Her show boldly takes on tough issues, like sex roles, class distinctions, and feminism

By Ken Tucker
December 07, 1990 at 05:00 AM EST
ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

This article was originally published in the Dec 7, 1990 issue of Entertainment Weekly.

Roseanne Barr is the star of one of the most popular TV shows in the country, so somebody out there likes her — tens of millions of somebodies, in fact. Not only that, her work just keeps getting better: This season’s Roseanne has been one of the year’s few guaranteed hoots, featuring the most provocative plots and some of the best acting on any sitcom around.

For example: Roseanne‘s Halloween show, in which her son wanted to go out as a witch (thus freaking out dad John Goodman: ”Boys are supposed to be warlocks”) and Roseanne dressed up as a very convincing male lumberjack. The show reached its peak with Goodman defending the bearded Barr from being punched out in a bar. Looking the potential attacker straight in the eye, Goodman snarled, ”Hands off — that’s my husband over there.” Holy moley. This episode was radical-for-prime-time stuff about sex roles of every kind.

So why do your hipper friends sneer when Barr’s name is mentioned? And why does just about every publication, from the National Enquirer to Vanity Fair, treat her like an embarrassing freak? Barr herself has a pretty good idea: ”I think people get it — what I’m saying and doing in the show. But I don’t think the press gets it,” she told the Los Angeles Times recently. ”It’s really anti everything that the media tries to shove down our throats.”

Exactly. Millions of people understand that, beneath her persistently, gloriously crude exterior — with all the crotch-grabbing, the fanny-mooning — Barr is shrewd. ”I wanted (Roseanne) to fly in the face of all traditional expectations about television, women, gender, class,” she has said. ”More than anything, I wanted it to be about the class system, class distinctions…to explode the traditional media image of a woman. And family. And work.”

In her determination to link her lower-middle-class upbringing with a feminist consciousness, Barr has crossed The Honeymooners with Sexual Politics — Jackie Gleason, meet Kate Millett. Is it any wonder that, among celebrities, Barr’s most vocal supporter has been that other tough pop icon with a bad rep, Madonna?

It’s endlessly amusing to read the different ways in which, as Barr says, the media doesn’t ”get it.” Reviewing Barr’s new nightclub act, Lawrence Christon of the L.A. Times wrote, ”Barr is not an artistically accomplished show-biz pro, not even as a mock amateur ironist.” Christon intended those remarks as criticism, but I say, thank goodness: Thank goodness Barr isn’t a slick, cynical ”show-biz pro”; thank goodness her routines aren’t full of the kind of jaded irony that says to an audience, ”You and I are so hip, I don’t even have to be funny, right?” Hey, if I don’t want to laugh, I’ll watch Judy Tenuta.

Barr is our Elvis Presley — a unique artist who is unable, but also unwilling, to escape the constraints of class, because to do so would feel like a betrayal. Like Elvis, she has created two huge audiences: One that thinks of her as a figure for derision, and another that revels in her achievements.

It’s been reported that at one point in her nightclub act these days, Barr sings a wobbly version of ”My Way” as a duet — with an Elvis impersonator. Perfect. Much of this act will pop up on an HBO special Barr is planning for January. Can’t wait.