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Before we start, here is a warning. This entry is about a TV show called Roseanne where an actress known as Roseanne plays a character called Roseanne. This may well cause confusion when reading the entry, it certainly caused enough when writing it. Also The Roseanne Show is something completely different and will not be mentioned again in case it adds to the confusion.
Cast your mind back to the late 1980s: American sitcom families, in a pre-Simpsons age, tended to promote feel-good values. From the Cunninghams living out their Happy Days to Bill Cosby introducing yet another grandad to his middle class family, they lacked a cutting edge. Inevitably, at the end of the 30 minutes, everybody was getting on with each other once more. The programmes avoided many of the issues that real families had to deal with, from drugs to teen pregnancy.
Around this time, Roseanne Barr was queen of the stand-up comedy circuit. While her first television vehicle failed, the second attempt lasted from 1988 to 1997 and changed the face of comedy on the small screen.
The working title of the project, 'Life and Stuff', explains the show, to all intents and purposes. It centres on Roseanne and her husband Dan Conner, their three children Becky, Darlene and DJ, Roseanne's sister Jackie and their friends in the Illinois backwater of Lanford.
They are a typical blue-collar American family; Roseanne has a string of dead-end jobs and Dan works as a dry-waller, while the kids go to school and sit on the couch. They eventually get married, pregnant and move out (though not necessarily in that order).
Each episode begins with a family scene around the kitchen table, the camera rotating around each cast member before fixing on a laughing Roseanne and fading to black1. The scenes include family meals and poker games. The most famous of these scenes morphed together pictures of each cast member at different points from the show's run, and was especially fun to watch as it allowed the viewer to track Roseanne's plastic surgery. In later series, both the actresses who played Becky were included, so the transformation was almost as extreme as Roseanne's.
Roseanne was the sarcastic, devious matriarch of the household. She was the queen of her particular household, making sure that everybody knew their place. While her forceful, rude and in-your-face manner and meddling with other people's lives drove everybody mad, she could be relied upon to work a full day, sort out all the children, make sure that the washing was done and that everybody had three good meals. She was a role model for women who realised they could work for a living, raise a family and speak their minds whenever they wanted.
She started the show working in the plastics factory, and has worked as a waitress (twice), shampoo girl and bike saleswoman as well as starting a business in loose meat sandwiches. All these roles were taken on with a grudging reluctance and a razor-sharp wit. Roseanne always dreamed of being a writer, so Dan built her a writing room, though seemingly nothing came from it.
The only thing I've ever wanted for my kids is that they're happy...and that they're out of the house, and I tell you something, happy ain't that important.
Dan Conner - John Goodman
Dan is the glue that holds the family together. As sarcastic and devious as his wife, he also has a soft side and is often put in the position of having to repair the relationships within the family.
The character of Dan Conner is one of the most fondly-remembered television fathers of all time3, a loving father and devoted husband who would have been driven mad long ago if he was less of a man. He dated Roseanne at high school and rather quickly she fell pregnant with Becky - the rest was history. At the start of the show he is not fond of his sister-in-law, Jackie, but warms to her over the years. This can't be said of Roseanne's friend Nancy, who he also dislikes.
Dan does not get on well with his father, who was absent during a lot of his childhood, and was therefore very uncomfortable when he married Roseanne's friend, Crystal. However Dan is very fond of his mother.
Dan's relationship with Roseanne changes after he has a heart attack at Darlene's wedding. His refusal to take the doctor's advice leads to Roseanne walking out on him. In the final series Dan plays only a bit-part, and at various times he and Roseanne are separated or he is caring for his mother in California. During this time, the family realise how much Dan holds them together, and Roseanne realises she finds the son of the owners of the plastics factory extremely attractive. Much of Dan's absence from the show was down to John Goodman finding it extremely difficult to work in the atmosphere that Roseanne (the actress) had created on set.
He's got that thing where he wants DJ to carry on the Conner name. I told him that Becky would probably have a few kids before she was married, and they'd be Conners, but that didn't help him any.
Blonde Becky is the pushy older sister. Interested in boys and being popular, she is regularly at war with Roseanne, who she accuses of running her life. This, obviously, is a fight that she is never going to win. At various times she has run away - either moving in with Jackie or with her boyfriend, Mark. She works hard to do well at school, in contrast with her sister who never seems to put in as much effort.
Lecy Goranson, the original actress, left the show to go to college and was replaced by Sarah Chalke. Instead of ignoring this, as any other television programme would, lots of comments relating to it were made - most of them when Lecy returned for a season. At times, both actresses played Becky in the same episode.
Becky: Did I hear right? Are we going on vacation?
Narrator: Ladies and gentlemen, the role of Becky, played by Lecy Goranson, then by Sarah Chalke, and then by Lecy Goranson, will be played this evening by Sarah Chalke. Flash photography is prohibited.
Becky: Disney World? I've always wanted to go there!
Roseanne: Well, aren't you glad you're here this week?
Becky has a very argumentative on/off relationship with Mark, who she marries and had a baby with.
Becky: Darlene, you just shouldn't let sex rule your life.
Darlene: You know, that's the same speech mom gave me. Except you left out the part '... or you'll end up like Becky'.
Darlene Conner-Healy - Sara Gilbert
Darlene is the dark-haired, pale-skinned tomboy. She excels at sports and does well at school, though she plays down her achievements, is disruptive and doesn't put in the same effort as her sister. At first she is disgusted by Becky's dalliances with boys. However, her sister is the first person she turns to for advice4.
Darlene seems to have inherited the combined sarcasm of both her parents and her older sister (who is often on the receiving end of it). DJ, on the other hand, tends to be on the receiving end of the occasional fist.
She takes a lot after her mother, especially in relationships: she defiantly wears the trousers as far as David is concerned. Their relationship is also on/off, made all the more complicated in that David continues to live in the house when she goes to college and they split up. The pregnant Darlene and David get married in an outdoor wedding in the penultimate series, where Dan has a heart attack.
Darlene's and David's baby, Harris Conner-Healy, is born extremely prematurely and was kept in hospital after he was born. He is finally well enough to come home for the final episode of the show.
Darlene: No, I'm serious: I think we should get married.
David: Oh, I get it, now you're gonna tell me you're kidding.
Darlene: Nope. Now I'm gonna tell you I'm pregnant.
DJ is the baby of the family and is much quieter than his two older sisters, which occasionally leads to him being forgotten. Darlene bullies him occasionally, like any older sister feels she should do. DJ's growing up and puberty issues are handled with the lack of tact you might expect from Roseanne.
Darlene: Trust me, he goes in that room cause it's the only one with a lock on it, and he's in there for like an hour at a time. Which means he's either really, really good at it, or really, really bad at it!
Roseanne: Well I don't want you to give him any grief about this, ya know, 'cause you could traumatise him and turn him into a serial killer!
Darlene: Well don't worry, how much damage could he do with only one free hand?
Jerry Garcia Conner - Cole Roberts
When Roseanne became pregnant in real life, her character did as well. Throughout her 13-month pregnancy, she maintained that the baby would be a girl. However, the baby, born in the eight series, turned out to be a boy. He was named after the late frontman of the Grateful Dead after Roseanne had a conversation with him in hospital, while tie-died deadheads leapt around the room.
Jackie Harris - Laurie Metcalf
Jackie is Roseanne's younger sister and in many ways her opposite. Jackie is slim, single, childless and neurotic. Lacking a washing machine in her own home, she uses Roseanne's house as a laundrette as well as a second home. She has a string of boyfriends and a string of jobs from working in the plastics factory to truck driving and being a police officer.
It is revealed that Jackie had gone into therapy: mainly due to angst over her mother, but also as a result of Roseanne's interference in the way Jackie runs her life. Jackie wants to make her own mistakes yet wants Roseanne to solve her problems, whereas Roseanne wants to avoid the hassle and make sure she doesn't make the mistakes to begin with.
Jackie eventually has a baby with Dan's friend Fred, who she later marries.
Roseanne: Face it, Jackie, our family was screwed up. Which is probably why I got fat and you kept jumping from guy to guy.
Jackie: Yeah, or maybe I just never found the right guy and you just never found the wrong doughnut.
Bev Harris - Estelle Parsons
Bev is Roseanne's mother. Very uptight, prim and proper, she approves of very little that either of her daughters do. Both Jackie and Dan dislike her, and throughout the run of the programme Roseanne come to dislike her more and more, especially after Bev moves to Lanford. It is a running joke that Roseanne will turn into her mother.
In the final series, Bev comes out as a lesbian.
Dan: Hey Roseanne. I just saw all the animals in the neighbourhood running in circles, so I guess that means your mother will be arriving soon.
Nana Mary - Shelley Winters
Bev's mother is as unlike her daughter as Bev is unlike Roseanne. Mary is a free sprit, who lives in a house full of souvenirs from her younger days (including an original Picasso). She claims to have known and slept with loads of famous historical figures; Bev often disputes these claims. Mary gets on much better with Roseanne and her family than any of them got on with Bev.
A fair bit of licence was taken with the actresses who played Bev and Mary - Winters was only seven years older than her on-screen daughter.
Shelly Winters passed away on Saturday 7 January, 2006. She was 85.
Mark Healy - Glenn Quinn
Her decision to date the uncouth, moody biker Mark Healy tops all of Becky's attempts to annoy Roseanne. Roseanne and Dan take an instant dislike to him, and are often putting him down. Eventually they let him live in the house with Becky and give him a job as a mechanic at the bike shop.
Roseanne: There are better ways to aggravate us than by frying your brain cells. Look at Becky: she never did drugs. She married Mark.
David Healy - Johnny Galecki
In true sitcom tradition, David is the polar opposite of Mark. He is sensitive, artistic and intelligent. He starts out as Darlene's best friend, with both of them sharing an interest in comics (Darlene writing and David drawing), but eventually the relationship blossoms. Darlene and David are much more naïve than Becky and David when they start dating.
Both Dan and Roseanne like and trust David, often pointing out that he is not Mark. David starts hanging around the house a lot more, and when Roseanne sees his own house and has a row with his mother, David moves into the Conner's basement. Dan and Roseanne treat David as a son, albeit one who was sleeping with their daughter. In fact, they treat him much better than their other children, perhaps because he is the only one grateful to be there.
Roseanne: Oh, look, honey - our kids are necking.
Crystal Anderson-Conner - Natalie West
Crystal is Roseanne and Jackie's schoolfriend and Roseanne's stepmother-in-law. She has had a string of husbands, and for somebody who grew up near Chicago, has a very southern accent. Crystal gets married to Dan's father halfway though the show, initially to Dan's disgust. They had two children together.
Arnie Thomas - Tom Arnold
Like each of Roseanne's three real-life husbands, Tom Arnold has a part in the show. Unlike the others though, he is a recurring character. Arnie is Dan's dimwitted friend, who is often very affectionate with Roseanne. He has undergone various relationship problems, but they were nothing compared to the problems he has with Nancy, Roseanne's friend. The couple use arguments as a turn-on, and switch from trading insults to trading tongues in a matter of seconds. Eventually, Arnie has enough of the marriage and leaves a note saying he has been kidnapped by aliens. The episode ends with Arnie annoying the two alien pilots of the spaceship.
Nancy Bartlett - Sandra Bernhard
Nancy is Roseanne's friend. She is extremely vain and shallow and after a relationship with Arnie comes out as a lesbian.
Nancy: What do you guys think of this baby carriage? Does it make me look fat?
Leon Carp - Martin Mull
Leon is Roseanne's boss at the coffee shop in the local department store. They do not have a friendly working relationship, but then again Roseanne is rarely pleasant to any of her bosses (with the exception of the owner of the beauty salon). Leon is openly gay.
When Bev sells her share of the restaurant that she owns with Jackie, Roseanne and Nancy, she sells it to Leon, probably out of spite. Leon and his partner become good friends of Bev, especially after she comes out. The show was obviously unafraid of dealing with homosexuality openly and frankly, and without resorting to stereotypes. Two leading cast-members, Sandra Bernhard and Sara Gilbert, were openly gay.
As is the case in many sitcoms, the family home iss where most of the action takes place. Most of the scenes take place in the lounge and the kitchen. Invariably, at least one child is on the sofa in front of the television. The walls of the lounge are adorned with tasteless if amusing paintings, such as one of dogs playing poker. The stairs lead to the children's bedrooms. The main bedroom is behind the lounge through an arch.
The kitchen opens straight out into the lounge, with an arch marking the dividing point of the two rooms. Most of the action here takes place around the table, where most of the meals were served and the rows start. The telephone, mounted on the wall, has an unfeasibly long cord, allowing it to reach around the kitchen. The phone is generally occupied by Becky.
Some of the memorable highlights of the show were its Halloween episodes. Roseanne and Dan met at a Halloween dance and no expense is spared by the couple in making costumes and playing practical jokes on family, friends and neighbours. In later series more effort was made by people to get their own back on Roseanne. Some of these pranks include:
- The children putting snakes in Roseanne's bed.
- Bev leaving hints that she is bald and suggesting that Roseanne might inherit the condition.
- Making Roseanne believe that Fred is gay and subsequently, when she tries to confront Jackie with it, she finds him in bed with Dan.
- When Darlene is away at college, she says she doesn't want to come back to see David but go out with a man she's met there. David starts hanging around with another girl, flirting with and reportedly kissing her. Just after David takes her down to the basement, Darlene suddenly arrives home, saying she's missed David and goes to the basement to see him. Roseanne arrives in the basement mid-fight to see Darlene ripping a bleeding (false) head off the girl.
The End of the Show
Following news of Roseanne Barr's various marriages and her hectic private life, ratings dropped. The appeal of the show had been that Roseanne the actress had been a hard-working mother stuck in a dead-end town, just like her character. As the actress become one of the highest-paid television stars around, the premise of the show became less authentic.
For the final series, the studio took control of the shows and wrote all the episodes apart from the final one. There can be very few people who will openly admit that these shows were any good. While Dan is off comforting his mother, the Conner family win the lottery. Cue trips abroad, Roseanne falling for other men, meeting new and rich people including the Absolutely Fabulous girls and foiling a train hijacking6.
A general rule of thumb for this season is that if John Goodman is in the episode, it is a normal, good, episode. However, if John Goodman is not, then anything bizarre could happen.
Roseanne wrote the script for the last episode. It turns out that the trials and tribulations of the previous series were just a dream, or rather a rewrite. From the time when Dan built Roseanne her writing room, the character of Roseanne Conner had been writing the show, rewriting her own life to make it better. In her world, Darlene had married Mark and David had married Becky. Dan never recovered from his heart attack and Jackie was the lesbian rather than her mother.
The show opened up American situation comedy. It allowed families to be dysfunctional; it brought frank discussions of drugs, sex, pregnancy and masturbation to the television screen; it showed how the average working family were struggling to survive, while the other half were enjoying the fruits of Republican governments. It was also unusual for a primetime show to have two leads who where were seriously overweight. It let homosexuals be portrayed as characters rather than jokes; it was the first network television programme to show a same-sex kiss. It also encouraged more stand-up comedians to break into television. Without Roseanne, it's doubtful there would be Seinfeld, Ellen or indeed The Simpsons, with its legacy of animated anarchy.
Roseanne picked up numerous awards during its run.
- Seven ASCAP music awards for Dan Foliart and Howard Pearl (1990 - 96).
- Two American Comedy Awards for funniest lead female in a TV series to Roseanne (1989, 1993).
- Two American Comedy Awards for funniest lead male in a TV series to John Goodman (1989, 1990).
- Three BMI music awards to WG Snuffy Walden (1994 - 96).
- Three Emmys for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy for Laurie Metcalf (1994, 1993, 1992).
- An Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a comedy for Roseanne (1993).
- Roseanne was also nominated for three best actress Emmys, whereas John Goodnman received seven actor nominations. Sara Gilbert (1994) and Laurie Metcalf (1995) were also both nominated for supporting actress Emmys that they didn't win.
- Three GLAAD media awards for outstanding comedy (1992, 93, 95).
- Three Golden Globes for best actor (Goodman), actress (Roseanne) and series in the Comedy / Musical category in 1993.
- A Peabody Award in 1993.
- Q Award for best Comedy Actor to John Goodman (1992).
- Young Artist Awards for Michael Fishman (1995), Johnny Galecki (1994), Sara Gilbert (1993, 1992, 1991) and best new show (1989).
Roseanne gave many people their big breaks in the business. In the first series George Clooney played Booker, the manager in the plastics factory. Tom Arnold got his break as a writer on the show, as did Buffy and Angel creator Joss Whedon. Whedon hired the late Glenn Quinn to play Doyle in the first series of Angel, the only role Quinn played where he could talk with his native Irish accent. Sandra Bernhard was a popular comedienne before she took on the role of Nancy which gave her national recognition. Last mention should go to John Goodman who went on to become not only a much-loved host of Saturday Night Live, but both King of England and President of the United States7.