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And I Should Know

Season nine, 1997: The last season, with the second Becky, Sarah Chalke.  

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.