Penthouse Retrospective

by Nanette Varian Originally Published: December, 1990

Roseanne Barr

“Everything that the press ever attaches to me has a lot of fear and loathing in it, because they don’t get what I’m about. They never will. That’s why I’m talking to Penthouse.”

Roseanne (and some Tom)

Roseanne BarrChristmas in Salt Lake City,  circa 1960. The teacher asks her one Jewish student to stand before the class and explain why she doesn’t believe in Jesus. “I would sing the little song about the dreidel,” recalled Rose­anne Barr in her 1989 best-seller My Life as a Woman. “I was the Designated Heathen.” The teacher told Barr to be grateful she didn’t live in a Communist country, where “dissent” wouldn’t be tolerated.

Thirty years later, when Barr sang a little song for the San Diego Padres, she found the treasuries of tolerance wanting. “Disgraceful!” snapped the leader of the Free World, as the brethren of Ameri­ca’s Fourth Estate exploded in si­multaneous orgastic rage.

“I don’t know what y’all wanted me to [do],” opined Barr at a press conference addressing l’affaire d’anthem. “Put my head in my hands and start screaming and run off? I’m not a quitter.” No, indeed. Whether she’s serenading an au­ditorium full of Mormon school­children or a stadium full of angry baseball fans, Roseanne Barr car­ries on to the bitter end. Because like it or not, Roseanne Barr has learned to thrive in the role of odd woman out.

At a time when lauding the ac­complishments of female execu­tives became fashionable, Barr gave a voice to those forgotten sisters who continued to toil inside the home (and the factory and the beauty parlor). She knew firsthand about women who pulled double duty in the kitchen and on the as­sembly line. And she was damn sure that they cared a lot less about sparkling toilets than the TV com­mercials implied.

Barr helped create a blue-collar television sitcom that subverted the senti­mentalized-slob stereotype perpetu­ated by so many of its predecessors. At once savage and loving, articulate and crude, the Conners, like most real families, cannot be easily categorized. In addition, Barr and costar John Goodman have fast become televi­sion’s sexiest sitcom couple – what Ralph and Alice Kramden might’ve been had they been granted freer rein.

Obviously, her instincts were right on the money -“Roseanne” premiered in October 1988 to the best first-time rat­ings achieved by an ABC comedy in over six years. In 1989 it broke the five­ year stranglehold that “The Cosby Show” had had on the No. 1 spot to become, quite simply, America’s favor­ite TV show. Yet in spite of her phenom­enal success, Roseanne Barr is a star that the media just love to hate.

“You don’t get to be as big, fat, and sarcastic as I am without having a lot of shit happen to you,” she says. In My Life as a Woman, Barr paints a family· portrait that at times borders on the surreal. Uncle Luke was convinced that the Coca-Cola Company was trying to make him confess to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping (they were shining bottle caps in his eyes). Her paternal grandfather was, according to her fa­ther, an alcoholic, atheist Bolshevik. (He sold holy-water fonts and 3-D pictures of Jesus.)

Barr felt closest to Bobbe Mary, her maternal grandmother. Afternoon idylls of eating and gin-rummy playing were punctuated by Bobbe’s trips to the telephone, where she proceeded to “set straight” any anti-Semitic callers who dared phone the local talk-radio sta­tion.

When she was a toddler, Barr took a nasty fall and her facial muscles froze. When she had not healed by the next day, her mother asked the rabbi to pray. When that failed, she enlisted the aid of the Mormon priests and, lo and be­hold, her daughter was cured. In her autobiography Barr states that her mother took this to be a “sign,” after which the two of them embarked on a curiously schizophrenic religious episode. For the next several years, they “testified” in the Mormon church on some days while continuing to practice Judaism on the others. This went on until, at 16, Barr stumbled upon a description of Bell’s palsy (a paralysis of facial muscles that is often temporary) that explained her “miracle healing.” She celebrated by smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and begging her boy­friend to have sex with her (being a good Mormon, he declined).

Around that time Barr was struck by a car, cracking her skull on the auto­mobile’s hood ornament. Several months later she “went nuts” and spent nearly a year in psychiatric care at the Utah state hospital. She never finished high school and at 19 left Utah for good. The year was 1971, and she took off for Georgetown, Colorado. After hitchhiking around the country for a while, she married her first husband, Bill Pentland.

Three kids later the couple was living in Denver, and Barr worked part-time as a cocktail hostess to help pay the bills. When patrons passed unseemly remarks, they rapidly discovered that Barr not only gave as good as she got – ­she gave better. Rather than take of­fense, they found her hilarious and encouraged her to audition at the local comedy club.

No matter how insane people make her out to be, when you hear her words, Roseanne doesn't seem much different than any other intelligent woman with an ax to grind. Unless, of course, she's talking about how insane she is...

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