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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Roseanne on class prejudice/sexism of TV

I made the mistake of thinking Marcy was a powerful woman in her own right. I've come to learn that there are none in TV. There aren't powerful men, for that matter, either – unless they work for an ad company or a market-study group. Those are the people who decide what gets on the air and what doesn't.
Complaining about the "created by" credit made an enemy of Matt. He wasted no time undermining me, going so far as to ask my co-star, John Goodman, who played Roseanne Conner's husband, Dan, if he would do the show without me. (Goodman said no.) It was then that I had my first nervous breakdown. [excerpt]

I'll cross-post this on several blogs as it touches on gender, regulation, class prejudice and the general financial machinations of the entertainment business. Assuming you're unaware of what 'Roseanne' is, a few clicks on wikipedia or youtube will swiftly bring you up to speed - it was a hugely successful US sitcome with the USP of centring on a working-class family (with money problems and lousy jobs, not the usual facsimille of working class, or 'labour as Roseanne Barr refers to it, with a tough domestically inept/disinterested woman at the head of the family).

There are very, very few comparisons - aspects of Taxi perhaps, maybe even Married With Children.
Her article, and forthcoming book, reveal just how unprepared the US TV network (whose working practices, being fundamentally driven by financial calculations and audience testing, are not so different to those of the film biz) was to let an unvarnished depiction of working class folk go on, let alone allow a female creative lead the way. Roseanne Barr found that her own creation was credited to an entirely uninvolved male producer, who went on to make her life hell.

There may be a 'PC' moral behind this, but it is a fascinating read from a very un-PC lady.



Roseanne Barr: 'Fame's a bitch. It's hard to handle and drives you nuts'

With a hit TV show, Roseanne Barr could get the best tables in the best restaurants. Never mind about the empty flattery, the nervous breakdowns and the feeling of being used for 10 years. But she's not bitter. Honest
Roseanne Barr 11.6.11 http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2011/jun/11/roseanne-barr-on-fame
    Roseanne Barr
    'I walked into the producer's office, held up a pair of wardrobe scissors to show her I meant business - "This is no character! This is my show. You watch me. I will win this battle." ' Photograph: Robert Maxwell/Art + Commerce
    During the recent and overly publicised breakdown of Charlie Sheen, I was repeatedly contacted by the media and asked to comment, as it was assumed that I know a thing or two about starring on a sitcom, fighting with producers, nasty divorces, public meltdowns and bombing through a live comedy tour. I have, however, never smoked crack or taken too many drugs, unless you count alcohol as a drug (I don't). But I do know what it's like to be seized by bipolar thoughts that make one spout wise about tiger blood and brag about winning when one is actually losing. It's hard to tell whether one is winning or, in fact, losing once one starts to think of oneself as a commodity, or a product, or a character, or a voice for the downtrodden. It's called losing perspective. Fame's a bitch. It's hard to handle and drives you nuts. Yes, it's true that your sense of entitlement grows exponentially with every perk until it becomes too stupendous a weight to walk around under, but it's a cut-throat business, show, and without the p
    erks, plain ol' fame and fortune just ain't worth the trouble. "Winning" in Hollywood means not just power, money and complimentary smoked-salmon pizza, but also that everyone around you fails just as you are peaking. When you become No 1, you might begin to believe, as Cher once said in an interview, that you are "one of God's favourite children", one of the few who made it through the gauntlet and survived. The idea that your ego is not ego at all but submission to the will of the Lord starts to dawn on you as you recognise that only by God's grace did you make it through the raging attack of idea pirates and woman haters, to ascend to the top of Bigshit Showbiz Mountain. All of that sounds very much like the diagnosis for bipolar disorder, which more and more stars are claiming to have these days. I have it, as well as several other mental illnesses, but then, I've always been a trendsetter, even though I'm seldom credited with those kinds of things. And I was not crazy before I created, wrote and starred in television's first feminist and working-class-family sitcom (also its last). After my 1985 appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, I was wooed by producers in Hollywood, who told me they wanted to turn my act into a sitcom. When Marcy Carsey – who co-owned Carsey-Werner with her production partner, Tom Werner (producers of The Cosby Show) – asked me to sign, I was impressed. I considered The Cosby Show to be some of the greatest and most revolutionary TV ever. Marcy presented herself as a sister in arms. I was a cutting-edge comic, and she said she got that I wanted to do a realistic show about a strong mother who was not a victim of Patriarchal Consumerist Bullshit – in other words, the persona I had carefully crafted over the eight previous years in dive clubs and biker bars: a fierce working-class domestic goddess. It was 1987, and it seemed people were primed and ready to watch a sitcom that didn't have anything like the rosy glow of middle-class confidence and comfort, and didn't try to fake it. ABC seemed to agree. They picked up Roseanne in 1988. It didn't take long for me to get a taste of the staggering sexism and class bigotry that would make the first season of Roseanne god-awful. It was at the premiere party when I learned that my stories and ideas – and the ideas of my sister and my first husband, Bill – had been stolen. The pilot was screened, and I saw the opening credits for the first time, which included this: "Created by Matt Williams". I was devastated and felt so betrayed that I stood up and left the party. Not one person noticed. I confronted Marcy when we were shooting the next episode. I asked how I could continue working for a woman who had let a man take credit for my work – who wouldn't even share credit with me – after talking to me about sisterhood and all that bullshit. She started crying and said, "I guess I'm going to have to tell Brandon [Stoddard, then president of ABC Entertainment] that I can't deliver this show." I said, "Cry all you want to, but you figure out a way to put my name on the show I created, or kiss my ass goodbye." I went to complain to Brandon, thinking he could set things straight, as having a robbed star might be counterproductive to his network. He told me, "You were over 21 when you signed that contract." He looked at me as if I were an arrogant waitress run amok. I went to my agent and asked why he never told me that I would not be getting the "created by" credit. He half-heartedly admitted that he had "a lot going on at the time" and was "sorry". I also learned that it was too late to lodge a complaint with the Writers' Guild. It was pretty clear that no one except me really cared about the show, and that Matt and Marcy and ABC had nothing but contempt for me – someone who didn't show deference, didn't keep her mouth shut, didn't do what she was told. Marcy acted as if I were anti-feminist by resisting her attempt to steal my whole life out from under me. I made the mistake of thinking Marcy was a powerful woman in her own right. I've come to learn that there are none in TV. There aren't powerful men, for that matter, either – unless they work for an ad company or a market-study group. Those are the people who decide what gets on the air and what doesn't. Complaining about the "created by" credit made an enemy of Matt. He wasted no time undermining me, going so far as to ask my co-star, John Goodman, who played Roseanne Conner's husband, Dan, if he would do the show without me. (Goodman said no.) It was then that I had my first nervous breakdown. To survive the truly hostile environment on set, I started to pray nonstop to my God, as working-class women often do, and to listen nonstop to Patti Smith's People Have The Power. I read The Art Of War, and kept the idea "He that cares the most, wins" upmost in my mind. I knew I cared the most, since I had the most to lose. I made a chart of names and hung them on my dressing-room door; it listed every person who worked on the show, and I put a check next to those I intended to fire when Roseanne became No 1, which I knew it would. My breakdown deepened around the fourth episode, when I confronted the wardrobe master about the outfits that made me look like a show pony rather than a working-class mom. I wanted vintage plaid shirts, T-shirts and jeans, not purple stretch pants with green-and-blue smocks. She bought everything but what I requested, so I wore my own clothes to work, thinking she was just absent-minded. I was still clueless about the extent of the subterfuge. Eventually she told me that she had been told by one of Matt's producers "not to listen to what Roseanne wants to wear". This producer was a woman, a type with which I became acquainted at the beginning of my standup career in Denver. I cared little for them: blondes in high heels who were so anxious to reach the professional level of the men they worshipped, fawned over, served, built up, and flattered that they would stab other women in the back. They are the ultimate weapon used by men against actual feminists who try to work in media, and they are never friends to other women, you can trust me on that. I grabbed a pair of wardrobe scissors and ran up to the big house to confront the producer. (The "big house" was what I called the writers' building. I rarely went there, since it was disgusting. Within minutes, one of the writers would crack a stinky-pussy joke that would make me want to murder them. Male writers have zero interest in being nice to women, including their own assistants, few of whom are ever promoted to the rank of "writer", even though they do all the work while the guys sit on their asses taking the credit.) I walked into this woman's office, held the scissors up to show her I meant business, and said, "Bitch, do you want me to cut you?" We stood there for a second or two, just so I could make sure she was receptive to my POV. I asked why she had told the wardrobe master not to listen to me, and she said, "Because we do not like the way you choose to portray this character." I said, "This is no fucking character! This is my show, and I created it – not Matt, and not Carsey-Werner, and not ABC. You watch me. I will win this battle if I have to kill every last white bitch in high heels around here." The next battle came when Matt sent down a line for me that I found incredibly insulting – not just to myself but to John, who I was in love with, secretly. The line was a ridiculously sexist interpretation of what a feminist thinks – something to the effect of "You're my equal in bed, but that's it." I could not say it convincingly enough for Matt, and his hand-picked director walked over and gave me a note in front of the entire crew: "Say it like you mean it ... That is a direct note from Matt." What followed went something like this: my lovely acting coach, Roxanne Rogers (a sister of Sam Shepard), piped up and said, "Never give an actor a note in front of the crew. Take her aside and give her the note privately – that is what good directors do." She made sure to say this in front of the entire crew. Then she suggested that I request a line change. So I did. Matt, who was watching from his office, yelled over the loudspeaker, "Say the line as written!" I said, "No, I don't like the line. I find it repulsive, and my character would not say it." Matt said, "Yes, she would say it. She's hot to trot and to get her husband in bed with her, and give it to her like she wants it." I replied that this was not what she would say or do: "It's a castrating line that only an idiot would think to write for a real live woman who loves her husband, you cocksucker." ABC's lawyers were called in. They stood around the bed while the cameras filmed me saying, very politely, over and over, "Line change, please." After four hours of this, I called my then lawyer, Barry Hirsch, and demanded to be let out of my contract. I couldn't take it any longer – the abuse, humiliation, theft and lack of respect for my work, my health, my life. He explained that he had let it go on for hours on purpose and that I had finally won. He had sent a letter to the network and Carsey-Werner that said, "Matt wasted money that he could have saved with a simple line change. He cost you four hours in production budget." That turned the tide in my favour. Barry told me Matt would be gone after the 13th episode. Which didn't stop him from making my life hell until then. Some days, I'd just stand in the set's kitchen weeping loudly. The crew would surround me and encourage me to continue. CJ, one of my favourite cameramen – an African-American married to a white woman – would say, "Come on, Rosie, I need this job. I have five kids, and two of them are white!" I was constantly thinking about my own kids being able to go to college, and I wrote jokes like a machine – jokes that I insisted be included in the scripts (lots of times, the writers would tell me that the pages got lost). Another head writer was brought in, and at first he actually tried to listen to what I wanted to do. But within a few shows I realised he wasn't much more of a team player than Matt. He brought his own writers with him, all male, all old. Most had probably never worked with a woman who did not serve them coffee. It must have been a shock to their system to find me in a position to disapprove their jokes. Roseanne show 'I wanted to do a realistic show about a strong mother who was not a victim of ­Patriarchal ­Consumerist Bullshit.' The show's stars, from left, George Clooney, John Goodman, Roseanne and Laurie Metcalf. Photograph: ABC/Getty When the show went to No 1 in December 1988, ABC sent a chocolate "1" to congratulate me. Guess they figured that would keep the fat lady happy – or maybe they thought I hadn't heard (along with the world) that male stars with No 1 shows were given Bentleys and Porsches. So me and George Clooney [who played Roseanne Conner's boss for the first season] took my chocolate prize outside, where I snapped a picture of him hitting it with a baseball bat. I sent that to ABC. Not long after that, I cleaned house. Honestly, I enjoyed firing the people I'd checked on the back of my dressing-room door. The writers packed their bags and went to join Matt on Tim Allen's new show, Home Improvement, so none of them suffered. Tim didn't get credit, either. But at least everyone began to credit me. I was assumed to be a genius and eccentric, instead of a crazy bitch, and for a while it felt pretty nice. I hired comics I had worked with in clubs, rather than script writers. I promoted several of the female assistants – who had done all the work of assembling the scripts anyway – to full writers. (I did that for one or two members of my crew as well.) I gave Joss Whedon and Judd Apatow their first writing jobs, as well as many other untried writers who went on to great success. The end of my addiction to fame happened at the exact moment Roseanne dropped out of the top 10, in the seventh of our nine seasons. It was mysteriously instantaneous! I clearly remember that blackest of days, when I had my office call the Palm restaurant for reservations on a Saturday night, at the last second as per usual. My assistant, Hilary, who is still working for me, said – while clutching the phone to her chest with a look of horror, a look I can recall now as though it were only yesterday: "The Palm said they are full!" Knowing what that really meant sent me over the edge. It was a gut shot with a buckshot-loaded pellet gun. I made Hil call the Palm back, disguise her voice, and say she was calling from the offices of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Instantly, Hil was given the big 10-4 by the Palm management team. I became enraged, and though she was uncomfortable doing it (Hil is a professional woman), I forced her to call back at 7.55pm and cancel the 8pm reservation, saying that Roseanne – who had joined Tom and Nicole's party of seven – had persuaded them to join her at Denny's on Sunset Boulevard. The feeling of being used all those years just because I was in the top 10 – not for my money or even my gluttony – was sobering indeed. I vowed that I would make a complete change top to bottom and rid myself of the desires that had laid me low. (I also stopped eating meat for a year, out of bitterness and mourning for the Palm's bone-in rib-eye steaks.) As inevitably happens to all stars, I could not look myself in the mirror for one more second. My dependence on empty flattery, without which I feared I would evaporate, masked a deeper addiction to the bizarro world of fame. I finally found the right lawyer to tell me what scares TV producers worse than anything – too late for me. What scares these guys – who think that the perks of success include humiliating and destroying the star they work for – isn't getting caught stealing or being made to pay for that; it's being charged with fostering a "hostile work environment". If I could do it all over, I'd sue ABC and Carsey-Werner under those provisions. Hollywood hates labour, and hates shows about labour worse than any other thing. And that's why you won't be seeing another Roseanne anytime soon. Instead, all over the tube, you will find enterprising, overmedicated, painted-up, capitalist whores claiming to be housewives. But I'm not bitter. Nothing real or truthful makes its way to TV unless you are smart and know how to sneak it in, and I would tell you how I did it, but then I would have to kill you. Based on Two And A Half Men's success, it seems viewers now prefer their comedy dumb and sexist. Charlie Sheen was the world's most famous john, and a sitcom was written around him. That just says it all. Doing tons of drugs, smacking prostitutes around, holding a knife up to the head of your wife – sure, that sounds like a dream come true for so many guys out there, but that doesn't make it right. People do what they can get away with (or figure they can), and Sheen is, in fact, a product of what we call politely the "culture". Where I can relate to the Charlie stuff is his undisguised contempt for certain people in his work environment and his unwillingness to play a role that's expected of him on his own time. But, again, I'm not bitter. I'm really not. The fact that my fans have thanked and encouraged me for doing what I used to get in trouble for doing (shooting my big mouth off) has been very healing. And, somewhere along the way, I realised that TV and our culture had changed because of a woman named Roseanne Conner, for whom I am honoured to have written jokes. • Roseanne Barr now lives in Hawaii, where she farms macadamia nuts. She has a new book, Roseannearchy (Gallery, £17.99), and will return to TV in Roseanne's Nuts, a Lifetime reality show.

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