The behind-the-scenes truth about Roseanne Barr's groundbreaking sitcom
Twenty years ago, on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 1988, with a wailing harmonica theme playing in the background, Roseanne introduced America to TV’s ultimate blue-collar family: brash mother Roseanne (Roseanne Barr), goofball husband Dan (John Goodman), prim brainiac daughter Becky (Lecy Goranson), sarcastic tomboy Darlene (Sara Gilbert), misfit son D.J. (Michael Fishman), and wacky aunt Jackie (Laurie Metcalf).
At the time, television was dominated by lavish soaps (Dallas, Falcon Crest) and sitcoms with upper-middle-class clans (The Cosby Show, Empty Nest). This made Roseanne‘s salt-of-the-earth arrival seem all the more radical.
The most grungily realistic sitcom since The Honeymooners, Roseanne became just as famous for its behind-the-scenes realities: Barr’s infamous tantrums with executives and writers; the aggressive antics of her boyfriend/husband Tom Arnold; and her stubborn creative decisions that led to the hit show’s spectacular demise. Many of the details are revealed here in EW for the first time through a series of interviews with the cast, execs, and producers. ”I could never go back to television,” Barr says today. ”But then I look at the show and I’m like, ‘F— it! It was all worth it.”’ And it certainly was. So take a seat on a sagging chair, as EW celebrates the show’s 20th anniversary by dishing with all the players who kept that kitchen in Lanford, Ill., brimming with life for nine seasons.
I. Meet the Conners
In 1987, ‘The Cosby Show’ executive producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner wanted to bring a no-perks family comedy to TV. After commissioning a script from ‘Cosby’ scribe Matt Williams about factory workers, the team signed comedian Roseanne Barr, who’d won raves for her working-class ”domestic goddess” stand-up routines on ‘The Tonight Show.’ But they wanted to pair the inexperienced actress with a skilled actor as her husband, and set off to cast the rest of the family.
Carsey: We had to cast the best possible actors around her, so she could learn from them.
Williams: The linchpin — and, I’m convinced, the key to the series — was John Goodman. We brought him in the room, he looked at Roseanne, and said, ”Scoot over.” She said, ”Shut up,” he plopped down, and it was like they had been married for 16 years.
Goodman: I went in there, and it was just easy as pie. We got along great. For some reason, I just knew I had the job.
Barr: Goodman was the only person who read for the role. There were more planned, but the second I met that guy, I fell in love with him.
Williams: I knew Laurie Metcalf from Steppenwolf [Theatre Company in Chicago]. When I heard we could get her, I went, ”Are you kidding me?” To me, it’s like hitting the grand-slam home run. She made that character far more interesting than I could ever write her.
Gilbert: It came pretty naturally and I remember them having me improv, pretending to be fighting with my sister. With Darlene, they let me have a lot of angst.
Goranson: At the audition, one girl said to me, ”You’re never going to get this because, obviously, you have blond hair and Roseanne has dark hair.” Then I saw Roseanne come in. I thought she’d be like Meredith Baxter Birney with an apron on, and instead Roseanne comes in with her sweatpants on and no makeup. She was like, ”Heeeey!” I’m like, ”Oh, s—!”
Young son D.J. proved toughest to cast. Producers considered future ‘Home Alone’ star Macaulay Culkin, but instead went with Fishman.
Barr: I wanted Michael Fishman because he looked like my family and he was a little Russian boy. He was so not like all the other little Hollywood bastards.
Fishman: The network wanted one person, the production company wanted another person, and she wanted me. In many ways, I’m one of the first battles she won.
Brandon Stoddard, who was president of entertainment at ABC at the time, says the network was ”desperately looking for a hit,” so with the cast in place, the pressure was on to deliver something magical. The day the pilot was to shoot, however, the ‘Roseanne’ set was shut down because of fire code violations. Ultimately, though, it was a blessing, allowing the cast and crew an extra week with the first script before the episode was shot.
Metcalf: Roseanne had really curly hair at the start. For some reason, then I would wear a curly wig. It looked really ridiculous, like, ”Oh this will make us look like sisters!” That bond grew into a sister bond, but at the beginning you’re just like grabbing at straws, like, what can we do here that makes us look related?
Goranson: For me, it was absolutely terrifying. I was like, ”Will I be able to handle this? What am I doing? Am I doing a good job? Am I good enough? There are all these pros around me.” I was staying at Sara Gilbert’s guesthouse the night before our first table reading and I just threw-up all over her beautiful pink carpet because I was so nervous. I was terrified, horrified.
Metcalf: When the audience came in and they started the first scene, Roseanne blew the doors off of it! She knew exactly what she was doing. We were all just standing there around the monitor with our jaws hanging open saying, ”She is f—ing amazing!” She never got credit, in my mind, for how good her acting is. Roseanne would kill. She got every laugh.
Ellen (né Falcon) Gittelsohn, director, season 1: I had this feeling only one time before that we were sitting on something special, and I felt that on the pilot of Designing Women. It seemed like the right thing at the right time.
II: The Comedy Becomes a Drama
On Oct. 18, 1988, cast and crew members gathered to watch the first episode live on ABC. When the credits flashed on screen, Barr realized the ”created by” credit went solely to Williams, although revisions had tailored the script to her experiences. What should have been a celebration launched the first of many battles.
Barr: I was like, ”You motherf—er!” I stood up at the screening party. ”What are you f—ing thinking?” We built the show around my actual life and my kids. The ”domestic goddess,” the whole thing.
Williams: This desperate and angry cry that ”I created everything,” well, it’s not true. I did write it. Did I pick her brain and talk to her and watch her stand-up a thousand times? Absolutely.The Writers Guild of America determines these [credits].
Barr: The Writers Guild, my ass. That’s when I said, ”You better get rid of that guy or I’m leaving!” Oh, we almost killed each other. He’s never apologized to me. I was the writer. It wasn’t that it was based off my life — it’s that I wrote it. I created it. I thought it up. I lived it. That’s why I hate everybody.
Werner: I don?t think Roseanne, to this day, understands that this is something legislated by the Writers Guild, and it’s part of what every show has to deal with. They’re the final arbiters.
Carsey: The script Matt turned out was about a working-class heroine, really. A woman who, against all odds, was raising the kids and keeping a marriage healthy while working full-time. So it was the opposite of things she was talking about in ”The Domestic Goddess.” I think Roseanne has her own issues to deal with that have nothing to do with this show.
Barr: I just had to write it off, and it pisses me off still, and it always will because it’s wrong. I was always the cook. I had representatives and they were looking at me, like, ”What are you bitching about?” I guess it’s like when your pimp slaps you or something — that’s the only thing I can think to correlate it to. Like, when you get the big idea, you’re nothing but their ho.
As the offscreen tensions mounted, the show bowed to ratings gold: 21.4 million households watched the premiere, making ‘Roseanne’ the highest-rated debut of that season. Barr, however, felt that ABC’s gratitude was more than thoughtless.
Barr: I got a chocolate ”No. 1” cake when we went to No. 1 [in the December 1988 ratings]. A big piece of chocolate, like a fat girl would be real happy with. I’m like, ”Are you s—tin’ me?” George Clooney [who played factory foreman and Jackie’s season 1 love interest Booker] took a baseball bat to it. I threw it up in the air and George swung at it with a bat. He goes, ”Take a picture of this! F— those a–holes!” We took a picture and sent it to ABC. [Clooney was unavailable to comment for this article.]
Brandon Stoddard, ABC president of entertainment, 1985-89: I guess we should have been more sensitive. It wasn’t about thin or fat, big or small. It had nothing to do with that. It was a ”Happy Birthday” kind of thing. It was not meant in any way to be a statement or a comment. I was a little surprised by her reaction, but on the other hand, I guess I thought the whole thing was kinda silly.
Just a handful of episodes into shooting the first season, the fights between Barr and Williams worsened: The star, enraged by Williams’ control, refused to say certain lines, threw tantrums, and, eventually, walked off set.
Barr: I called the network several times. I said, ”I want to break the contract. I quit.” I was like, ”I want out of this motherf—er.” They told me Matt would be out by show 13. So I said, ”OK,” and my agent and my manager were like, ”You have to behave yourself until show 13, or they’re never going to let him go.” Thirteen has always been my lucky number, so I ate s— until then. But I didn’t eat as much s— as he wanted me to eat.
Metcalf: I remember her staking out an episode, holding out.
Barr: It was extremely tumultuous because Matt was a talented person. I told him, ”Maybe this is the fault of the producers who told you it was your show and I was your actress, and they told me it was my show and you were my writer.”
Carsey: When she walked off, I said, ”Fine! Go! And we’ll cast somebody else.” We called her bluff.
Barr: I was crying all the time. They said, ”Oh, we’re going to fire you off the show.” George Clooney put this sign on my door, where it said, ”Roseanne Barr.” He took that name tag out and put ”Valerie Harper” instead because she had just been fired off her own show [Valerie]. I will always love George for that. They were compiling this list of all the offensive things I had done to fire me.
Goodman: If that would’ve happened, there would have been no show as far as I was concerned. It’d be like Chico and the Man without Chico! It wouldn’t make sense. Because she was, in her own beautiful way, she was always right, you know? Roseanne has taken so much heat from everywhere that it would be churlish not to back her up.
Metcalf: They had captured magic in a bottle, and so, at that point, she could have gotten anything she wanted.
Williams: Tom [Werner] and Marcy [Carsey] came to me and said, ”In order to continue with Roseanne, we’re gonna have to ask you to leave. Could you go?” I said, ”As long as the contract’s honored.” And to their credit, they did. And so I left.
Barr: He made a deal for himself, and he got a buyout on the show forever.
Carsey: Roseanne admitted to us later: ”I’m so sorry. I was just out of a trailer park. I didn’t know how to behave. I thought everyone behaved badly.” It was in a heartfelt moment, saying it was horrible what she did.
Throughout season 1, Barr had failed to get future husband Tom Arnold (they married in January 1990) a writing gig on the show. But with Williams gone, Barr added him to the team. Arnold (who also played recurring character Arnie on the series) served as the star’s henchman, executing her often outlandish demands and routine firings.
Barr: I remember people were like, ”Your husband came in there and took a bite out of everyone’s sandwich!” So that when they opened their lunch, it had a bite out of it. Tom went and peed with the door open in front of women. It’s kind of humiliating the way he did things, but he meant well, I guess. [Arnold calls these specific instances ”an outright lie.”]
Arnold: I said, ”This is what she wants. It’s her show. I’m just gonna do it.” My motivation was pretty simple — to protect what she had created, which was the show.
Barr: The one good thing about Tom was that he did push through my ideas. But he became extremely abusive to people. It was my fault for bringing him there. For a while, when we were getting along — before we tried to kill each other — it was so great because I felt like, oh, I did have somebody finally who was on my side.
Barr and Arnold exerted much of their power over scripts, rewriting after each read-through. This caused tension with her large and constantly changing writing staff.
Arnold: The writers had a fear of me and her.
Barr: They all have a lot of emotional problems, writers. I was like, ”You guys are so freakin’ egocentric it’s a joke.” We used to do these read-throughs, and they’d only laugh at the jokes they wrote. It’s infantile. Well, I made them all wear a number, and I’d have them come down, and I’d go, ”Which number wrote this joke? It’s very good.”
Stan Zimmerman, writer, season 6: We were 12 and 13.
James Berg, writer, season 6: I still have my 13 T-shirt.
Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator, Gilmore Girls; writer, seasons 3-6: I was number 2. The writers did not think it was funny. Anytime you tell someone, ”I’m not going to learn your name, here’s your number,” you’re diminishing their worth.
Barr: I wanted to strip them of their huge, colossal self-entitlement. ”Hey, you’re just a cog in the wheel here! It’s not about you.” I think they learned something from it.
Joss Whedon, creator, Buffy the Vampire Slayer; writer, season 2: The thing about Roseanne was that she had strength, intelligence — and that enormously divisive side. She would attach the people around her and not trust the people around her. She had opportunities to bring together people, where she would divide them instead. A show might get destroyed in the read-through, either for good reason or for no reason at all. It was a brutal environment.
III: Growing Buzz — and Growing Pains
Barr dominated the tabloids with her wild relationship with Arnold and, in 1990, a screaming, spitting rendition of ”The Star-Spangled Banner” at a San Diego Padres baseball game. But ‘Roseanne’ was hitting its creative peak with provocative story lines: D.J.’s masturbation obsession, Becky seeking birth-control pills, Roseanne’s PMS, and Darlene’s first period. These substantive outings represent some of the best-remembered, most loved episodes.
Gilbert: The last thing you want to talk about on TV as a teenager is getting your period. I was totally mortified. But now I feel so glad about it. Roseanne and the writers were committed to taking stories from their lives — whether they were controversial or taboo or not — and just putting them on screen. So I feel that episode kind of fits into that category, but it’s totally real and something that happens to girls and something kind of coming-of-age, and it’s great to be able to show it.
Barr: There’s a way to say anything, you just have to say it right. So I was always feeling my way to find the way to say the right thing at the right time in the right way. That was kind of my art, the thing that turned me on.
Goranson: I can’t tell you how many women my age have said that they were watching [the birth-control episode] with their mom and then looked over at each other and were like, ”Okay, we should talk about it.”
Sherman-Palladino: They would not let you do that story today. I think that was the real amazing thing about it. Keeping true to those characters and true to life was everything. It was never about, Let’s break ground! Because that’s the kind of thought process that brings up bulls—, contrived stories.
‘Roseanne’ never shied away from a then-sensitive subject — gay life — and one of the series’ most remembered stories is what’s now known as ”the lesbian kiss episode,” which aired during season 6. Mariel Hemingway, as the girlfriend to ditzy lesbian Nancy (Sandra Bernhard), planted an unexpected smooch on a stunned Roseanne Conner at a local gay bar.
Barr: Oh, the lesbian kiss! ABC didn’t want to air it, but that was me and Tom’s show. We’re like, ”We’re doing it!” They threatened to pull it — the sponsors, this, that, and the other. At the last minute, ABC relented. I knew it was shattering all kinds of middle-class things that should be shattered. To me, it was like a big sociological victory.
Zimmerman: It became such a huge controversy on the news. You just did not see same-sex people locking lips. We couldn’t believe — in that day and age, with a huge star and a popular sitcom like Roseanne — that they were scared to show two women kissing. It wasn’t lascivious in the least — the storyline supported it. She was a married housewife — it wasn’t even two lesbians kissing. It was a straight woman, so maybe that threatened a lot of people. It took popular artists to push that envelope. She had the power and she used it for really good causes.
Berg: I remember that Roseanne and Tom discussed that if ABC wasn’t going to air it, that they were going to buy it back and air it on Showtime or HBO or something. She was that dedicated to seeing it happen.
Bernhard: It was all done tongue-in-cheek and with a lot of humor. Roseanne is a very political person, but I don’t think she ever put it into her work in such a didactic way. First of all, it was funny and fun and interesting. That was the criteria for all these kind of extreme storylines.
Both Barr and Metcalf eventually walked away with Emmys for their performances, but the series was never nominated for a best comedy series Emmy, despite its sharp comedy and segment-busting storylines.
Barr: I was always crossing my fingers, like, Oh my God, I hope it never is nominated. But I think a lot of that was because… you know, the whole first season thing, the whole Matt Williams fight. If somebody’s too outspoken or too large or too loud, you know, they always vote against them. Everyone must have just been like, ”Who does she think she is?”
Carsey: The Emmys tend to favor certain kinds of comedies. Things that are smart and upscale — Frasier kind of things tend to be nominated more than downscale things. Lucy never got an Emmy! I think we’re in good company here.
At the beginning of season 5, Becky left the Conner household to live with bad-boy hubby Mark (Glenn Quinn, who died in 2002). At the same time, Goranson, who originated the role, decided to leave the series altogether. After one nearly Becky-less season, the part was unconventionally recast with an unknown Canadian actress, Sarah Chalke.
Arnold: Lecy was great. Her leaving was one of those awkward situations.
Goranson: It wasn’t about malice or disrespect. I felt that I devoted all my teenage years to working, and I just wanted to get back to a little normalcy. It was a situation that a lot of people still don’t understand. It was painful, too. You’re in a family and someone leaves. I think they didn’t really know how to deal with that separation. They offered me a lot of money to stay.
Werner: From a plot point, it was easier to just recast it than to say, ”Oh, now there’s just two children.”
Barr: I remember on The Jeffersons, when they replaced Lionel. I said, ”Look, they replaced Lionel, so let’s just do it.” They were saying they didn’t think people would stick with the show, and I thought, I think they will, like on the soaps.
Fishman: Sarah Chalke came in, and she fit right in. Nobody expected her to be the next Lecy. Nobody used the term ”the second Becky.” The character just had to change a little bit because she’s a different person.
Goranson: I wasn’t totally psyched that they replaced me. I didn’t think that was the best choice, honestly. At the time, I was disappointed, I will tell you that.
Chalke: The replacement-character part was tough because it wasn’t like you were just going in and doing your own thing. I was scared s—less because it was an incredible group of comedians.
IV: Winning (and Losing It) Big-Time
After splitting with Arnold in May 1994, Barr treated herself to a face-lift (something Roseanne Conner could never have afforded), and ‘Roseanne’ slid into surreal territory. Writers routinely broke the fourth wall and acknowledged the Becky recasting (Goranson returned for parts of season 8, but ultimately Chalke finished the series), and stories became soapier. Roseanne Conner bore a fourth child, and Dan had a heart attack. By season 8, viewers were abandoning ‘Roseanne.’ In a bid to go out with a bang, Barr dreamed up a premise-busting story line for season 9: The typically cash-strapped Conners won a $108 million lottery prize. Critics and fans decried it as a shark-jumping moment. To make matters worse, Goodman agreed to return for only 12 episodes.
Barr: At that point, I felt like I earned the right to do what I wanted to do. I waited until the last season of my show to say what I wanted to say and do exactly what I wanted to do. F— critics, f— the network, f— the viewers, f— everybody but me and God. It was very personally rewarding. It pissed everybody off, so that was awesome.
Metcalf: Season 9 got gypped a little bit because there wasn’t enough time for the writers to actually think it through. It’s a brilliant idea — them winning the lottery — but it could have been more specific to their family.
Carsey: By the time the last season was on the air, the show was spinning out of control a bit. We didn’t have the [network] support that we used to have.
Gilbert: We probably should have been done at season 8. The lottery and stuff — it got so surreal and started to follow Roseanne’s [real-life] path. It wasn’t what it started as. For me, I liked the struggle of the family a little more, the financial struggle. But in truth, that is kind of what happened to Roseanne.
Airing on May 20, 1997, the series finale threw yet another wrench at viewers: Barr, in a voice-over, revealed that season 9 was nothing but the fantasy of her depressed blue-collar character. The Conners hadn’t won the lottery, and Dan actually died from his heart attack at the end of season 8. Audiences may have thought it was a downer, but for Barr, that last episode represented her total control over the show. Even the rest of the cast weren’t privy to the game-changing ending.
Barr: I thought once [viewers] see the end — the last episode — then they’ll watch the whole series again because they’ll see, like, there’s a deeper layer to it. I thought, Well, Christ, this show?s gonna be on forever, so I tried to make it interesting for the fans in the future. There’s more to this onion, there’s more to peel, more to think about. I always shaped every show, every script, and you know, it continued to go out exactly the way I wanted to go out. That’s how it ends. It doesn’t end with a happy reunion on ABC every Christmas. You know, it’s not gonna go like that.
‘Roseanne’ moved into syndication and, in September 2003, joined Nick at Nite’s nostalgia lineup, drawing a new generation of viewers.
Goodman: It’s about real people — people I identified with.
Metcalf: Before [Roseanne], it was just people walking around in expensive sweaters. I don’t remember people ever looking as realistic as our cast did.
Barr: It’s more relevant now than it was then. I’m very proud of its timelessness, and the fact that it has a political edge that is even more relevant now than it was then. I’m proud of the fact that it’s never gone off the air for 20 years.