origin stories

Unraveling the Greatest Writers’ Room Story Ever

“Who Jackie?” has been retold for 28 years — much to the surprise of the Roseanne writer who said it.

Illustration: by María Jesús Contreras
Illustration: by María Jesús Contreras

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In a 2014 episode of his podcast Norm Macdonald Live, Norm Macdonald tells a story. It’s set during his tenure writing for Roseanne in the ’90s, when showrunner Roseanne Barr used to “give jobs to crazy guys.” In this case, Macdonald says she gave a job to a Black stand-up comic named David who apparently had no previous TV-writing experience and spent two silent years in the Roseanne writers’ room before announcing one day that he had an idea for the show. Macdonald switches into a higher-pitched blaccent when he recites the idea: “What would happen if Dan came home and Roseanne was washing her big ass in the sink?” The other writers in the room provisionally approve of this pitch. “Yeah, but the thing is,” Macdonald continues as David, “it ain’t Roseanne, it’s her twin sister.” Another writer pipes up, “We already have Jackie,” referring to Roseanne’s sister played by Laurie Metcalf, who at the time had just won three consecutive Emmys in the role. The blaccent returns once more, this time a little muted, as Macdonald underplays the punch line: “Who Jackie?!”

Comedy writers have been telling the “Who Jackie” story in their offices, at table reads, and in Sweetgreens for nearly 30 years. It started circulating in 1995 among employees at the Radford lot in Studio City, but it eventually made its way onto other lots and other writers’ rooms, until winking references began popping up on sitcoms like My Name Is Earl and 30 Rock

“I can’t remember not knowing that story,” says Modern Family creator Steve Levitan, who invoked “Who Jackie” in his 2022 Hulu series Reboot.

“That story has been told, or at least referenced, in every writers’ room I’ve been in,” says former Corporate showrunner Jake Fogelnest, who once made “Who Jackie” T-shirts for his friends.

“It’s a story that’s both mythological and just within reach,” says former 30 Rock writer Vali Chandrasekaran. “Because it feels like it’s existed forever, but also, everyone sort of knows someone who was there.”

Like all the best stories, no two people tell it exactly alike. Certainly not the 12 former Roseanne writers and 20 other comedians and TV creators who were interviewed for this journey through sitcom lore to determine what happened on that day in 1995. Sometimes “Who Jackie” is a long, winding tale full of flourishes; sometimes it spans a few spartan sentences; sometimes it’s the Ghost Variation. Specifics vary around details like the writer’s name, his relationship to Barr, and how long he’d been staffed at the show without being aware of the Jackie character. But the story always has the same punch line — blaccent optional. It’s like “The Aristocrats” meets Rashomon: Each retelling reveals nearly as much about the person tweaking it as it does about the story itself. Even when it’s coming from the mythical David himself.

Part I: An Incredibly Deep Bench

A lot of writers have falsely claimed they were in the room when the “Who Jackie” story took place. Their lies would be easier to disprove if they involved just about any other show, but Roseanne was famous for having an unwieldy writing staff. The average network sitcom in 2023 has between 10 and 15 writers; in contrast, by its eighth season, which is when the “Who Jackie” story played out, Roseanne had somewhere between 25 and 32. The show had so many writers that Barr gave them all numbered T-shirts to wear in the fifth season, ostensibly as a joke. Frequent turnover added to the chaos. Barr — who didn’t respond to interview requests for this article — reportedly fired writers so often, and later hired them back, that they developed an unofficial rule: When she fires you, just go home and come back the next morning like nothing happened.

The many Roseanne writers were mostly scattered throughout a floor of the Radford lot, where many other classic shows of the era, including Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show, were written and filmed. The staff was rarely all together except for table reads; instead, the highest-ranking writers and producers worked in the main room, while everyone else did rotations in satellite rooms developing scenes, punching up scripts, or churning out jokes. Former Roseanne showrunner Eric Gilliland remembers sending writers off to a room just to brainstorm episode titles. “She just sorta kept hiring people, and it was my job to figure out what to do with them,” he says. “Someone would ask, ‘Can I take a day off?’ ‘Go! Take three days. It’s fine.’”

The staff at Roseanne was divided between veteran TV writers, novices plucked from the stand-up circuit — Macdonald was among this group — and miscellaneous others culled from the deep end of the talent pool. “Roseanne hired funny friends on the spot, no spec script required,” says former writer Ritch Shydner. According to another former writer, Danny Zuker, Barr “would go to comedy clubs, and then there would suddenly be a bartender from the club in the room. Some of these hires were fantastic, and they have since had long careers and she was right to bring them in, but others were just friends or nefarious connections I don’t want to say.”

“Roseanne had an affinity for the prop people,” says Mike Costa, a former prop master Barr promoted in season seven, making him the first Black writer in the show’s history. “We were down-to-earth guys, and she was like a regular blue-collar person too.”

How the “Who Jackie” writer ended up at Roseanne changes depending on who’s telling which version, but he’s typically introduced as someone with no business working on a TV show, even though this is the least true part of the story.

Part II: Who David?

The most accurate part of Macdonald’s version of events is that the “Who Jackie” writer is a Black stand-up comic named David. It’s easy enough to verify his identity from there. Only three Davids are credited by IMDb as writers on Roseanne during the period when the story took place, and Googling each leads to a Reddit thread in r/NormMacdonald from 2017 about whether a David Forbes is the guy. (He isn’t.)

In one comment on this thread, a redditor unceremoniously announces that David “was a corny Black comic,” and a separate thread in the same sub-Reddit offers the name “David Tyree,” along with a clip of some extremely early-’90s stand-up. In it, a confident-looking dude with a chunky high-top fade and rimless glasses glides across the stage. He’s wearing a black blazer over a button-up that looks like the Saved by the Bell opening credits. His voice has a booming, buttery timbre, and he uses it to say things like, “Everybody calls me Folgers ’cause I’m dark and rich,” and “You women can call me coffee ’cause I grind so fine.” Beneath the video, a bunch of comments read, “Who Jackie.”

Although he never found full-on mainstream success, David Tyree had several near-brushes with fame. He was cast in a minor role on David Brenner’s 1976 sitcom, Snip, which was canceled before it ever aired. Mitzi Shore “passed” him at the Comedy Store, which in the 1980s was like getting initiated into the Skull and Bones Society of comedians. Once he became a fixture at the Store, he was friends with everyone — at a time when Richard Pryor and Sam Kinison were still around — and mentored a lot of greener comics coming up through the ranks.

“Tyree was one of the headliners I would always stay to watch after I went on,” says Mark Fernandez, another Comedy Store regular in those days.

“He was essentially my Mr. Miyagi of stand-up comedy,” says John Kreng, a comic from that era who went on to design action scenes for movies. He remembers opening for Tyree at the Comedy Store in La Jolla after Tyree suffered a family tragedy. He was visibly shaken up as he discussed the incident in private, but when he went onstage, he told the same story to a packed crowd — just with subtle changes in timing and word emphasis — and it killed.

“When somebody’s hot, everybody notices, because it seems like they’re the next one to pop. And it always felt like Tyree was just about to pop,” says mononymous comedian Dante. “But then he didn’t.”

Looking back, he sure came close. That stand-up clip on Reddit comes from Rodney Dangerfield’s 1991 HBO special, The Really Big Show. Another version of it on YouTube starts a few minutes earlier and presents Tyree in a more flattering light. The special opens with a sketch in which Tyree and Dangerfield are getting side-by-side massages at “Hollywood Health Spa.” Dangerfield pretends to suddenly realize who his rubdown neighbor is and proceeds to beg Tyree to open his HBO special. What happens next might be the most 1991 twist imaginable: Mr. T bursts through the doors of Hollywood Health Spa.

“David Tyree! They told me you was here,” says Mr. T. “Hey, man. I love you. Matter of fact, everybody loves you. Just keep taking care of yourself. We want you around for a long time. You’re the best, baby. The best!” Although the joke here, as ever, is that Dangerfield gets no respect, it does not come at Tyree’s expense. Instead, the entire setup preserves in amber Tyree’s high status in the comedy world at the time.

Part III: Another Joke Shoveler in the Engine Room

The first time I tried to get in touch with Tyree by DMing his professional Facebook page, an auto-reply announced, “Buy the book or CD … I’m trying to retire in comfort.” The contact page on his website, which is only a dozen years out of date but feels Geocities-ancient, yielded no response either. Eventually, I stumbled upon a link to Tyree’s private Facebook account, and after a couple weeks, he replied to a follow-up message there: “I’m not trying to be rude but I don’t do anything related to show business. I gave it 40 years and it gave me very little.”

A couple months later, after another former Roseanne writer nudged him, Tyree agreed to talk on the phone. His voice no longer carries as much bass as it did in the ’80s, and far more rasp has crept into it in the decades since, but he still sounds like a professional funny person. Every now and then, in conversation, he breaks out into a manic giggle fit — usually after something he’s just said himself — and sounds much younger than his 75 years.

Tyree says he and Barr first crossed paths on the 1980s stand-up circuit in the midst of her rapid rise to fame. According to him, she promised to get him a job writing for her show during Roseanne’s first season in 1988. He waited an entire year for the call before giving up hope and heading out on tour. She finally gave him an interview during the show’s seventh season.

Contrary to how the “Who Jackie” story is often told, Tyree was not entirely without television-writing experience before Roseanne. He says he apprenticed under TV legend Norman Lear in the 1970s and sold a couple scripts for What’s Happening!! around that time. He also says he was hired to play one of the leads in Bosom Buddies, the ’80s dudes-in-drag sitcom that launched Tom Hanks, before the role was recast with Peter Scolari. (“They gave me a nice check,” Tyree says.) But these credentials didn’t impress the executive interviewing him for the Roseanne job, despite Barr’s direct referral. As Tyree remembers it, the interviewer kept asking for more recent writing credits until Barr — who was either listening outside or happened to be walking by at that moment — popped her head into the doorway and said, “Just hire him and shut the fuck up.”

Former Roseanne writer Ed Yeager recalls the day Barr showed up on the Radford lot with two new hires: Tyree and another stand-up named Charlie Hill, a giant in the world of Native American comedy. The show had recently fallen in Nielsen ratings from the No. 4 spot in season six to No. 9 in season seven, and now these two were there to turn the tide ahead of season eight.

“That’s the way she put it,” Yeager remembers. “Charlie and David came in, and not only have they never been TV writers before, but they came in with this responsibility to save the show.”

“She was always saying stuff like that: ‘If you fucking assholes can’t do it, I’m gonna get some guys in here who are funny,’” adds former writer David Raether. “Then she would bring in some people, and they would be just as lost as we were.”

Zuker describes Tyree as affable during the time they overlapped on staff, albeit not particularly plugged into the show. “I don’t think he got any jokes that he pitched onto the show verbatim, but he always pitched good areas,” Raether says. “He would pitch a joke that would not be quite right, but you could fix it so that it would work for Roseanne.”

Tyree says the hardest part of his new job was being part of such a massive writing staff whose members often had opposing ideas of what was considered funny. Other former Roseanne staffers who came to the show as TV-writing novices remember feeling similarly disadvantaged. “Everybody is hyped up and excited in that room, and it’s a gladiator pit in there, trying to get a joke in,” says Costa, the former prop master. “I’m already fighting uphill: I’m prop scum, I’m the only Black guy, and it’s my first writing job. It’s in the heat of the moment, you’ve got bullets flying past you, you’re crawling on the ground with your musket, and then you say something. That’s what it was like in that room.”

Shydner, who joined the staff from the world of stand-up, remembers a frustrating whiplash effect after getting his jokes rejected by a handful of writer-producers rather than a packed crowd of comedy-club patrons who either laugh or don’t. “It was difficult to adjust from being in total control of your ship to just being another joke shoveler in the engine room,” he says. Tyree chafed against the hierarchy at the show, developing an “us vs. them” mentality that pitted himself and his fellow stand-ups against the show’s gatekeepers. If there was any chance he and the writer-producers were ever going to find an amicable working rhythm, Tyree claims it fell apart during one particular table read.

Prior to the table read, the producers had shot down a joke Tyree pitched for Johnny Galecki’s character, David, which hinged on David saying, “I can spell.” (“I don’t remember the joke,” Tyree says. “I only know it was David because David was a dumbass.”) At the table read, Barr didn’t like the joke the team had landed on. Tyree mentioned he’d pitched a good one that had been shot down. Barr asked for it, and when he recited the line, Tyree claims that she laughed and ordered the producers to put it into the script. “They all hated me after that,” he says.

Although none of the producers interviewed are especially complimentary about Tyree, they don’t remember harboring any animosity toward him, either. But Tyree is less diplomatic in his appraisal of them. “They had no fucking clue how to write a show,” he says. “I might not have known who Jackie was, but these motherfucking showrunners didn’t know shit.”

Part IV: The Room Where It Happened

The “Who Jackie” story occurred at some point during Roseanne’s eighth season, which kicked off in the fall of 1995. Yeager claims it happened on Tyree’s first day, right after Barr introduced him and Hill as writers who would “save the show.” Yeager remembers showrunner Gilliland greeting Tyree and Hill with a copy of the latest script and asking them to read it. When the two returned a short while later, Gilliland asked whether they had any questions. Tyree apparently had just one: “Who Jackie?”

“It wasn’t that remarkable a moment,” Yeager says. “Just a guy saying something stupid on his first day of work.”

Others remember it differently. Roseanne writers Zuker and Raether insist Tyree had been there at least a few weeks already. Gilliland says it was a few months: “The reason we were all so dumbfounded was that he had been there for a while.” But nobody I spoke with thought it was anywhere close to the two years Macdonald suggested on his podcast.

Another thing the writers are unsure of is exactly what led to the defining moment of the story. Macdonald’s memory of Tyree’s “washing her big ass in the sink” pitch rings a bell with multiple writers, but none are confident that it’s what prompted the question.

“That sink idea was a pitch from Dave, but I think it happened on a different day,” Gilliland says. “That was another one where our jaws were on the ground.”

Tyree doesn’t remember pitching the sink idea that day either. In fact, he doesn’t remember pitching anything. Instead, he recalls going to the first table read after the hiatus between seasons, hearing the other writers pitching lines for Jackie, and not knowing who the hell they were talking about.

Some former Roseanne writers give Tyree the benefit of the doubt that he was familiar with the character and just briefly got confused. Costa suggests Tyree mainly knew Jackie as “Laurie,” after Laurie Metcalf, since the character was sometimes referred to in the room by both names interchangeably.

This is Jackie. Photo: Carsey-Werner/Paramount Television/ABC via Everett Collection

“I was totally ignorant of the characters of that show. Totally,” Tyree admits. “I may have been going through sour grapes and not watched the damn show because I didn’t get the job I was supposed to get for so long. I didn’t watch Cheers either, and Cheers was No. 1. I didn’t watch any comedy shows on television that I thought I should have been on. I just couldn’t do it. I said, ‘I don’t wanna watch someone else get my check. Fuck that!’”

In the most apocryphal version of “Who Jackie” — the Ghost Variation — Tyree continues spouting ideas after the sink pitch, and he suggests that Jackie should die and become a ghost to make room on the show for Roseanne’s ass-washing twin sister.

Yeager can at least explain that rumor’s origins. “I did impressions of everyone, and sometimes I would pitch a story as David Tyree, to the delight of everyone in the room,” he says. “And one day I pitched a story where it was me as Tyree saying, ‘Jackie die and she go up to heaven, she start flyin’ around the room, everyone start prayin’ to her.’ And it was just that racist, and it was just that mean, and everyone laughed, and they made me go around from room to room and do that impression.” Somehow, enough people connected to Roseanne ended up familiar with Yeager’s impression that it eventually got tangled up in the “Who Jackie” lore.

“I always felt like I was telling children there was no Santa Claus when I told people that part of the story didn’t actually happen,” Zuker says.

Another heavily disputed piece of the “Who Jackie” puzzle is what happened right after Tyree asked the notorious question. Raether says one of the other writers leaned over and asked Tyree, “Have you ever seen the show?” sending everyone into hysterics. Former Roseanne writer Bob Nickman recalls that everyone “laughed and gave [Tyree] shit.” Writer Lois Bromfield also remembers the room breaking out into laughter, as does Costa.

But Yeager says that there was stunned silence until the writers made it into different rooms, and only then did the laughing begin. Gilliland believes a long uncomfortable pause ensued, before he gently explained the character Jackie to Tyree, who just sat there, unfazed.

Here’s how Tyree describes what happened: “The whole table looked at me like I was fuckin’ from the moon. Everyone laughed, and I said, ‘I’m serious, I don’t know who the fuck Jackie is.’”

Zuker had started a new job as a writer-producer on Grace Under Fire by this time, but that show’s offices were also on the Radford lot, directly above the common area at Roseanne. He remembers hearing explosive laughter from below on the day some former co-workers came running upstairs at lunch to tell him the “Who Jackie” story. “What made this a legend for me,” he says, “is that within 24 hours, you’d be walking around the Radford lot and hearing people say, ‘Who Jackie?’ I was leaving the next night, and I heard two security guards saying, ‘Who Jackie?’ and laughing their asses off.”

They would soon be joined by many others.

Part V: An Intergenerational Game of TV-Writer Telephone

Perhaps it was because the Radford lot was home to so many collegiate writers’ rooms, or maybe it was simply a consequence of the rapid-fire hiring-and-firing practices at Roseanne that sent writing staff packing to other series. For whatever reason, in the years to come, “Who Jackie” spread across town. It was the pre-social-media equivalent of a viral meme.

“I was amazed when I would have a meeting on another show, and one of their first questions would be ‘Who Jackie?’” Yeager says. “Anytime you met on a show and you were from Roseanne, anyone you were meeting with wanted to hear about it. Everybody knew. And this was before everyone had cell phones and shit.” Zuker cites seeing Liz Lemon say “Who Jackie” on the fifth-season premiere of 30 Rock in 2010 as the moment he realized the story had entered a higher level of public consciousness. But that wasn’t the first “Who Jackie” that made it on TV. It wasn’t even the first one on 30 Rock — Liz Lemon had already said those words during the previous season.

Years earlier, Jason Lee’s titular character on mid-aughts hit My Name Is Earl would often blurt out “Who Jackie.” It was either an exclamation or a punctuation, but mainly it was an Easter egg for viewers in the know. (“It’s always fun to do jokes that only 30 people will get out of millions watching,” creator Greg Garcia says in the DVD commentary of an episode in which a side character is revealed to have the screen name “whojackie.”)

As time went on, the references started getting more brazen. The story eventually found its way into the Tina Fey–created Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in 2015 — riffing on the Ghost Variation, no less. In the tenth episode of the first season, Kimmy’s love interest Dong works for a man named Hu Zha Qi — pronounced “Who Jackie” — who gets so mad at Dong he hopes out loud that Dong will “die, become a ghost,” and “fly around the room.”

A nod to the story even popped up in the ill-fated reboot of Roseanne that launched in 2018 and swiftly got canceled, for reasons that do not need to be relitigated here, before being reconfigured into The Conners, now in its fifth season. At one point in the reboot’s second episode, Sara Gilbert’s character Darlene asks Roseanne, “Where’s Dad?” “He’s in the kitchen,” Roseanne responds. “He’s washing his tail in the sink.” But Darlene Hunt, the credited writer of that episode, claims to have no memory of any conversations around this joke “or its correlation to the ‘Who Jackie’ story.”

The most recent “Who Jackie” to make it to TV, from the October 2022 finale of Hulu’s Reboot, marks the first time the story isn’t just referenced, but actually explained. Well, almost.

Veteran sitcom writer Gordon (Paul Reiser) has just had a heated confrontation with an executive, and his novice sitcom-writer daughter Hannah (Rachel Bloom) tries to convince him to apologize. Gordon refuses. “Writers in this town are gonna be talking about this story for years,” he says with pride. “It’s gonna be like the new ‘Who Jackie.’” Hannah is confused. She has no idea what her father is talking about. A look of delight spreads across Gordon’s face as he realizes he gets to tell his own daughter the “Who Jackie” story. He only gets about two seconds into it, however, before Hannah cuts him off. “I truly don’t care,” she says.

Chandrasekaran claims the story “doesn’t ping around writers’ rooms as much now” as it did back when he wrote for 30 Rock. These days, it exists more as a utilitarian reference point than torch-passing lore for a new generation of TV writers.

“If anyone is named Jack or Jackie in any way, it’ll often come up,” Zuker says. “If anybody forgets the name of somebody they should know — if someone were making fun of you for forgetting, that would be the way they’d do it.”

Fogelnest recalls hearing about a writers’ room in 2012 where someone had been impersonating Tyree while telling the story, when a Black writer walked in and asked what everyone was laughing about. The writer then repeated the story without doing an impression, and it fell flat — after which the others urged him to tell it again using “the voice” like he had the first time.

As much as the phrase “Who Jackie” has become an indelible comedy-world in-joke, the story itself can often function as a narrative hall pass for people to use a blaccent. In some tellings, especially the Ghost Variation, the humor depends almost entirely on the central figure being a racially coded caricature. ​​“When Norm Macdonald told that story, he’s like, ‘There’s a guy in the room — a Black guy,’” Costa says. “And I’m listening to it thinking, What the hell does him being Black have to do with ‘Who Jackie’? It’s got nothing to do with it. There’s no reason to mention his ethnicity in the context of this blunder that he made.”

“At what point is it a very funny story,” Fogelnest asks, “and at what point is it the story of a human being who has been the butt of this joke of wealthy privileged television writers who drive their Teslas on the lot and then keep people in a writers’ room until 10 p.m. because they don’t want to see their wife and kids?”

“Those are my thoughts about the story now,” he adds, “while still thinking it’s the funniest story ever.”

Part VI: Where Credit Is Due

After Tyree left Roseanne at the end of the eighth season — he doesn’t remember being let go; others do — he wrote for shows like Malcolm & Eddie in the late ’90s and Mind of Mencia in the early aughts. He also played bit parts in little-seen films like 2006’s Who Made the Potatoe Salad. “I was the best for about three years, and I still couldn’t get a goddamn TV show,” Tyree says. He continued performing stand-up and trying to sell TV pilots until he retired in 2010 at age 62. Until now, what he thinks of the “Who Jackie” story has long been a subject of speculation.

“I’ve heard he wasn’t totally psyched about it going viral,” says Zuker.

“He did not think it was a big deal,” says Nickman.

“He felt like an idiot,” says Bromfield.

In truth, Tyree had no idea the story was going around enough to feel one way or another. He got his first and only hint of its epic trajectory when the story was still mostly confined to the Radford lot. He was heading to his car one day after work when someone yelled at him: “Who Jackie?” Perhaps it was one of those security guards Zuker remembers being enamored with the story. Tyree can’t recall whether it was even anyone he knew, only that he didn’t feel pressed about being taunted.

“I just looked at him,” he recalls. “Because to me, it wasn’t a big deal. I just kept on smiling, going to my car. I might have even laughed. I thought it was funny that someone remembered what I said, even though it was out of ignorance.” He adds, “I didn’t mean it to be funny — I said it because I was ignorant — but once it was funny, I was happy it was funny. That’s all we’re here to do is be funny.”

Knowing what he knows now, however, Tyree has one request.

“I wish they’d mention my fuckin’ name,” he says of the “Who Jackie” storytellers. “There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Everybody who’s gotten bad publicity, their career goes up. My career’s over, but I’m just sayin’: It would be nice to know that I was the one that didn’t know who Jackie was.”

Unraveling the Most Legendary Writers’ Room Story Ever