Roseanne: Undomesticated Goddess
Roseanne Barr/Arnold/So-famous-needs-no-surname ranks with Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball as one of television's few utterly self-created innovators. Like Gleason's Honeymooners, her Roseanne (1988-97) was, right up through its final very odd, surreal season, a working-class comedy the humor of which derived from the dank despair of its struggling laborers. Like Ball, Roseanne was a behind-the-scenes innovator, who oversaw much of the writing and producing, and controller. Both knew that women who exerted strong opinions had to be very tough and very creative. Like Gleason, she surrounded herself with co-stars--in particular John Goodman as her gruff, loving, argumentative, striving yet unlucky-in-life husband and Laurie Metcalf as her gruff, loving, less argumentative than resigned striving-yet-unlucky-in-life-and-love sister--who got as many laughs as the star did, and the star knew This Was Good.
Beyond this, however, Roseanne is unique: imperious yet quick to wound, intellectually insecure and autodidactically learned, ruthlessly sensible and gleefully, self-aware-wacky. Her show, Roseanne, could have been like one of the scores of sitcoms built around the persona of its stand-up-comic star. In Roseanne's case, she referred to herself in nightclubs and talk-shows as a "domestic goddess," a phrase freighted with malicious irony, since off-stage and on-screen, Roseanne assiduously ignored or despised the petty work required of the vast majority of wives and mothers. The series' out-of-the-box success was due to that wonder of pop-culture: a public that didn't realize this was what it wanted to see and hear at this moment until it came into their living rooms. Roseanne Connor's family, with their dowdier-than-All in the Family furniture, their incessant squabbling, followed by hugs and subtle affirmations of each other's self-worth, a household in which brutal honesty was required, exhausting and exhilarating simultaneously, was remarkably nuanced. No other sitcom made the effort to pay the bills so engrossing.
We bring to the experience of watching not merely our knowledge of the characters but also everything we know about the stars' private lives. In this area, Roseanne was even more of a phenomenon than her contemporary, Madonna. It was impossible not to know when Roseanne divorced her pre-stardom husband, Bill Pentland, took up with a third-rate comic, Tom Arnold, sang a scandalously out-of-tune version of The National Anthem at a baseball game, proclaimed a multiple-personality disorder, accused her father of child abuse, or took to studying the Kabbalah. There were reports of constant behind-the-scenes creative turmoil resulting in her incessant firing of writers and producers.
"I used to surround myself with people I could pick fights with, ‘cause it was all about winning; I was so screwed up," she once told me. She turned the show on its head in the final months so that Roseanne Connor became immensely wealthy and acted out any number of nouveau-riche fantasies that were progressively less amusing to the public than they seemed to be to the star herself until Roseanne pretty much disappeared up its own rear-end. All this coheres not as the career of a TV star but as something deeper and richer--the journey of Roseanne. She'd be the first to sneer at this use of the sentimentalizing, hackneyed use of the word "journey," and you can tune in to syndicated reruns of the early seasons of Roseanne for a ferocious counterpoint. These episodes remain fresh in their slap-in-the-face honesty about the strains of marriage when two people work hard all day, about how difficult it is to pay attention to the emotional growth spurts and withdrawals of your children when you're preoccupied thinking about how to grab some overtime money, about how love and fury constantly commingle under the roof of a too-small, messy house. This is the triumph of Roseanne, and Rosenne.
The Smothers Brothers: The Revolutionaries Who Bombed
Tom and Dick Smothers are the variety-show version of the Weather Underground: unfocussed revolutionaries, smug, self-immolating and self-pitying (particularly in the case of Tom) and not without delusions of grandeur. When the brothers began their CBS variety show in 1967, they were familiar TV faces, adept at harmless folk-song parodies and assiduously zany banter. Tom played the wisecracking dummy to Dick's calm, intelligent-seeming straight-man, and Tom's "Mom always liked you best!" routine was the duo's trademark knee-slapper. The Comedy Hour was not without talent--its writing staff included Steve Martin, Mason Williams, who wrote good comedy if not good music, as his dreadful 1968 instrumental hit "Classical Gas" attests, Bob Einstein, brother of Albert Brooks and the future "Super Dave Osborne," and Rob Reiner. On-camera, deadpan comic Pat Paulsen was amusing well before he ran his "Pat Paulsen For President" routine into the ground, David Steinberg was a regular guest when he was still a sharp-witted, enjoyably smart-alecky young stand-up: a Dennis Miller with content and without the ranting.
Right from the start the brothers, particularly Tom, tried to bring a countercultural sensibility to prime time, which was not ready for it--indeed, network television would never be ready for the sort of revolution in form and content that was routinely occurring in rock music at the time. The Comedy Hour premiered, it's instructive to realize, the same year that the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. On the Smothers' first show, CBS refused to let a guest the brothers had requested, folk singer Pete Seeger, sing "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" because of its obvious anti-Vietnam War message.
On one hand, the Smothers Brothers knew they were dealing with an inherently conservative medium--that's why for every Buffalo Springfield or Jefferson Airplane who appeared, there was a George Gobel or an Anthony Newley. Old-guard show-biz "balanced," in the eyes and ears of the Tiffany Network, the scruffy dissenters the Smothers were using their solid ratings--the best CBS had seen on their Sunday-night, up-against-Bonanza time period in years--to force onto the airwaves. For the record, the Airplane was always a lousy band in performance, even when lip-synching, and Gobel's well-told shaggy-dog-stories hold up as better popular art.
Soon, the never very private squabbling between network and stars--who were capable of very silly forms of rebellion, for example the insipid "pot" jokes of the "Have A Little Tea With Goldie" segments--took its toll on both ends. CBS became more ridiculously censorious, as the Smothers' work grew increasingly, doomingly, heavy-handed. Petulant and self-righteous, Tommy gave tedious interviews castigating the network, and the brothers even went on a rival-network, NBC and its Tonight Show, to air some sketches that CBS had nixed. Oooh, how daring: using Johnny Carson's show as a platform for revolution! The initial minor thrill of seeing the Smothers Brothers flash the "V"-fingered peace sign and Pat Paulson's intentionally-mangled diatribes about freedom of speech eventually turned-off viewers in every sense, and the Brothers left the air in '69. Dick started making his own wine--one imagines that's how badly he felt he needed to get a drink, and some distance from his hectoring sibling. Tommy has been milking the Smothers-as-vanguard-artists legend ever since, but anyone who actually looks at those shows now will see a lot of stuff that's grimly, perversely proudly, unfunny.