Watching Roseanne’s Early Standup and Secret Sitcom Pilot

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The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

Before we begin, I must first make a confession. My knowledge of Roseanne Barr’s comedy is based solely on my memories of watching her sitcom as a kid in the 90s, and that time she screamed the national anthem. But in a way, my lack of knowledge has perfectly primed me for the subject of today’s article. Today we’re going back to 1987 to watch a proto-version of Roseanne, which was, for many, our introduction to this singular comedic voice.

What’s most interesting about The Roseanne Barr Show is that it is a standup set within a show, within a show. Let me explain. Layer number one is the standup itself. Roseanne performs her standup live on stage in Los Angeles. To reflect her “brassy mom with an attitude” persona, the stage is designed to look like a regular, middle-class living room, complete with ugly throw pillows, an easy chair, and coffee table. This show, the announcer tells us at the beginning, is brought to us by FemRage, which we’ll hear more about later in the program.

Occasionally, Roseanne’s act is interrupted by a couple of actors playing her children. They’ll run on stage to have their mom settle an argument, or to inform her that they had to get out of the room, and run on stage, because their dad farted. These interactions require Roseanne to be a mom, and smooth over whatever’s going on, so she’ll walk backstage, out the door to the street, and step inside her family’s trailer home, parked outside. Here, in the second layer, we have another household set, this time resembling the trailer that she and her family lived in before she broke in to comedy. In this world we have the same child actors but in a weird twist, her then real-life husband Bill Pentland is portrayed by her then friend and future-ex-husband Tom Arnold.

And then on top of all of that, the special is bookended by footage from Roseanne’s “real life” which features her then-actual husband Bill Pentland playing himself, her kids (that I’m pretty sure are another set of child actors) and another actress playing Aunt Grace. Okay, except it’s not really “aunt” Grace. Hang on; I’ll get to that now. While sitting around the table at the top of the show, Grace critiques Roseanne’s act, saying she swears too much and that she should just watch Bob Hope’s specials if she wants to be funny. Grace is insulted that Roseanne won’t take her notes, and leaves in a huff. Once out of earshot, Bill calls Roseanne’s aunt a “real pain in the ass,” and Roseanne reveals that she thought Grace was his aunt. A well timed news report in the background reveals that she was actually Suzanne Plotski, who has been seen around the city, and will “enter, eat all the food, criticize you — basically act like a member of the family.” Concerned, Bill locks the front door, and we cut outside to reveal that it was perfect timing because Freddy Krueger was just about to enter. Thwarted by the lock, the camera pulls out as he decides to move on to the next house.

As a standup, Roseanne has crafted a very distinctive voice by this stage in her career. Having begun in 1980, doing local spots in Denver, she then moved to Los Angeles in 1985, she quickly went on to make appearances on Carson’s Tonight Show, which brings us to 1987, when this special was created. Roseanne coined the term “domestic goddess” as her preferred title to housewife, and this propelled her to stardom. But despite the fact that she had already made a number of TV appearances and was living in LA, Roseanne clung hard to her brash, middle-class persona, constantly sprinkling words and phrases like “ain’t,” “hey, you guys,” peppering in a lot of sarcasm, and loudly chewing gum the entire time.

It’s not hard to see why she quickly went on to make a huge splash in television, because her jokes are crazy sharp in this special. She introduces herself to the crowd and talks a little about what her life is like. “I got pregnant two months after I got married because I’m just that fertile. We’ve had kids in fifteen years because I breed well in captivity…” Rosanne also manages to write and perform jokes in a wide variety of styles. For example, “Yeah, we had a really cool honeymoon at Isit, Connecticut where we stayed at the beautiful Isit Inn.” When she tells a joke with a punchline that rests on a pun, it takes the audience an extra moment to switch their comedy brains over to that wavelength.

She covers a number of topics that I would say are pretty standard tropes for standup, but her comedic voice and her joke structure really set her apart. Halfway through her set she begins to discuss the two things that men do better than women. One of them, she concedes, is reading maps, “Because only the male mind could think of one inch equaling 100 miles.” This is a joke that might, in lesser hands, feel easy or hacky, but definitely doesn’t when given in her almost thrown-away delivery style that is simultaneously breezy and abrasive.

Also included as part of the show is a fake commercial for a product known as FemRage. We’re at a nuclear testing plant. An alarm goes off. The scientists begin to freak out. Roseanne approaches a scientist and warns him that there’s going to be a meltdown in five minutes. He yells at her and insists that he needs her to get coffee for him. She goes into the back where she meets a few other women who tell her about FemRage, a product that allows a woman to tap into her estrogen and counteract that learned feminine social response. It works for Roseanne’s character, who is able to shove that male scientist away from the console, avert the meltdown, and be commended by the military official (and shoot him a nasty look when he calls her “honey”).

Unfortunately it doesn’t look like it’s all that easy to see this special if you want, unless you still have a VCR. However, some intrepid fan has put up a short, minute long sample which allows you to see a great example of Rosanne’s conversational joke-telling style, and her strong closing joke.

As I’m sure you know, Roseanne’s sitcom went on to great success, airing for nine seasons on ABC, but there’s no doubt in my mind that this special served as an unofficial pilot of sorts. From this hour, you are introduced to Roseanne’s persona and point of view, you see her interact with her family, and you get to see her as an actress as well. It’s a great showcase for her comedic talent, and ultimately the special won her an American Comedy Award for best female performance in a comedy special. Roseanne’s comedy was truly something different in the 1980s and changed the perception of what was appropriate for someone to say on stage.

However, if you’re going to perform the national anthem, you’d better stick to the old ways.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” has a very self-explanatory title.

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