America's Finally Ready for Roseanne's Controversial Working-Class Comedy

She's offended feminists, President George Bush, and everyone in between. With a series reboot coming next year, Roseanne is the perfect comedian to comment on the lives of Trump voters.

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May 17 2017, 6:42pm

From left: Michael Fishman, Sara Gilbert, Roseanne Barr, Alicia Goranson, John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf; courtesy of ABC

"Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing. And that's why you won't be seeing another Roseanne anytime soon," comedian Roseanne Barr wrote in New York magazine in 2011. She predicted "enterprising, overmedicated, painted-up, capitalist whores claiming to be housewives" would dominate television in her place. She wasn't wrong.

Eras have since changed, and this week ABC announced the return of the woman the New Yorker deemed "America's bourgeois nightmare." The network is airing eight new episodes of Roseanne in 2018, and the entire Conner family is coming back. The news came after reports of television networks seeking to capture the lives of the white working class after the shocking 2016 presidential election. As is wont in our divided country, Americans are divided over whether we need more Roseanne episodes.

Some younger viewers perceive the reboot as disappointing. For millennials who mostly watched Roseanne in reruns, Barr is our lady of perpetual controversial statements. In the last year alone, she has accused Hillary Clinton of working with a "filthy Nazi whore" and feuded with Shaun King over President Donald Trump's Time cover. (Last July after news outlets reported that she endorsed Trump, Barr clarified that she just hates Clinton.)

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Her controversies, though, have always included contradictions and nuances. She has been labeled an anti-Semite for posing as Adolf Hitler while baking cookies in a 2009 photo shoot, but she grew up Jewish and defends Israel all day on Twitter. Though she's sparred with Black Lives Matter activists over their opposition to Israeli settlements, she was also sued by George Zimmerman's parents for tweeting their address and phone number in 2012 and encouraging citizens to seek justice. "If Zimmerman isn't arrested I'll rt (re-tweet) his address again -- maybe go 2 his house myself," Barr tweeted. (A judge dismissed the case two years ago.)

Barr's opponents claims she represents patriotic, racist, red-state America, but after she screeched the National Anthem at a 1990 baseball game, President George Bush made a point to call her "disgraceful" as he launched Desert Storm. Even Bush's longtime opponents, famous feminists, refused to defend Barr. Only Madonna spoke up: "Roseanne Barr baby, thumbs up... You know what I can say to America—get a fucking sense of humor!" (It's worth noting the "Express Yourself" singer rejected the feminist label in 1990.)

Barr doesn't seem to care about any of the criticism. "Do I regret that every 'feminist' in Hollywood ran the other way when they saw me at Hollywood functions, to avoid taking a picture with me?" Barr asked the Washington Post 25 years later. "Actually, no, I don't regret any of it."

President George Bush made a point to call her "disgraceful" as he launched Desert Storm.

The comedian's self-confidence and penchant for divisiveness allowed her to bring the working class to prime time television. Roseanne revolved around a family struggling to pay the bills and how that battle affected the family. Characters included plastic factory workers, fast food cooks, lesbians, and working moms.

Most importantly, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in the New Republic in 1990, "Barr—and this may be her most appealing feature—is never a victim." Barr noted in her 2011 essay: "The kids were wiseasses, and so were the parents. I and the mostly great writers in charge of crafting the show ­every week never forgot that we needed to make people laugh, but the struggle to survive, and to break taboos, was equally important. And that was my goal from the beginning."

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Barr, of course, was not the first comedy writer to force issues onto the screen. Sitcom empresario Norman Lear built his career on exploring difficult topics through comedy. The Facts of Life featured a character with cerebral palsy, and a 1971 All in the Family episode revolved around how working class Archie Bunker handles his macho drinking buddy's homosexuality. Barr went further to accurately represent the working class. She fought to make sure her characters repeated outfits like real lower-middle class Americans, forcing ABC to buy worn-out clothes. On ABC television sets, she battled corporate feminists before it was trendy to denounce Ivanka Trump and other girlbosses. "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," Barr wrote in New York.

In most Americans' minds, Barr remains a symbol of the white working class even though her sitcom earned her millions. I didn't recognize my own family's working class roots until I watched reruns of Roseanne's ninth season, where the Conners win the lottery and blow through their newfound wealth just like my new money family.

Barr has always understood the complexities of class better than any other writer, regardless of her sometimes messy statements. Long before Trump and Bernie Sanders entered the presidential arena, Barr ran for president in 2012 on the platform to legalize weed and fight class inequality.

If anyone is going to dissect the lives of Trump voters, shouldn't it be the woman who made the white working class a family-friendly topic of national conversation in the first place?