Roseanne Barr on class, gays and Denver comedy in the '80s
Roseanne Barr will appear at 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 31, at Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret.
Never one for settling down, Roseanne Barr has kept very busy since her days changing the face of TV and women's comedy with her hit sitcom, Roseanne. In the last two years alone, she's starred in a reality TV show about her macadamia-nut farm in Hawaii, run for president, and been roasted on Comedy Central. Once a rising star in Denver's standup comedy scene, Roseanne will return to Denver on Wednesday, July 31, at Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret, for a fundraiser for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In advance of that appearance, we caught up with Roseanne to talk about breaking boundaries, class repression and the difficulties of being a female comic during the 1980s comedy boom.
Westword: When you were coming up as a comedian in the '80s, the national industry was really exploding. What was the comedy scene in Denver like at that time?
Roseanne Barr: Well, it was 1980, and there were about six local comics at George McKelvey's Comedy Shop. It just started as a one-night-a-week thing, and then it grew into the weekends. I was there at the start of it.
Comedy Works was getting established around that time. Today it has such a reputation for touring comics as a club they look forward to playing. Did it have this reputation from the beginning when you started performing?
It was around for about a year before I played there. I think that we just followed Lannie Garrett's show. It was a little tiny room, and it was the comics that helped make it grow.
Looking back on that era of comedy, it wasn't the most amicable to female standups. Women were pretty objectified by the male comedians. You had a feminist edge to your standup back then -- how did audiences respond to that?
At Comedy Works there were about three or four female comics mixed in with the men. They didn't like female comics at George McKelvey's and did whatever they could to keep us off the stage. But we just kept coming back and pushing it until they didn't have any choice. I was bringing about thirty people with me to the show, and I think it only seated forty, or maybe ninety. So in bringing my own audience, they couldn't keep us out anymore. They didn't like women, women's jokes -- they were very biased.
Today comedy is loaded with successful, respected female comics. And while things may have gotten better, do you think there's still a hangover of that old prejudice that you experienced in the comedy world?
Well, I wouldn't know. It was hard for me to come up when I did, but I'm not in the industry now. There are a lot of great women comics today, that's for sure.
Now that you're returning to standup, is it rekindling creative parts of you that have been dormant since you left the stage?
Yeah. I love to write jokes and tell jokes, so reconnecting with that has been a blast. It's been thirty years, and comedy audiences are different now than they used to be. You've gotta be faster with your jokes these days. People have a shorter attention span.
So you feel there isn't room for long-form storytelling in standup anymore?
You can do that, but you have to get a laugh every seven seconds. After that they get rowdy and start growlin' at ya.
But you've always been someone who fights against those conventions. When starting Roseanne, you took a real risk in getting in fights with producers who didn't agree with your vision for the show. A lot of standup comedians getting an autobiographical sitcom would cower under that kind of authority.
Comedians don't cower. If you have the vision and you're the writer, you can't cower.
You were taking on so many groundbreaking subjects with the show, like openly gay characters. It struck me as odd when Joe Biden made his big announcement about gay marriage, citing Will & Grace as the show that changed gays on television. You had Leon and Nancy on your show before Will & Grace even aired.
Well, I think there's a concerted effort by a certain group of people to erase everything I've done -- everything that any woman has done. It didn't start with me and it won't end with me, but that's what they do.
It's because I talk about class and I'm a socialist. They want to wipe all of that from the intellectual landscape of the United States. So it's no accident that Biden is...well, I won't say anything about that. But they want to keep everything as middle class and bourgeois as they can. It wasn't an easy thing, but I did put my life and my career on the line for gay marriage. And it makes me mad how easily someone's struggle is erased in this culture.
I'm not respectful, so I'm probably not the best person to talk about this. But I know how they do. Any woman who puts her life on the line for a revolutionary cause, she's gonna be called crazy. And the credit has to go to the nearest white man. It's amazing how I could've been forgotten after only one generation has passed -- but that's how it is in the U.S.
But, yeah, it was frightening, I had my life threatened, but I had two gay siblings and felt I had to do it. I did change popular culture -- it wasn't Will & Grace, it wasn't Ellen. I made it easy for them, I opened a door and they walked through it. I did pay the price, and so did my family.
President Bush Sr. at that time really had it in for that new brand of TV comedy. He went after both you and The Simpsons -- saying he wanted people to look to The Waltons as a better example of the American family.
That was the same time that he killed thousands of people in Desert Storm. Those moralists, they're always trying to talk about nice, happy contained family values -- white-people shit -- while they're killing somebody. And that's how it is. The perfect place for the Devil to hide is right in the front row of the church.
And you wanted to show something different. Had there been a disconnect for you in what you'd seen on TV sitcoms and what you'd experienced as a mother?
It was a show about working-class moms, what they went through, which was unlike anything they'd shown on television and middle-class media. It's all about class in America -- and also never noticing that it's all about class. And definitely never saying that it's all about class -- otherwise you're called crazy.
When the show became such a success and you were suddenly in a wealthy economic bracket, did you have difficulty maintaining your connection to the working-class mentality while being rich?
I was and always will be a part of the working class. I'll always be a socialist. That's just what middle-class white people say, and I don't pay any attention to it.
I recently rewatched She Devil, and it was just as good as I remembered it. With that movie being unsuccessful at the time your TV career was exploding, did it seem like people were receptive to Roseanne in a TV format but not film?
Well, those were two very different characters. But once you're on a target list, you're always going to be on the target list. I'm still on it. I'm blacklisted with almost everything I do. It's an intellectual witch-burning. If you ever speak about class, you'll always be branded a class enemy here.
Speaking of polarizing views on inequality, I imagine you were pretty steamed when the verdict on George Zimmerman was announced.
I feel like it was a class verdict. It was a handpicked jury of white, classist Americans. It was a class and race clash in Florida. I hope the Department of Justice steps in and makes George Zimmerman face some justice for what he did. I don't think Americans -- Americans of all color -- are going to let it slide this time. It's not going to go away.
The biggest thing it showed is that white women are just as racist as white men, and I think that's a good thing for America to see.
Roseanne will perform at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 31, at Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret, 1601 Arapahoe Street. Tickets are $75. For more information, visit www.lannies.com.
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.
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