The 600-square-foot Denver house where Roseanne Barr once lived with husband Bill Pentland and their three children a couple of lifetimes ago would almost fit into the kitchen of the 6,800-square-foot, $3.4 million Brentwood house where Roseanne Arnold now lives with husband Tom Arnold and her three children.
It’s a dream kitchen, a showcase kitchen, a French-country-gone-California affair with important copper cookware hanging from a ceiling rack and pretty, hand-painted country-scene plates stacked in glass cabinets and a Silver Palate Cookbook propped open in a Lucite stand. There’s a generous breakfast nook, cozy yet airy, with a picture-window view of the back garden and a Tiffany-style lamp overhead and an ample dining table. Oh, yes: There’s also a large jar of Miracle Whip on the table. And a Sunday newspaper supplement, the kind with ads for figurines of little birdies. And a copy of Tattoo magazine. And a roll of paper towels that double as what people very unlike Roseanne would call serviettes. And there’s a selection of chicly prepared healthy foods — salads, chicken, green beans, baby carrots — set out in the little plastic take-out containers in which they traveled from L.A.’s Nowhere Cafe to the kitchen table of America’s headline-making, TV ratings-grabbing, controversy- provoking, tabloid-selling, tattoo-sporting, love-’em-and/or-hate-’em, in-your-face, blue-collar millionaires Roseanne and Tom Arnold.
Roseanne! Is there anyone breathing who has not heard of Roseanne Arnold? In the pages of People three weeks ago, she charged that she had been sexually abused as a child, had buried those memories for years, and had only recently recovered them. The story made headlines on the nightly news.
On Sally Jessy Raphaél two weeks ago, she alleged in even greater detail that her mother and father had abused her. The program was the second highest rated SJR show ever.
(It goes on: Roseanne’s parents, Helen and Jerry Barr, deny the allegations, and their lawyer, Melvin Belli, says he advised them to consider filing charges of defamation, libel, and slander against publications that print their daughter’s accusations. Further, according to Kevin McLean of the Belli law firm, Roseanne’s attack on her parents arises out of their support for her ex-husband in his desire to maintain joint custody of the kids. Her estrangement from her family, McLean says, stems from their refusal to sign a release ceding rights to their life stories as the basis of a cartoon show Roseanne wants to develop.)
The details of sexual abuse were arresting, yes; they were meant to be, Roseanne says, to draw attention to a serious problem that is too often a secret. But audience fascination with Roseanne Arnold — or maybe it’s what she likes to call a ”love-slash-wince” relationship — goes a lot deeper than horrified human compassion for her alleged childhood traumas.
In fact, we’re fascinated with Roseanne because she is So Out There. When Roseanne appeared in her HBO special last January, ratings soared. In fact, fascination with Roseanne combines bemusement with appreciation, adoration with exasperation. As she herself knows.
Roseanne: Yeah, they did this disgusting piece (on TV) about why celebrities (reveal painful secrets). One of the guys they asked was some creepy little guy in a hat that said, ”I’m sick of hearing about Roseanne Barr!” I mean, they totally missed the point, with that blame-the-victim thing.
Tom: And he purposely said Roseanne Barr.
The point, oh, the point of Roseanne!
”Let’s eat!” announces Tom late on a recent Saturday afternoon. He’s big but noticeably trimmed down — there’s 100 pounds less of him than there used to be — and he’s wearing shorts and a turquoise Lacoste-type shirt, a gold-and-diamond wedding ring, and a Major Gold wristwatch. A motion machine, he likes to keep busy: knees jiggle, fingers wiggle, feet flex. ”We’re gonna eat while we talk to ya. Is that okay, do ya mind?” he asks, swinging his 6’2” frame into a chair and zeroing in on a chicken cutlet.
”I’m starved,” says his wife, 5’4” and dieting. In a white Lycra miniskirt and black over-blouse, with bare legs, white sandals, and two Extremely Expensive diamond rings on small, round hands, Roseanne is 60 pounds lighter these days than she was in last year’s famous fleshy photos. Earlier in the day, the couple endured additional tattoo work on their anatomy — an ongoing Arnold project, like home renovation. Roseanne had a flower added to a complicated bouquet on her spine; she’s in pain. Tom had white and red detail added to a large blue Star of David on his right pec. He feels fine. (”I wanted it since I turned Jewish,” he says, referring to his recent conversion, at his wife’s request.)
Tom: You’re getting another big flower…
Roseanne: If I live through it.
Tom: You’ve had four children, honey.
Roseanne: Yeah, it’s about that bad, too, on the spine. I had to do my Lamaze breathing…
Now Roseanne browses through a plastic cradle of baby carrots, noshing like America noshes, wiping her fingers on paper towels and reading the Sunday-supplement gossip pages. Which inevitably contain gossip about Roseanne Arnold.
And lordy, the woman has a knack for making headlines. Even as this heartland couple in diamonds and tattoos grazes on take-out food in their serious cook’s kitchen, supermarket shoppers throughout America are coming face-to-face with Roseanne on the cover of People. Even as they pick at sprouts and drink diet Coke, Roseanne’s sitcom-defying prime-time series, Roseanne, now into its fourth season on ABC, is tenaciously No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings-funnier, stronger, more fully realized, and better than ever.
Roseanne loves to confound her fans as well as her detractors. People love the character she plays (but her peers have never nominated her for an Emmy, not as an actor, writer, producer, or creator). People hate the woman who scratched and spit and shrieked through the National Anthem two summers ago (but love her outrageousness). They think she’s a wise observer of domestic reality (but are put off by her antics with her new husband). They’re offended by her (but titillated). They’re fond of her (but embarrassed). They want her to be a certain way, and then she goes and is another.
Roseanne has made a career out of being what she calls ”nuts” — shoving at the boundaries of what she sees as uptight good taste. But now, perhaps for the first time, she is learning to distinguish the self-destructively nuts from the creatively nuts. Maybe.
Roseanne: I certainly don’t want to be normal. Ya know, we went to this Tom Jones concert the other night. It was in Vegas, so it was, like, a totally dead audience, really old, so we were dancin’ and havin’ a great time. And some old lady yells out, ”Sit down, Roseanne! SIT DOWN!” You know, that kind of real judgmental, horrible…
Tom: So what’d I say to her?
R: Tom said, ”Suck my d—!” I mean, ya know, those are the normal people!…
And here is the normal Roseanne. The hardest thing to get is this: The real Roseanne is all these Roseannes, all together in one woman, not to be taken in pieces. The Roseanne who bravely, painfully told the world that she was sexually abused as a child is the same woman who has boasted to the world about her fat and her sexuality, who has mooned and belched, and who drank and smoked five packs of cigarettes a day. And who is now, she says, clean and sober and thinner and happy in love. She wants to make movies and have more kids. She wants to live on a farm — they recently bought five farms and linked them together in a single thousand-acre down-home spread in Wapello County, Iowa, 10 miles from Tom’s father, Jack, who works for an agricultural equipment manufacturer, and his stepmother, Ruth, who runs a small child-care service out of their home. And she wants to write books — about recovery, about Roseanne.
The Roseanne who had TV producers fired or left them howling and fleeing Roseanne in the show’s first and second seasons is the same woman who, with her husband, now presides with relative smoothness as co-executive producer of the most popular TV hit on the air, and who has lucrative production deals with ABC and HBO. Having abandoned Little Rosey, a Saturday-morning animated kids’ show, when ABC demanded more boy characters added to the mix, she’s now developing a prime-time Simpsons-like special called The Rosey and Buddy Show. Having fired writers and producers from Roseanne, she’s now developing a sitcom starring Tom as — get this — a comic who lands a TV show and must work with terrible writers. Having grown up a lonely Jewish girl in Mormon Salt Lake City, she’s now working on a Hanukkah special for ABC. Planting family roots to replace the ones she has severed, she has made Tom Arnold her world. On Nov. 10, the two of them star in ABC’s Backfield in Motion, her first made-for-TV movie, about a mother-and-son football game.
The thing to get is this: Forget about a ”good” Roseanne and a ”bad” Roseanne. The pieces are now integrated into one funny, mercurial, astute, outrageous, dramatic, refreshing, annoying, challenging woman, perhaps for the first time. Maybe.
Roseanne: Oh, I’m at my peak.
Tom: She’s coming back. She’s still got a ways to go to peak, but she is coming…
Roseanne: Well, this is the best I’ve ever been.
Roseanne: I mean, I still have a lot of s— to deal with…
On the Carsey-Werner set of Roseanne at one end of the CBS-MGM lot in Studio City, the cast of TV’s first hot-hit sitcom starring a sloppy, tired, cranky, blue-collar working-mom heroine gathers at 10 on a Tuesday morning for rehearsal. John Goodman greets his on-screen wife and sinks his weight into a Conner family kitchen chair. Laurie Metcalf, her recently blonded and frizzed hair now back to its browner, straighter senses, takes her seat to read her lines as Roseanne’s sister, Jackie. The Conner kids are there — Lecy Goranson, Sara Gilbert, and Michael Fishman — with their on-set tutors sitting nearby. (Gilbert often gravitates to the godawful brown-and-mustard crocheted afghan on the Conner couch, wrapping herself in the thing during breaks.) There’s a guest star in the house, too — comic guerrilla girl Sandra Bernhard, who plays Nancy, the girlfriend (and soon-to-be-wife) of Tom Arnold’s Arnie Thomas.
Business is calm, relaxed, smooth. Director Andrew Weyman runs a line reading, then stages a scene in the kitchen. During a break, Roseanne and Tom chat with Goodman and Bernhard at the table like coffee-klatsch regulars. At another, Roseanne is prevailed upon to display her new tattoo.
John Goodman: Oooh. Is it infected?
Goodman: Oh, so it’s supposed to be purple.
The script, a two-parter contrasting Nancy and Arnie’s Las Vegas wedding with 18-year kvetches in the Conner marriage, is strong, fresh, and very funny; script assistants and crew members laugh often. The workday proceeds fluidly, and the afternoon run-through for the writers and producers ends with smiles and nods in the Las Vegas chapel constructed in one corner of the set, where Roseanne’s coffee shop usually stands. The cast is in full ensemble flower, acting at the top of their form. Too little credit has been given Roseanne for her seemingly effortless stage work. This is a show running on all cylinders.
This in itself is news — news sometimes buried under the weight of Roseanne Arnold’s tabloid-ready escapades.
Roseanne first made news eight years ago for being a funny woman — a wife and mother from the urban heartland, blue collar and overweight, who truly knows what it means to live in a tiny house with a husband and three kids in a real world that is nothing like a sitcom or a romance novel or even like what they say in the pages of women’s magazines. As Roseanne Barr, the wisecracking, gum-chewing ”domestic goddess” with the flat, buzz-tone voice, she took feminist wisdom — hey, sisters, this stuff sucks! — and told it with such brutally funny perception that millions of people got it immediately. She walked onto The Tonight Show in 1983 as a Denver housewife — and walked off a media event.
”Yeah,” she says, her shopping-mall grammar untouched by her Brentwood zip code. ”Yeah, a lotta comic guys said when I first came to town, like, here is the female savior of female comedy, like, really the female Richard Pryor. Ya know. The first.”
But it was with her sitcom that Roseanne made it big-time. ”We knew we wanted to do a show about a working mom,” says co-executive producer Marcy Carsey, herself a working mother of two teenagers (and, Roseanne claims, her role model of a woman whose priorities are screwed on straight). With her partner, Tom Werner, Carsey had already hit the jackpot with The Cosby Show when the two approached Roseanne about developing a sitcom.
”There was nothing on the air that showed the difficulty and the wonderful aspects (of that life),” Carsey says. ”We knew we wanted Roseanne to be the personification of this social phenomenon. When we first met her, we told her what we had in mind and we said, ‘Do you want to do this? And can you do this?’ And she said, ‘Yes, I do want to. And yes, I can.’ The question was as earnestly put as that, and the answer was as sincere as that.”
Roseanne has finished in the Nielsen top 10 in its first three seasons. But recognition of the show’s ongoing achievements has often been eclipsed by stories about behind-the-scenes strife. Matt Williams, a Cosby Show producer hired to develop the series, lost a major battle with Roseanne early in the first season: Either he goes, she said, or I go. (He did leave, but his ”created by” credit is affixed to the screen for the duration, much to Roseanne’s continued irritation.) Williams’ replacement, Jeff Harris of Diff’rent Strokes, quit at the end of the second season for ”the relative peace and quiet of Beirut,” as he said in an ad he placed in Daily Variety, but not before Carsey-Werner brought in Jay Daniel, late of Moonlighting, as a buffer and shuttle diplomat between Roseanne and Harris. Daniel became an executive producer in the third season.
”Jay did exactly what we asked him to do,” says Roseanne. ”I made him watch every episode, and I go, ‘This is what I wanted and this is how I compromised and this is what they did.”’
”Roseanne was very much the creator of the show,” says Daniel gracefully, ”or one of the creators of the show, built on characters out of her personal life. She knew what the show should be, and she was being constantly frustrated by not seeing what she was asking for on the written show. Now it is her show. And our top priority is mining the gold that Roseanne has given us. She’s the truth police on the show, and she’s also the funny police, because she won’t let a flat joke stay there.”
And how did she get her way? Ironically, the smooth, productive working conditions that seem to prevail at Roseanne these days may largely be attributable to the man many have also blamed and distrusted as disruptive, destructive, opportunistic: Tom Arnold. Maybe.
Roseanne: I always talk about, you know, bein’ a woman and all this stuff, blah blah blah, and provin’ to all these people, but the real thing that changed for me was, you know, I got a big boyfriend that could beat everybody up.
Tom: At first it was, you know, tough bein’ the boyfriend and bein’ the fiance and getting respect. Which was fine, I knew how good I was. But then I said, hey, f— these guys, my contribution to the show is telling them to f— off and just bulldogging, and whatever Roseanne wants, I’ll make sure she gets.
Daniel: Tom’s been given a bad rap. Sometimes you can’t have access to Roseanne because of things going on in her life. But you can have access through Tom; he’ll grab her at the moment when she can think.
Tom became Roseanne’s protector, her muscle, her honey. Once he cleaned up his own act — severe drug problems hospitalized him just before they were to marry in January of 1990-he also became the one to tell her when to eat dinner and the one who got her to work ”when memories started comin’.”
Tom: People always said, well, this guy is such a — what’s the word — opportunist and all this stuff. And through these almost two years, I come home and read somethin’ in the paper about myself and I think of all the s— that was goin’ on when I got home and all the s— in our lives and you were goin’ through this and the kids were goin’ through this and I was the one that kinda had to make sure that the show stayed running and you stayed running and the kids were in school and all this s—….
Roseanne: He got it from every direction, and he was doin’ all the work.
The Arnolds’ daily schedule is tightly structured, although not, perhaps, as tightly as when they were in therapy sessions once and sometimes twice a day. These days they have individual sessions once a week, plus family therapy at home once every two weeks. Plus Roseanne’s incest-survivors’ group once a week, plus individual therapy for the kids — 16-year-old Jessica, 15-year-old Jennifer, and 13-year-old Jake. Plus Tom’s 12-step meetings for drug and alcohol addiction. Plus private school for the kids, as well as after-school Hebrew school, and every-other-weekend visits with their father.
Tom: All these kids have come a long way. We have as close to a model family as we can get.
Roseanne: Tom and I had to, like, totally go into therapy to learn how to be parents. I had no idea. Tom did, but I had no idea; I had little buddies.
Tom: I knew you needed structure. I knew you had to have rules and consequences.
Roseanne: My whole thing was, like, I totally hate adults, so I’ll teach my kids to hate adults and not to trust ’em. When my kids got in fights with their schoolteachers, I was always so proud of ’em. I was, like, so dysfunctional.
These days, Roseanne says, she’s in touch with Brandi, now 20 and living in Texas, the child she gave up for adoption when she was a teenager and whose existence was made public by the National Enquirer. And in December, the Arnolds say, the 38-year-old Roseanne will go in for exploratory surgery to see if her tubes can be untied; if so, the plan goes, she’ll have the operation done in the spring and recuperate for the summer with her 32-year-old husband on their Iowa spread — a working farm a short ways down the road from where Grant Wood painted American Gothic, on which the couple is building a nine-bedroom, 24,000-square-foot home. The dream site supersedes any previous plans one might have read about moving to Minnesota. Cancel that.
Tom: We finally found the perfect farm. It was in Iowa; the land is cheap. It’s in Wapello County, which is the name of our production company.
Roseanne: No more Barnold Productions. We changed it. No more Barr. We go there, we ride our dirt bikes.
Tom: She’s got her favorite thing, which is a ’72 pickup truck with the hell beat out of it.
Roseanne: I put on my cowboy boots and go into the truck.
They go there, the Arnolds, with the kids, and visit Tom’s grandparents, now in their 80s. They go there and, Roseanne says, she cooks for everybody, three meals a day, and lets the kids drive around on the farm, which Tom’s brother manages. They go to Kmart, Tom says, and people are nice to them.
Roseanne: Tell about when you took that picture of me doing your favorite things!
Tom: It had it all: She was cooking and cleaning and bending over at the same time with an apron on, and I took a picture.
Roseanne: He liked me to do that. But I liked it too.
Or not. The real Roseanne is not easily sorted out. Why should she be? An understanding of Roseanne Arnold’s torment over her past, alluded to in her 1989 best-seller, Roseanne: My Life as a Woman, and recently more graphically described, puts some of Roseanne Arnold’s psyche in perspective. But not, of course, everything. How could it?
Roseanne is still proud of her 1990 National Anthem rendition at a Padres-Reds game in San Diego, in which she screeched off-key, then grabbed her crotch and spat on the ground, ballplayer-style. Momentarily frightened for her career (she was denounced by President Bush, among others, and feared an advertiser boycott of her show), she stills thinks the event was ”the funniest thing I’ve ever done. I always will.”
Roseanne: My fans totally came through for me.
Tom: It wasn’t her fans who were outraged.
Roseanne: It did scare me, because they were talkin’ about takin’ it off the air. All this real right-wing crap. But the thing is that most of ’em never liked me anyway. And when I realized that, I was okay again…It’s a great parody. It’s the greatest thing people will ever see in their lives. They’ll never see anybody else do it, but they’ll always remember it. And I’m part of history. So how can I bitch about that?
Tom: You’ll never top that.
Roseanne: Not as far as funny, probably. I’m a comic, and I’m supposed to outrage and make people laugh. And part of makin’ people laugh is to outrage ’em and shake up their thinkin’. That’s what comics do. And that’s what I came here to do.
Tom: Besides, people don’t know what (you’re) really like.
Roseanne: The things that I violate for people, their good taste or whatever, are things I feel I should violate. Because I hate the hypocrisy. So, you know, I’ll continue to speak out. I will.
Tom: Honey, let’s go take a nap.
Actually, the real Roseanne Arnold may just be waking up.