When the first season of Roseanne aired across 1988–89 it was called, by some critics, “slob comedy”. Variety declared that the Conners were “appalling TV role models” in its review of the first episode. Taking stock of the reactions she triggered, Roseanne Barr, writing in The New York Times, said she’d become “a sort of postfeminist mud pie in the eye to the Super Mom Syndrome”.
Previous television mothers and their families had a homely glamour. I Love Lucy! told us what to do with respect to Lucille Ball. (By the way, the premise of this show isn’t “Lucy wants to get into show business” but “Lucy wants to get out of the house!”) The adventures of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet never ventured far from their lovely SoCal home. And before she got her eponymous show where she was a single, career woman, Mary Tyler Moore lived in a lovely home in New Rochelle, New York, second fiddle in The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Roseanne Barr, during her career as a stand-up comedian, skewered this vision of American motherhood and femininity in her Domestic Goddess routine: “Oh hi. It’s a thrill to be out of the house… I have three kids and I’ve been married for fourteen years so I breed well in captivity.”
She was crass and vulgar. She let it all hang out, appearing in a bikini onstage. In Roseanne, she fights with her boss (George Clooney with a rather Trumpian haircut—plus sideburns) to knock off early for a parent-teacher conference about her daughter Darlene, who has been barking like a dog. Unpaid bills accumulated on the Conner family fridge as both Roseanne and her husband Dan scramble for overtime and through odd jobs. The Conners were not and are not the Cosbys, the Seavers, the Keatons, and definitely not the Cleavers.
While they were and are a kind of Modern Family (Roseanne organised her boss’s gay wedding; her mother comes out; she and her mother debate aborting a fifth-season pregnancy), the Conners more easily fit into that recent category cum proud camp of the culture wars: the Deplorables. But using “slob comedy” and “deplorables” in a strictly pejorative sense obscures the history of the television medium and the complexity of the supposed sides, and it exaggerates the special or marginal status of the world of Roseanne.
Roseanne Conner is a contemporary, female version of Archie Bunker from All in The Family, who himself is a version of Ralph Kramden, played by Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners. Gleason, abandoned by his father when he was nine and living in Bushwick, Brooklyn, during the Great Depression, famously kept the set of The Honeymooners dilapidated, delivering curtains sent by a fan to dress the kitchen windows to a nearby children’s hospital.
Archie Bunker, the loudmouth, bigoted blue-collar worker was supposed to be the voice of prejudiced patriarchy against which the 1970s social movements were agitating, but instead he came to be loved in a case of misidentification by the audience (“Archie Bunker for President!” declared bumper stickers) and the producers. By casting herself as a Trump voter in the reboot, Roseanne positions herself as the arch debunker of liberal Hollywood, scandalising the progressively pious mainstream, speaking her mind, giving voice to those who don’t hear themselves in national media conversations.
Did President Trump, then, steal her routine? She’s played off and muddied the distinction between her personal life, her slapdash politics, and her media profile. She ran her vituperative 2012 presidential campaign on Twitter. Her crotch-grabbing rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” outraged the nation but it didn’t end her career — Roseanne ran for eight more years. That’s a two-term presidency.