From the Archives: Roseanne on Her Life in Television

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Photo: Robert Maxwell. Hair by Campbell McAuley/Solo Artists. Makeup by Shannon Hughey.

This story was originally published on May 15, 2011. We’re republishing it today in honor of the Roseanne revival at ABC.

During the recent and overly publicized breakdown of ­Charlie Sheen, I was repeatedly contacted by the media and asked to comment, as it was assumed that I know a thing or two about starring on a sitcom, fighting with producers, nasty divorces, public meltdowns, and bombing through a live comedytour. I have, however, never smoked crack or taken too many drugs, unless you count alcohol as a drug (I don’t). But I do know what it’s like to be seized by bipolar thoughts that make one spout wise about Tiger Blood and brag about winning when one is actually losing.

It’s hard to tell whether one is winning or, in fact, losing once one starts to think of oneself as a commodity, or a product, or a character, or a voice for the downtrodden. It’s called losing perspective. Fame’s a bitch. It’s hard to handle and drives you nuts. Yes, it’s true that your sense of entitlement grows exponentially with every perk until it becomes too stupendous a weight to walk around under, but it’s a cutthroat business, show, and without the perks, plain ol’ fame and fortune just ain’t worth the trouble.

“Winning” in Hollywood means not just power, money, and complimentary smoked-salmon pizza, but also that everyone around you fails just as you are peaking. When you become No. 1, you might begin to believe, as Cher once said in an interview, that you are “one of God’s favorite children,” one of the few who made it through the gauntlet and survived. The idea that your ego is not ego at all but submission to the will of the Lord starts to dawn on you as you recognize that only by God’s grace did you make it through the raging attack of idea pirates and woman haters, to ascend to the top of Bigshit Showbiz Mountain.

All of that sounds very much like the diagnosis for bipolar disorder, which more and more stars are claiming to have these days. I have it, as well as several other mental illnesses, but then, I’ve always been a trendsetter, even though I’m seldom credited with those kinds of things. And I was not crazy before I created, wrote, and starred in television’s first feminist and working-class-family sitcom (also its last).

I so admire Dave Chappelle. You did right for yourself by walking away, Dave. I did not have the guts to do it, because I knew I would never get another chance to carry so large a message on behalf of the men and women I grew up with, and that mattered most to me.

After my 1985 appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, I was wooed by producers in Hollywood, who told me they wanted to turn my act into a sitcom. When Marcy Carsey — who co-owned Carsey-Werner with her production partner, Tom Werner (producers of The Cosby Show) — asked me to sign, I was impressed. I considered The Cosby Show to be some of the greatest and most revolutionary TV ever.

Marcy presented herself as a sister in arms. I was a cutting-edge comic, and she said she got that I wanted to do a realistic show about a strong mother who was not a victim of Patriarchal Consumerist Bullshit — in other words, the persona I had carefully crafted over eight previous years in dive clubs and biker bars: a fierce working-class Domestic Goddess. It was 1987, and it seemed people were primed and ready to watch a sitcom that didn’t have anything like the rosy glow of middle-class confidence and comfort, and didn’t try to fake it. ABC seemed to agree. They picked up Roseanne in 1988.

It didn’t take long for me to get a taste of the staggering sexism and class bigotry that would make the first season of Roseanne god-awful. It was at the premiere party when I learned that my stories and ideas — and the ideas of my sister and my first husband, Bill — had been stolen. The pilot was screened, and I saw the opening credits for the first time, which included this: CREATED BY MATT WILLIAMS. I was devastated and felt so betrayed that I stood up and left the party. Not one person noticed.

I confronted Marcy under the bleachers on the sound stage when we were shooting the next episode. I asked her how I could continue working for a woman who had let a man take credit for my work — who wouldn’t even share credit with me — after talking to me about sisterhood and all that bullshit. She started crying and said, “I guess I’m going to have to tell Brandon [Stoddard, then president of ABC Entertainment] that I can’t deliver this show.” I said, “Cry all you want to, but you figure out a way to put my name on the show I created, or kiss my ass good-bye.”

I went to complain to Brandon, thinking he could set things straight, as having a robbed star might be counterproductive to his network. He told me, “You were over 21 when you signed that contract.” He looked at me as if I were an arrogant waitress run amok.

I went to my agent and asked him why he never told me that I would not be getting the “created by” credit. He halfheartedly admitted that he had “a lot going on at the time” and was “sorry.” I also learned that it was too late to lodge a complaint with the Writers Guild. I immediately left that agency and went to the William Morris Agency. I figured out that Carsey and Werner had bullshitted Matt Williams into believing that it was his show and I was his “star” as effectively as they had bullshitted me into thinking that it was my show and Matt Williams was my “scribe.” I contacted Bernie Brillstein and a young talent manager in his office, Brad Grey, and asked them to help me. They suggested that I walk away and start over, but I was too afraid I would never get another show.

It was pretty clear that no one really cared about the show except me, and that Matt and Marcy and ABC had nothing but contempt for me — someone who didn’t show deference, didn’t keep her mouth shut, didn’t do what she was told. Marcy acted as if I were anti-feminist by resisting her attempt to steal my whole life out from under me. I made the mistake of thinking Marcy was a powerful woman in her own right. I’ve come to learn that there are none in TV. There aren’t powerful men, for that matter, either — unless they work for an ad company or a market-study group. Those are the people who decide what gets on the air and what doesn’t.

Complaining about the “created by” credit made an enemy of Matt. He wasted no time bullying and undermining me, going so far as to ask my co-star, John Goodman, who played Roseanne Conner’s husband, Dan, if he would do the show without me. (Goodman said no.) That caused my first nervous breakdown.

To survive the truly hostile environment on set, I started to pray nonstop to my God, as working-class women often do, and to listen nonstop to Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.” I read The Art of War and kept the idea “He that cares the most, wins” upmost in my mind. I knew I cared the most, since I had the most to lose. I made a chart of names and hung them on my dressing-room door; it listed every person who worked on the show, and I put a check next to those I intended to fire when Roseanne became No. 1, which I knew it would.

My breakdown deepened around the fourth episode, when I confronted the wardrobe master about the Sears, Roebuck outfits that made me look like a show pony rather than a working-class mom. I wanted vintage plaid shirts, T-shirts, and jeans, not purple stretch pants with green-and-blue smocks. She bought everything but what I requested, so I wore my own clothes to work, thinking she was just absent-minded. I was still clueless about the extent of the subterfuge.

Eventually she told me that she had been told by one of Matt’s producers — his chief mouthpiece — “not to listen to what Roseanne wants to wear.” This producer was a woman, a type I became acquainted with at the beginning of my stand-up career in Denver. I cared little for them: blondes in high heels who were so anxious to reach the professional level of the men they worshipped, fawned over, served, built up, and flattered that they would stab other women in the back. They are the ultimate weapon used by men against actual feminists who try to work in media, and they are never friends to other women, you can trust me on that.

I grabbed a pair of wardrobe scissors and ran up to the big house to confront the producer. (The “big house” was what I called the writers’ building. I rarely went there, since it was disgusting. Within minutes, one of the writers would crack a stinky-pussy joke that would make me want to murder them. Male writers have zero interest in being nice to women, including their own assistants, few of whom are ever promoted to the rank of “writer,” even though they do all the work while the guys sit on their asses taking the credit. Those are the women who deserve the utmost respect.) I walked into this woman’s office, held the scissors up to show her I meant business, and said, “Bitch, do you want me to cut you?” We stood there for a second or two, just so I could make sure she was receptive to my POV. I asked why she had told the wardrobe master to not listen to me, and she said, “Because we do not like the way you choose to portray this character.” I said, “This is no fucking character! This is my show, and I created it — not Matt, and not Carsey-Werner, and not ABC. You watch me. I will win this battle if I have to kill every last white bitch in high heels around here.”

The next battle came when Matt sent down a line for me that I found incredibly insulting — not just to myself but to John, who I was in love with, secretly. The line was a ridiculously sexist interpretation of what a feminist thinks — something to the effect of “You’re my equal in bed, but that’s it.” I could not say it convincingly enough for Matt, and his hand-picked director walked over and gave me a note in front of the entire crew: “Say it like you mean it … That is a direct note from Matt.” What followed went something like this: My lovely acting coach, Roxanne Rogers (a sister of Sam Shepard), piped up and said, “Never give an actor a note in front of the crew. Take her aside and give her the note privately — that is what good directors do.” She made sure to say this in front of the entire crew. Then she suggested that I request a line change. So I did. Matt, who was watching from his office, yelled over the loudspeaker, “Say the line as written!” I said, “No, I don’t like the line. I find it repulsive, and my character would not say it.” Matt said, “Yes, she would say it. She’s hot to trot and to get her husband in bed with her, and give it to her like she wants it.” I replied that this was not what she would say or do: “It’s a castrating line that only an idiot would think to write for a real live woman who loves her husband, you cocksucker.” ABC’s lawyers were called in. They stood around the bed while the cameras filmed me saying, very politely, over and over, “Line change, please.” After four hours of this, I called my then-lawyer, Barry Hirsch, and demanded to be let out of my contract. I couldn’t take it any longer—the abuse, humiliation, theft, and lack of respect for my work, my health, my life. He explained that he had let it go on for hours on purpose and that I had finally won. He had sent a letter to the network and Carsey-Werner that said, “Matt wasted money that he could have saved with a simple line change. He cost you four hours in production budget.” That turned the tide in my favor.

Barry told me Matt would be gone after the thirteenth episode. Which didn’t stop him from making my life hell until then. Some days, I’d just stand in the set’s kitchen weeping loudly. The crew would surround me and encourage me to continue. CJ, one of my favorite cameramen — an African-American married to a white woman — would say, “Come on, Rosie, I need this job. I have five kids, and two of them are white!”

I was constantly thinking about my own kids’ being able to go to college, and I wrote jokes like a machine — jokes that I insisted be included in the scripts (lots of times, the writers would tell me that the pages got lost). But thanks to Barry, my then-manager Arlyne Rothberg, Roxanne, my brave dyke sister Geraldine Barr, the cast of great actors, the crew — who became my drinking buddies — the wardrobe department, and the craft-services folks, I showed up and lived out the first thirteen episodes, after which Matt left. Without all of them, I never would have made it. (Most of the crew now work for Chuck Lorre, who I fired from my show; his sitcoms star some of my co-stars and tackle many of the subjects Roseanne did. Imitation is the sincerest form of show business.)

Matt stayed just long enough to ensure him a lifetime’s worth of residuals. Another head writer was brought on, and at first he actually tried to listen to what I wanted to do. But within a few shows, I realized he wasn’t much more of a team player than Matt. He brought his own writers with him, all male, all old. Most of them had probably never worked with a woman who did not serve them coffee. It must have been a shock to their system to find me in a position to disapprove their jokes.

When the show went to No. 1 in December 1988, ABC sent a chocolate “1” to congratulate me. Guess they figured that would keep the fat lady happy — or maybe they thought I hadn’t heard (along with the world) that male stars with No. 1 shows were given Bentleys and Porsches. So me and George Clooney [who played Roseanne Conner’s boss for the first season] took my chocolate prize outside, where I snapped a picture of him hitting it with a baseball bat. I sent that to ABC.

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.

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. I hired comics that I had worked with in clubs, rather than script writers. I promoted several of the female assistants — who had done all the work of assembling the scripts ­anyway — to full writers. (I did that for one or two members of my crew as well.) I gave Joss Whedon and Judd Apatow their first writing jobs, as well as many other untried writers who went on to great success.

Call me immodest — moi? — but I honestly think Roseanne is even more ahead of its time today, when Americans are, to use a technical term from classical economics, screwed. We had our fun; it was a sitcom. But it also wasn’t The Brady Bunch; the kids were wiseasses, and so were the parents. I and the mostly great writers in charge of crafting the show ­every week never forgot that we needed to make people laugh, but the struggle to survive, and to break taboos, was equally important. And that was my goal from the beginning.

The end of my addiction to fame happened at the exact moment Roseanne dropped out of the top ten, in the seventh of our nine seasons. It was mysteriously instantaneous! I clearly remember that blackest of days, when I had my office call the Palm restaurant for reservations on a Saturday night, at the last second as per usual. My assistant, Hilary, who is still working for me, said — while clutching the phone to her chest with a look of horror, a look I can recall now as though it were only yesterday: “The Palm said they are full!” Knowing what that really meant sent me over the edge. It was a gut shot with a sawed-off scattershot, buckshot-loaded pellet gun. I made Hil call the Palm back, disguise her voice, and say she was calling from the offices of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Instantly, Hil was given the big 10-4 by the Palm management team. I became enraged, and though she was uncomfortable doing it (Hil is a professional woman), I forced her to call back at 7:55 and cancel the 8:00 reservation, saying that Roseanne — who had joined Tom and Nicole’s party of seven — had persuaded them to join her at Denny’s on Sunset Boulevard.

The feeling of being used all those years just because I was in the top ten — not for my money or even my gluttony — was sobering indeed. I vowed that I would make a complete change top to bottom and rid myself of the desires that had laid me low. (I also stopped eating meat for a year, out of bitterness and mourning for the Palm’s bone-in rib-eye steaks.) As inevitably happens to all stars, I could not look myself in the mirror for one more second. My dependence on empty flattery, without which I feared I would evaporate, masked a deeper addiction to the bizarro world of fame. I had sold my time and company at deflated prices just for the thrill of reserving the best tables at the best restaurants at the very last minute with a phone call to the maître d’ — or the owner himself, whose friendship I coddled just to ensure premium access to the aforementioned, unbelievably good smoked-salmon pizza.

I finally found the right lawyer to tell me what scares TV producers worse than anything — too late for me. What scares these guys — who think that the perks of success include humiliating and destroying the star they work for (read Lorre’s personal attacks on Charlie Sheen in his vanity cards at the end of Two and a Half Men) — isn’t getting caught stealing or being made to pay for that; it’s being charged with fostering a “hostile work environment.” If I could do it all over, I’d sue ABC and Carsey-­Werner under those provisions. Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing. And that’s why you won’t be seeing another Roseanne anytime soon. Instead, all over the tube, you will find enterprising, overmedicated, painted-up, capitalist whores claiming to be housewives. But I’m not bitter.

Nothing real or truthful makes its way to TV unless you are smart and know how to sneak it in, and I would tell you how I did it, but then I would have to kill you. Based on Two and a Half Men’s success, it seems viewers now prefer their comedy dumb and sexist. Charlie Sheen was the world’s most famous john, and a sitcom was written around him. That just says it all. Doing tons of drugs, smacking prostitutes around, holding a knife up to the head of your wife — sure, that sounds like a dream come true for so many guys out there, but that doesn’t make it right! People do what they can get away with (or figure they can), and Sheen is, in fact, a product of what we call politely the “culture.” Where I can relate to the Charlie stuff is his undisguised contempt for certain people in his work environment and his unwillingness to play a role that’s expected of him on his own time.

But, again, I’m not bitter. I’m really not. The fact that my fans have thanked and encouraged me for doing what I used to get in trouble for doing (shooting my big mouth off) has been very healing. And somewhere along the way, I realized that TV and our culture had changed because of a woman named Roseanne Conner, whom I am honored to have written jokes for.

From the Archives: Roseanne on Her Life in Television