Norm MacDonald), The Drew Carey Show, George Lopez and Anger Management. Caplan, along with the rest of the writers room, learned of the cancellation from the press. Caplan spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday (before Barr returned to Twitter) about working with the controversial actress, learning of the show's axing and if he thinks Roseanne will ever return to TV.

Walk us through your day Tuesday.

The day began by reading her tweet and I was immediately horrified. I really wasn't sure what to do because I didn't feel like there was really any response to it. It was so far over the line and so loathsome that I suspected there might not be any coming back from it. Frankly, I knew that that was a possibility — and rightfully so.

And then you drove in to work to start work on day one of season 11 with the writing staff.

I drove in to work. It was the first day for the writing staff of the next 13 shows. We knew that it was going to be a kind of a bittersweet greeting of the new writers because we had really wonderful talent scheduled to write the next 13 episodes. We also knew that we couldn't start [that day]. We hadn't found out that ABC had canceled the show yet, but we also knew that none of us were in the frame of mind to start writing the show under the circumstances. We got together as a group for the first time and there was a lot of bittersweet hellos — and a couple hours later, a lot of very difficult goodbyes.

How did you find out about the cancellation? Did someone from ABC come in? Did showrunner Bruce Helford inform everyone?

We found out first through the press. We weren't sure if it was accurate. But then we heard from Tom Werner that the show was canceled. We all knew it was a possibility but the suddenness of it was a shock.

You worked briefly on the original run and were part of the first season of the revival. When you first signed on to come back to the show, did you suspect that Roseanne Barr, in an unfiltered Twitter landscape, would be as controversial as she wound up becoming?

Before coming back to do season 10, I exercised my due diligence and asked the powers that be what kind of mind-set she was in. I certainly wasn't interested in the really unpredictable, unstable behavior of the early years. Everybody that knew her seemed to say that she had matured. I cautiously but optimistically started season 10.

What was your experience like on season 10 with Barr again serving as the head writer?

Roseanne was in the room for the beginning of season 10 and she was quite reasonable with the writers. She knew that a lot of the writers did not share her political beliefs — although a lot of us had come from firmly middle-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds. She was reasonable to work with at that point. There were suggestions she made that we didn't think were the right direction for the show and she was willing to let those things go.

Such as?

I don't remember specifics. I remember there was a kind of give and take that I thought was a workable situation.

Helford has always said the intent of the show was to put a spotlight on the types of conversations that working-class people in Middle America are having — that isn't being reflected on TV. That was part of ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey's strategy that predated the Roseanne reboot.

Yes, from the beginning of the show, it was the intent of the writer-producers — certainly myself, [exec producer] Bruce Rasmussen and Bruce Helford — to bring people of all political beliefs into the tent and then have an honest discussion about what it's like to be middle class and be fearful for your future.

Everyone on staff is now in an unusual predicament where staffing season for broadcast has largely been completed. Do you know if you're going to be paid for the canceled season? Severance pay? Has ABC told you if the writing staff, rest of the cast and crew will be compensated?

No. Everybody is still in shock at how quickly this all went down. It's unfortunate because the writers did pass on other jobs to take this job and nobody really knows yet what kind of compensation they're going to get. Everybody is a little bit on edge about how it's going to turn out. But we all know it's a wasted opportunity to write more episodes.

What did Tom say when he relayed the message that ABC had canceled the show? Did he come in? His statement — in which he said he hopes Barr "seeks the help she so clearly needs" — was pretty powerful.

I stand behind Tom's statement. Tom didn't get a chance to tell us very much; I think he was still in the middle of talking to ABC about it. Bruce Helford, Bruce Rasmussen and I have a pilot project with Tom Werner for ABC and we'll continue working together. I know that Tom really regretted the fact that we had such a wonderful writing staff together — a real rare collection of talent — and I know he'd like to continue using it in some fashion if that were possible.

What was Tom's message to the room?

I don't know if he was local but he was on the phone and Bruce Helford spoke with him. He wasn't able to come in or speak to everybody today. Beyond his statement, I'm not sure what else Tom is doing.

Have you heard from Roseanne Barr?

We haven't heard from Roseanne at all, nor do I expect to. The rest of the writers came in Tuesday as it was supposed to be the first day of work. Bruce Helford, Bruce Rasmussen and I and the rest of the writers were together. But nobody has heard from Roseanne as far as I know.

How did the room respond to her racist tweet?

The reaction was universal disgust. That tweet doesn't reflect anything to do with our show, which was built on trying to explore a universal humanity that everyone goes through during hard times and difficult circumstances. We all felt the same thing about the tweet: We were horrified by it and we also knew what it meant for the show. So there was a sadness about it, too, for us.

Did you expect the show to be canceled? ABC, up until Tuesday, had not really addressed the controversy surrounding Barr. The backlash to the Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat joke and the old images that resurfaced of Barr dressed as Hitler …

Roseanne's previous behavior had been concerning but we thought it fell under the umbrella of politics and the crazy conspiracy theories that she likes to traffic in. Some of that we thought was her own private opinions that she was entitled to. But when it came to something like racism, there was no longer any way to accept what she was saying.

How did the writers room respond to news of the cancellation?

We knew it was a possibility. I knew it was a possibility from the moment that she tweeted that. ABC was in a very, very difficult position. Certainly, they could have tried to weather it but that would have been a real minefield for them. Everybody was still stunned after the cancellation. Everybody knew how bad the tweet was and how ugly and ignorant it was. But the suddenness in which it all happened left us all dazed. You're expecting to start a season, everybody has got ideas and is excited about what we can do and work that might not have been seen on television before. And then suddenly it's over.

There's been chatter on social media that Fox, given the network's new broader direction with Tim Allen's Last Man Standing, would be a fit for Roseanne after the dust settles here. Do you think there's a world in which Roseanne ever returns on any network in any form?

I would be surprised if she returned in any form. I think she probably has personal things she needs to deal with. I don't think there's any room for any kind of conservativism on TV that borders on racism. I'm sure that's not what they intend to do on Last Man Standing. I wish them all the best. And I think there is room for all kinds of voices on television — as long as they're respectful, humane and thoughtful. So if that's what they're going to do with Last Man, then I applaud them for that.

The broadcast networks have picked up a lot of multicamera comedies and programming focused on the working class. Even if it isn't on the schedule next season, Roseanne has had a major impact on the state of broadcast. Do you think the push to cater to a larger swath of Middle America is a smart idea for broadcast? Or is this TV doing what it's always done, reacting to shows that are hits, like we're seeing with This Is Us-style dramas?

I think right now it's TV responding to a hit and I think that's a shame. I think some press is also getting the narrative wrong. Roseanne wasn't about just catering to the right because the writers and producers didn't think it was that at all. Our intent was to take a more honest look at what people are facing in the middle of the country and in Middle America's dwindling middle class and look at it with some honesty and humor. I hope that's the legacy of the show, not just that it was controversial or that it made sitcoms fresh again. I hope the legacy is [one of] honest looks at the real things that are facing people while doing it in a humorous way.

The show's first nine seasons never shied away from pushing the envelope or exploring timely and controversial subjects. What do you think Roseanne would have looked like if Roseanne had a social media platform when the series was on originally? Would it have gotten to nine seasons?

I don't know but I will tell you that we live in a digital time where everybody can tweet to their own echo chambers and confirm how smart they are, both at the extremes of the left and the right. We have to find some way to come back to some kind of moderation again. Blogs, podcasts and cable news stations make that difficult because everybody hears what they want to hear constantly and nobody is open-minded enough to have a conversation that would benefit everybody.

Anything else you'd like to add?

I would hope Roseanne's hateful tweets don't indelibly color the work that was done on the show because a lot of talented people worked really hard to make an emotionally honest show and we'd hate for that to be tarnished by all of this.