The abrupt, precipitous demise of Roseanne Barr’s TV show marked merely the latest chapter in a career distinguished by soaring highs — including “Roseanne’s” most recent ratings breakthrough — and a near-equal measure of tumult.
Barr burst onto the scene as a stand-up comic in the 1980s, landing a coveted spot on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1985. But her profile entered a new stratosphere in 1988, when the comic’s “domestic goddess” routine served as the cornerstone of “Roseanne,” an ABC sitcom that became an almost instant sensation.
The late Brandon Stoddard, who ordered the show during his stint running ABC, once said that Barr “captured something that was going on in the country, which was women’s confusion and attendant anger about their role in families and children and the household.”
At its peak, the program — premiering at a point when there was far less competition, and the Fox network was still in its infancy — averaged more than 35 million viewers, consistently ranking among the top five primetime shows through its first six seasons.
Barr was no stranger to controversy, including her tone-deaf rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at a San Diego Padres game (“Roseanne” producer Tom Werner was among the team’s owners), which then-president George H.W. Bush called “disgraceful.”
Barr nevertheless benefited handsome from her show’s success, cashing in with sweetened contracts and production commitments, including a series starring her then-husband, Tom Arnold. But she frequently chafed at what she saw as slights from the network, with producer Marcy Carsey recalling in an interview for the Archives of American Television that the star “didn’t understand how you behave, and what your job is as a professional on a set. So she was difficult to work with.”
Those problems only grew as the show progressed, which produced inordinately high turnover among the writing staff.
One producer, Jeff Harris, took out a full-page ad in Daily Variety to announce that he was leaving the series, saying he had decided to “vacation in the relative peace and quiet of Beirut.” At another point, Barr issued numbered jerseys to the writers, sending a message that they were so disposable she didn’t need to learn their names.
In the 1990s, the task of dealing with Barr fell to then-ABC Entertainment president Ted Harbert, who recalled being summoned to Barr’s house to hold meetings — and seek ways to mollify her — while Barr and Arnold sat in bed.
Remembering the level of discord, Harbert told CNN, “It did happen more than any other show,” adding that it was often “difficult to identify what her problem was, and how to fix it.”
Harbert noted that there’s a long history of talent becoming demanding once they are associated with a major success, joking that while he got to experience “the good times” in fielding Barr’s complaints, when you’re in the position of running a network, “It’s a cost of doing business.”
“Roseanne” ended its historic run on ABC in 1997, and Barr segued largely into the world of reality television. She hosted a syndicated talk show, then appeared in a documentary-style series titled “The Real Roseanne Show.” ABC yanked the latter after airing just two episodes in 2003, when its sister network — then-known as ABC Family — didn’t proceed with a planned companion show, titled “The Domestic Goddess Hour.”
Barr surfaced again in a Lifetime series, “Roseanne’s Nuts,” which chronicled her move to Hawaii to live on and operate a nut farm. Among other things, she cited her disgust with Los Angeles in her direct-to-camera interviews.
“I can’t act like I’m interested in somebody who’s boring the f–k out of me, and I don’t have to because I’m too g–damn rich,” she said in the heavily bleeped premiere.
“Roseanne’s” return followed a flurry of similar made-for-TV revivals, including new versions of “Full House” and “The Gilmore Girls” (for Netflix) and NBC’s “Will & Grace.” Even before the show premiered, there were those who expressed concern about the star’s more outlandish postings on social media and her embrace of various conspiracy theories — raising questions, as Vox chronicled, about the Sept. 11 terror attacks, circulating material claiming Democrats are behind a pedophile sex-trafficking ring and calling Israel a “Nazi state.”
The huge tune-in for “Roseanne” when it premiered in March surely had ABC officials — in serious need of a hit — hoping that they could control the mercurial star, or perhaps more accurately, that Barr would control herself, to reap those benefits.
It didn’t turn out that way, reinforcing the sense that understanding Roseanne Barr is, perhaps, one of the few things more difficult than managing her.