Roseanne Barr (London Sunday Times Magazine, March 10, 2019)
The story of Roseanne Barr is one of epic rise and epic fall and possible redemption. She is a provocateur, fierce, funny, an outsider. Her television sitcom Roseanne ran from 1988–1997. It was a staple of American culture, won Emmy’s and Globes. It was revived by ABC and in 2018 it was the most watched show in America. Last May, in the middle of the night – 2 am she Tweeted. This Tweet was deemed innapropriate by her bosses at ABC, who immediately fired her and cancelled the show and within 48 hours had forced her to give up all rights to the show which was based on her own life.
The Tweet was ‘Muslim brotherhood and Planet of the Apes had a baby’ in reference to Valerie Jarrett, a former advisor in the Obama administration. At the time, the network said Barr’s tweet was “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.” The following month, the network decided to bring back the show but without Barr, and title it The Conners.
Going forward The Tweet is now usually described as a racist Tweet. That was not its intention as Barr didn’t know that Jarrett was black and no one seemed to know that Barr was Jewish and the Tweet was really about Iran/Israel. Racism was never her intention.
Her friend of 20 years, Rabbi Shmuley Botech tried to help. They did a Podcast together. He says, “she said that she wanted to engage in penance. She made a mistake. She took full responsibility. She shouldn’t have written that Tweet but she was judged very harshly. Her whole life dismantled, so I reached out to her.
We studied the Torah together for the last 20 years. Jewish values state three things when you make an error. No. 1 own up to it, No.2 apologise unconditionally and no. 3 make restitution in some form of tangible action. We did the podcast and she said ‘I absolutely want to engage in penance. It breaks my heart that people think I’m a racist. I’ve African American children in my family. I’m humiliated.’ She was sobbing.
Since the Tweet that changed her life, Barr went to her mother’s in Utah to have what she describes as “a nervous breakdown. seeing herself so vulnerable was shocking.
We meet her in her office/studio in El Segundo. On the way there, the Uber driver tells me he is a fan and points out that Bill Maher is applauded when he makes racist Tweets. It seems unfair. Is comedy about cruelty? Barr tells me it wasn’t like that.
She is first and foremost a Jewish woman who has fought Anti-Semitism for most of her life. Growing up in the Mormon Salt Lake City was harsh. She has said in the past “You weren’t supposed to think there. First of all it was frowned upon to be a girl, and second of all to be a fat, dark-haired girl who had no waist, and third to be a loudmouthed, short, fat, dark girl.”
Of course, these days she’s not fat, she has a waist, looks trim and has long blonde hair. She’s young looking for 66. Various surgeries have been well documented but it’s not about that. There’s something vibrant in her spirit. She tells me about the Tweet.
“I was dreaming and I woke up and I thought this is the really great thing that I’ll Tweet. I was appalled I was not allowed to explain it.”
The Tweet stems from the Obama regime, foreign policy on Iran and Israel. Her explanation in grander terms has included visits with Rabbi Botech to Israel, meeting politicians from the left and right and talks about anti-Semitism.
“I signed the rights for my whole life’s work away,” she says gravely. “I thought I had to do that. I thought this is what it’s going to take so I did it. Just the other day the Hollywood Reporter changed the Tweet again. They are on a tear against me and have been for a long time. They got my ex-husband (Tom Arnold) to review one of my shows.” Arnold is one of 3 ex-husbands. She’s friendly with the others but not him. “They’ve tried to silence me and humiliate me since I came to Hollywood.”
Her two sons Buck and Jake work with her at her studio. Jake makes me a perfect cup of coffee. Roseanne has started smoking and he doesn’t like the smell even though he smokes. He has special smoking clothes. She’s not doing any booze or pills. Let her smoke.
We circle back to the Uber driver and his Bill Maher point. “Bill Maher doesn’t get a quarter of the ratings I got and because he’s an arm of the Democrat party he gets away with it and he gave more than a million dollars to the Democrats. There is sexism but I’m not sure that men can get away with a lot anymore because everyone’s got their #metoo issues nailed, but now they just send in women to say the same shit men say and they think it’s feminism. It’s ain’t. It’s disgusting.”
Rabbi Botech says, “We now live in the divided States of America. Roseanne was perceived to be a pro Trump person and that automatically means she has to be a racist. Her show was ethnically diverse and politically diverse. Half the people like Trump, half the people hate Trump and that’s real America. Other sitcoms they’re all liberal or they’re all Conservative. This show had different political strands and they still cancelled it. My opinion is ABC should have said ‘you’ve done something that seems very offensive. We’re going to dock your pay for a month and donate it to an African American educational charity. Which she did anyway. She’s always donated to charities. Instead they moved to destroy her. Her show, it bears her name, it’s based on her life.”
It’s true. Roseanne loves Trump. Her politics though have always been provocative, standing up for the minorities, whoever they may be. In 2012 she formed the Peace and Freedom party. Before that she was Green and before that she hated George Bush.
As I’m talking to Roseanne in a pink fluffy sweater, she’s not what I expected – harsh and combative. She’s hypnotic, yes, but loveable. She’s still reeling from signing away the rights of her life.
“My life, my kids, but they (the network) told me if I do one more thing they don’t like they’ll remove my reruns for ever. And I said could you define what the one more thing is and they won’t. it could be that I say the word shit. It could be whatever they want. It’s a total Stalinist censorship. I’m known for free speech and also bringing free speech into a family context with the conversations had on my show. They don’t want none of that no more. They only want pliable servants. I’m not that. I’m not a slave.”
We discuss stage one, the aftershock. “I had a complete nervous breakdown.” She couldn’t get out of bed. “Right.” She couldn’t speak. “Right. I couldn’t think either. They gave me 48 hours to sign away the rights to my show or I’d be sued because I ruined the season. They cancelled the show before one sponsor pulled out which is unheard of, unprecedented. They wanted to get rid of me. My boyfriend (Johnny Argent has been her partner since 2003. They met through a writing competition she hosted on her site) said it’s because I was bad for the hate business. Because I brought people together under one roof who disagreed about the President, but they moved past it and still got along. One thing changed in that game – it’s the philosophy based on the hatred of an outsider. It’s called anti- Semitism but it’s also anti-intellectualism and anti-free speech.
My show had the most progressive storylines ever on television. If you say one positive thing about President Trump, the new progressives will destroy the most progressive show on TV. I knew it was going to happen. They tried to kill me the first day I went back to work.”
Literally or metaphorically? “Everything. Physically, mentally and spiritually, in every way. It was a mistake to go back there. I’ve made mistakes many times in my life.”
Part of Barr’s love for Trump is because he supports Israel but she also thinks he’s a “genius”. Now she feels the most opinionated woman on TV is not entitled to some opinions.
“Americans know next to nothing about the Iran deal and the Obama administration and what they did with the Iran deal to put Israel and the Jewish people in an existential crisis around the world. The government in Iran was like the movie Planet of the Apes. We’d already said that for weeks.”
It has been reported that someone called ABC which resulted in Barr’s removal. Barr alleges that it was in fact Michelle Obama who called the President of ABC who fired her. She said, ‘this Tweet is unforgiveable’. That’s what I was told and I tend to believe it because the woman who fired me is now working with the Obama’s at Netflix.
They wanted to take a Jew down. They wanted to take down a Zionist because they think that Zionists are the problem with everything in the world and a lot of people in this country think like them that’s why I was flattered when Schmuley called and said, ‘let’s teach Torah’. I have a lot of Rabbi friends because one of my passions in life is to talk about the Torah. When I sent that Tweet, I had this feeling in my head that God gave me this idea.”
But it was in the middle of the night. “Yes, and I was also in an inebriated condition. I’d gone to bed at 11.00, sent the Tweet at 2.00, was on Ambien. It was a very stupid thing.”
I took Ambien and it made me sleep eat. “It did me – 2 pounds of cheese every morning.”
But it also made her sleep Tweet. “I wished I hadn’t done it and I don’t take Ambien no more. It made me think in an impaired way and I’d also had a couple of beers. I should have written it backwards. It came out dyslexic. It should have been ‘Valerie Jarrett’s ties to the Muslim brotherhood have now allowed Iran’s government to remain as in the movie Planet of the Apes’. That was the conversation. After a 30-year career of championing civil rights, it all ended. They hate powerful women and they hate powerful, deplorable women and I do consider myself deplorable. Deplorable is the greatest thing that Hillary ever called us because it empowered a revolution, we are deplorable to her kind. Of course, all working class people are deplorable to her because it was working class people that elected Trump.”
According to Rabbi Botech, Barr is now in the second phase after the Tweet.
“The first was extreme remorse and heartfelt apology. That podcast was listened to by hundreds of thousands of people, but regardless of the degree to which she apologised, people still didn’t forgive her, she started becoming more defiant. She said ‘Schmuley, I’ve apologised and it’s got me nowhere. People are not in the mood to forgive. My friends tell me you can’t apologise in this culture. It’s like confession.’”
Can she forgive? “I’m not going to forgive.” Our mutual Rabbi friend might suggest that that’s hard to carry around. “It’s not hard to carry around it’s wonderful, it gives me great fuel. Schmuley and I disagree on that. If you forgive the unforgiveable, you’re not a moral person.”
Reading the Torah is something Barr has done all her life. She and Botech met when he came on her talk show to promote his book Kosher Sex. She let him know that she wanted her daughters to marry Jews and he selected three Jewish boys for them to try out. “I found nice Jewish boys and we filmed it. It was like the Jewish Bachelor.”
It didn’t work out for them.
“They were nice guys but he didn’t go with the looks.”
Her daughters are married now. One of them did end up with a Jewish guy. “The other two are Jewish now.” They converted? “No, they just by osmosis became Jews. When I first met Schmuley I thought he was very interesting. We did a debate on pornography with Larry Flint the three of us. We respect each other’s opinions and he’s one of the few men that listens to women.”
Does her boyfriend listen to women? “He’s a good one. He’s a hippie. Vegetarian and all that. I am too mostly. He’s not crazy about me smoking,” she says, lighting up another but feeling somewhat self-conscious she opens the door and cool air wafts in.
Her entire career has been built on provocation. In the early seventies she married Bill Pentland, a hotel clerk. They moved to Denver, lived in a trailer park and she had three kids. As a child she’d learnt that the only way to survive was to be fierce and funny. She started performing at local comedy clubs. Eventually she got her break on The Tonight Show where her humour offended the audience until they gasped with laughter.
A few days after her divorce from Pentland in 1990, she married Tom Arnold, even took his name. she describes that period as the worst time of her life and “a horrible dysfunctional relationship.” They posed for Vanity Fair naked and mud wrestling. Perhaps a metaphor for that relationship.
In 1995 she married Ben Thomas, had her youngest son Buck, divorced in 2002.
She is emphatic she has never been a racist, whatever she’s been.
“Jew haters are calling Jews racist. Let’s be real. Does racist mean by silenced by the left? They want to throw it around so much. Of course, I’ve apologised because this was an insensitive comment, but really its damage was in the way it was perceived. I can’t be responsible for the way people perceive things. People have always done this to me. They don’t get me. I have a lot of fans. First of all, the only people who called me in Hollywood were black people. White people in Hollywood don’t know about racism. Let them say ‘Roseanne called black people monkeys’. Let them do it if that’s the spin they want. I had a nervous breakdown because of how I was mentally abused. It was really freaky. They lined up to abuse me and kick me in the teeth. They are not good people.”
Another blow was when they decided to continue the series, calling it The Conners but without Roseanne. Roseanne had died of a drug overdose by using other people’s prescriptions to get drugs.
Rabbi Botech says, “When The Conners came out, I was very upset about how they dealt with her death. A grim ending of a beloved character that has been a staple of the American culture for 20 years. It’s a blue-collar show. It’s an insult to the working class that they’re all trading prescription drugs.
Barr continues, “They think because they killed me it’s OK for them to use me, use the memory of me. Still mention me. It’s still my show but they stole it. They are going to do it to other comics. I’m just the first.”
Isn’t that the nature of the comic – to get a reaction? To make people laugh, you have to make people unsettled.
“I don’t just like to make people laugh. I like to piss them off and make them think too. I like to provoke them. I’m a provocateur. I knew they were trying to censor comics ever since Obama signed the NDAA into law. I Tweeted the next day ‘he’s just killed comedy’. It’s like the PC police. A PC police state and they have no compunction about destroying innocent people every day. It’s about mind control. Everyone in America is under mind control from television except for my show, that’s why they got rid of it.”
Does she think she’ll ever have another show? “No, I’m totally done. People have approached me. People say ‘go on this channel. They’re not about the ratings’ but I’m a champion of ratings.”
Does she ever think she’ll be President Barr? “People are saying that too. Part of why I love Trump is that he took so many of my ideas from my 2012 campaign. I’m about to put out my speech to show it.”
“He’s welcome to those ideas. Nobody owns good ideas. People are always stealing my ideas. Everything on television is some kind of theft from me. They don’t credit particularly women my age here. You know, if you’re not fuckable it’s no good. Not that I ever was. I’m one of the few women who’s made it on looks and talent in Hollywood.”
“I tried to sleep my way to the top but there were no takers. I would have but that wasn’t open to me.”
No one ever #metoo’d her. “My friend Mike Tyson the boxer called it #youtoo. It’s a witch hunt.”
How does she feel about women who claim to be abused 20 years previously but didn’t say anything about it at the time?
“That’s because they’re ho’s. if you didn’t say no and just stayed there to get along, you’re a ho. Men are ho’s too. There’s a total ho mentality. What am I going to get for trading sexual favours? Not that I’ve got anything against ho’s. Not real ho’s.”
While she was having her nervous breakdown, Rabbi Botech called her. “He said, ‘we can’t let them destroy you because you’re the strongest voice for American Jews in Israel. It woke me up. I had my fight back. I just went with him to Israel. In Israel they can talk, talk out differences, talk to each other. I was invited to speak by the left-wing Labour party. No one is all good or all bad. I don’t like what the Obama administration did to Israel and Jews worldwide.”
Did her love or Torah come from the idea that Torah was for the boys, not for the girls? Did she ever have a Yentl thing going on?
“Yeah, totally Yentl. I got that movie although I like calling it Lentil.” I really want to sing Papa Can You Hear Me but I’m bad at singing so I restrain myself. “That’s another joy of my life – singing. I’m doing it more and I’m loving it.”
When I tell her I was recently thrown out of a restaurant for bad singing, she says, “singing badly is still hilarious.” She gives me her DVD Rockin’ With Roseanne (fun filled kid tunes with loads of singing and dancing).
Becoming a grandmother changed her, softened her. She loves singing. She loves kids. She loves the Torah. She loves growing things in her home in Hawaii, cooking soups and selling them in the shop (carrot and ginger is a favourite). “My life is so peaceful. I’m not angry anymore. I use my anger to write. It’s a good battery but I don’t live it and that’s a good switch. I don’t let it bleed into my real life.”
Do blondes have more fun? “I love my blonde hair. I’m going to let it grow to my waist. I’m never cutting it again. It’s a whole new attitude. My friend said to me once when I was unhappily married…” To which husband? “oh, to all of them eventually. My friend said ‘time to dump the ape and go blonde’. We always called men apes in Utah. I’m in touch with the ex-husbands, all but one. I don’t speak to Tom Arnold.”
She has children with these ex-husbands and now grandchildren. Often the grandchild/grandparent relationship is stronger. “Yes, we understand each other because we have a common enemy. I really do love children and young people. It opens up a whole new wrinkle in your brain and you have a longer view of the world. And they’re what you leave behind.”
Does she ever think about that – dying? “No – I won’t be there. It don’t matter.”
Not doing her sitcom doesn’t meant to say she’s not working. “I’ve got my own channel. I’m working on content for that. When I fell back into writing the show for a 10thseason it was just like riding a bike. I turned my back brain on. They didn’t take that away. They killed me off but that was just stage one. Stage two is over (her breakdown). I’m at stage three now – their pain. The karmic boomerang. I can’t allow them to win. I’m not that kind of a person.
Did you ever read that book about circus freaks? The parents shot the kids up with drugs when they were in the uterus so that they would be born with two heads. I’ve also thought about a movie called Sitcom and everything would be based on real things that I lived through. They’re hilarious now a million years have passed. They weren’t funny at the time. I was talking to Mel Gibson about a movie based on the Torah. I would love to write that with Mel. He’s a very good director.”
So much for him being a Jew hater. “He’s a very layered structure of a human being. He’s unstoppable. Been there, done that. Here’s my talent motherfuckers.”
She thinks President Trump is a very layered man.
“He’s a real deep thinker.” That’s now how he comes across. “Well that’s his Trump puppet. He’s got a Trump puppet and he’s somewhere else. Like here’s a shiny object. It’s too complicated. I’ve met him several times. And don’t forget you can’t judge anyone for how they Tweet on Twitter.”
We agree that Prozac makes one quiet. She has taken anti-depressants of course. There isn’t anything she hasn’t done. “They dull your rage. Most people don’t like angry women. And Prozac makes you just numb but sometimes you need that, get through the trauma. This trauma I’ve faced it head on and I haven’t done that before. I didn’t face it alone. I let people in to help me like my boyfriend and my mom. My mom took really good care of me for 3 months until I got back on my feet. We’ve been on good terms for about 20 years now but this time she was just wonderful and I felt a lot of love from people I hadn’t let in, so more now than ever before I let the love in.”
Does she think because of that people want to help her? “I don’t know. I think they might have identified with getting screwed.”
She really has found a kind of strength from being vulnerable, from letting people in. It’s magnetic. She’s allowing herself to be empathic whereas before she closed walls like armour. She’s already spent almost a year in purdour. The last time she radically offended, it took years. I called it the star mangled banner incident. It’s when she grabbed her crotch and spat ata nationally aired baseball game in July 1990 at the playing of The Star Spangled Banner. She was called disgraceful by then President Bush.
“That’s when I pissed off the right and now I’ve pissed off the left. It took about fifteen years but they got over it.”
Did she ever want to be liked? A really long pause. “Well yeah. I’m human but I didn’t want to be liked by the wrong people. I wanted to be liked by the right people and noticed by the wrong people.”
Why was it so different when you allowed your mother to support you? “I realise that’s what I wanted my whole life but I never felt I got it.”
Did she push people away? “Yeah. I left men unless I needed them and I needed to change that. I’d already kind of changed that since becoming a grandmother. That was fading. Life can change.”
Do you mean this is the final metamorphosis? “I hope not my final. I think now I’m gonna figure out what God wants for me. But I never do anything unless I think God wants me to do it.”
Does she think God wanted her to shut people out? “No. he wanted me to expand my radius of love. That’s what he wants for everybody.”