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.
Barr now lives in Hawaii, where she farms macadamia nuts. She has a new book, Roseannearchy (Gallery; $26), and will return to TV in Roseanne’s Nuts, a Lifetime reality show.