Gioia Diliberto
April 28, 1986 12:00 PM

Roseanne Barr struts onstage wearing a black leather skirt and a sneering grin. Her plump fists rest on pudgy hips; her frizzy hair forms a brown corona around her face. “I don’t like the terms housewife and homemaker,” she tells the crowd gathered at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for a Pointer Sisters concert. “I prefer to be called Domestic Goddess….It’s more descriptive.” Then, perhaps making the audience wonder if it’s seeing Twisted Sister by mistake, the nasal-voiced Barr, 33, launches into a surrealist send-up of the American way of wife:

“My husband comes home and says, ‘Roseanne, don’t you think we should talk about our sexual problems?’ Like I’m going to turn off Wheel of Fortune for that!…

“Then he says, ‘Well, you think maybe you’ll wash a dish this week?’ ‘Get real!’ I said. ‘What’s the matter—is Lemon Joy kryptonite to your species?’ I figure by the time my husband comes home at night, if those kids are still alive, I’ve done my job.”

By the time her 22-minute act is over, Barr’s fine whine has won her an enthusiastic ovation, which leaves the comedienne “in shock.” No wonder: Five years ago she had never been on a stage. Work meant waiting tables for minimum wage, and her mouth only got her in trouble. “Now I’m paid to say things that used to get me fired,” she cackles. She has been on The Tonight Show Three times since last September (“She is the strongest new woman comedian I’ve seen in the last five years,” says talent coordinator Jim McCawley), and she is being considered to play Mrs. Rodney Dangerfield on a September cable-TV special. Dangerfield, after catching her haughty hausfrau routine told Roseanne, “You’re the wife I’ve been looking for all my life.”

As Barr sees it, “I wouldn’t be making a lot of money and be very happy now if I had grown up content and sheltered.” As a child in Salt Lake City, she was one of the few non-Mormons in her school. “At every Christmas pageant, the teachers would say, ‘And now our little Jewish girl, Roseanne Barr, will sing a song about a dreidel [a toy used at Hanukkah celebrations],’ ” she recalls. “So I would sing the dreidel song, and then explain why I didn’t believe in Jesus.”

Her father, Jerry Barr, an unsuccessful blanket salesman, expected his three daughters to wait on him; Roseanne insists he once called her home from a friend’s house to change the channel on the TV. The high point of the week, she says, was when Ed Sullivan was on. “My dad shouted, ‘Comedian!’ and the whole family came running.”

The rest of the time, she admits, “I was a real troublemaker. I loved to shock people because they were so conservative and comatose.” Her mother, Helen, remembers, “Life was not easy for Roseanne. It wasn’t easy for me, either, because I’d never met anyone like her.”

Her rebelliousness was so intense that she would wander down busy highways, forcing cars to swerve around her, even after she was hit by a car at age 16, was knocked unconscious and came to with a deep gash in her skull. With her parents’ consent, social workers urged her to check into Utah State Hospital, where she remained for eight months. “There were killers who got out before me,” says Roseanne, who figures the experience helped shape her sense of comic despair. “I knew I was suffering for my art, even if I didn’t know what my art was.”

Roseanne went back to high school but dropped out almost immediately. At 18, she left home, moving to Georgetown, Colo., where she met Bill Pentland, the night clerk at a motel. “He was really weird,” she says. “I loved him right away.” They married in 1973 and for the next 10 years lived a traditional suburban life. Bill worked as a garbage truck driver and later as a mailman, while Roseanne stayed home to care for the kids. (She jokes, “I’ve got three kids, I’ve been married 13 years, so I breed well in captivity.”) She frequently wrote poetry and satiric sketches, which she stashed in Hefty bags and hid around the house. Then, when mounting credit card debt forced her to get a job, she dieted down to 105 pounds—her weight was 200—and became a cocktail waitress at a Denver pub. For the first time in her life, men made passes at her. “I didn’t find it flattering at all,” she says. “I started mouthing off to the customers, and for once I didn’t get fired. They laughed.”

In August 1981 she visited a Denver comedy club, where, outraged by the sexism of the male comics, she jotted down a five-minute rebuttal which the manager let her deliver onstage. Soon Roseanne was taking her act on the road, playing clubs in Kansas City, Phoenix, Tulsa and Amarillo. Then, at the urging of her sister Geraldine, 28, she auditioned for Mitzi Shore, owner of L.A.’s renowned Comedy Store. Shore hired her after a six-minute audition. “It was finally comedy, not some abnormal thing,” says Roseanne, who adds jokingly, “I decided to move to L.A., even if I had to leave Bill and my kids.”

Instead, last December, Bill, 34, left his post office job and followed her to Hollywood, where the family rents a Spanish-style house off Sunset Boulevard for $2,000 a month. Bill, who Roseanne says is nothing like the chauvinist males she describes in her act, is now a house husband and part-time comedy writer, contributing about one-fourth of her material.

The writer of the other three-fourths is not without worries. She fears her children will forget her. (During her family’s first two months in L.A., she says, she has been on the road all but six nights.) But right now Roseanne is so grateful for her success that she weeps just thinking about the gold Gucci pocket watch given her by the Pointer Sisters in thanks for her opening act. Indeed, when a valet arrives with her wardrobe at Caesars, Roseanne can’t help showing off her $300 silk blouse. “I’m so excited to be here,” she says, adding, “You’re looking at one happy, fat bitch.”

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