Any resemblance between Roseanne Barr and the earthy, smart-mouthed character she plays in her hit sitcom, Roseanne, is entirely intentional. Indeed, the allure of Barr’s raunchy personality and wit have made Roseanne the first new series since The Cosby Show in 1984 to go to No. 1 in its debut year.
At once boisterous, rotund and cheerfully sexy, Barr slings working-class comedy around the set with a zest unrivaled since Archie Bunker thundered from his armchair. Yet childhood is inevitably a comedian ‘s capital, and Roseanne has been drawing on her own difficult past ever since she first stepped onstage. As she has said, “I wouldn’t be making a lot of money and be very happy now if I had grown up content and sheltered.”
To let her audience know she is more than just a feisty funny lady, Barr, 36, has written an autobiography, Roseanne: My Life as a Woman. In her intimate, rambling style, Barr gives a humorous, sometimes wrenching account of the potholed path that led to her big break as a comic.
Roseanne’s father, Jerry Barr, a blanket salesman, and her mother, Helen, a housewife and bookkeeper, were eccentric Jewish liberals who stood out in their working-class neighborhood of predominantly Mormon Salt Lake City. From the very first, Roseanne felt like an outsider. As a defense, she turned to comedy and became the class clown—until she was hit by a car at age 16. Traumatized by the accident, Barr spent eight months in a state psychiatric hospital. After her release, she left Utah for a new life in Colorado. There she met Bill Pentland, a college dropout who eventually became her husband and father of their three children, Jessica, 14, Jennifer, 13, and Jake, 11.
During the ’80s, Barr transformed herself from a part-time waitress into a feminist who yearned for a career as both a comic and a writer. Now she has both. In December, Barr will appear in her first film, She Devil, co-starring Meryl Streep.
But long ago, there was a different Roseanne. Picture a little girl standing on a street corner….
When I was 5 years old, we lived across the street from a little grocery store. [One day] my mother allowed me to go over there all by myself (which meant, of course, that she would stand there, and make sure all the traffic had subsided, and then, like a track coach, scream, “All right, go!” and while I was going she would scream, “Run! Run!” like it was the end of the world. I did not cross a street without her until I was 9 years old).
When I came back and handed Mother her purchase, she noticed I’d been given $1 too much in change. To educate me as to the wise and crucial ways of being honest and God-fearing and right thinking and all [she told me to take the dollar back]. Because it was very cold outside, I refused. Mother then drilled into me that our heavenly Father was watching and would like it if I took back the dollar. Thus properly induced into religious ecstasy, turning to return the excess loot, I slipped on the ice and all of my upper teeth went cleanly and fully through my lip; I was rushed to the hospital, laid on a table, covered with a sheet from head to toe and underwent 90 minutes of surgery.
The wonderful lesson about honesty and doing the right thing was planted into my consciousness. I learned that not even God himself likes ASS KISSERS.
Even when very young, I knew that I would be the one person in a long ravaged line of storytellers, of persons with notebooks and drawers and old cardboard boxes full of handwritten tales that would make it out of poverty and resignation, to be a writer.
Sometime after I was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, all the little babies were sleeping soundly in the nursery except for me. I would scream at the top of my lungs, trying to shove my whole fist into my mouth, wearing all the skin off on the end of my nose. I was put into a tiny restraining jacket to keep my hands away from the wounds. My mother is fond of this story because to her it illustrates what she regards as my gargantuan appetites and excess anger. I think I was probably just bored.
My grandmother, Bobbe Mary, was the one adult I adored, because she encouraged my need to be the center of all creation. The story I most remember about Bobbe now, because perhaps it’s the story that taught me the most in my life, happened on Friday night in her kitchen. My little brother was continually bouncing a ball on the floor and my father, not known for his tolerance or patience, kept screaming at him to stop. What he and everyone else understood was that, while you were in Bobbe’s house, the children were allowed to get away with more than at any other place on earth. She said to Daddy, “Let him bounce his ball, what does it hurt?” Father, needing to assert himself over the woman who really controlled his wife, his children and his life, said, “He is my kid, I’ll tell him what to do, stay out of this. Ben, stop bouncing that ball. Now.” He had that tone of voice that terrified us, because violence could follow. I got an upset stomach, because I did not know what Bobbe would do then, as I had always seen every woman back down to every man, as that was the culture at the time. I knew that if Bobbe did nothing, then her magical powers and her strength would diminish in my eyes.
What could she do? This man was her daughter’s man, and he was our father. He was young and strong and she was old and fat. Half of me wanted her to shut up because he was the man, and I knew somewhere that women did not stand up to men. Instead, you let them think they are in charge. My mother had always told me that.
She did not stop; she began to shake, slightly. She said, “He can bounce his ball in my house.” Father was uncontrollable at that point, so insulted, so put down, that he walked over and hit my little brother full force in the back of the head. Mother, ever the peacemaker, pointed her finger at my little brother, who was all of 3 years old and said, “See? Now stop!”
The tension was unbearable. Bobbe rose like a goddess from her red kitchen chair. She hobbled over to where my father was standing, breathing hard, like he always did when he had just proved something through brute strength. And she slapped him across the face with all the power of her 300 pounds. Time froze then, and I saw all the blood drain from his face. He had a slack jaw and saucered eyes. Then she spoke. “You do not hit MY grandchildren, do you understand?”
This was the first time anyone had ever stood up for us against our father. For a second he looked at her as if he would kill her. You could see his breath and his wheels churning. She said, “So now you’ll beat me, too, huh?” and stood there, defiant, powerful, the birth giver, bread giver, Destroyer, Nemesis.
Father, choking back sobs, said: “Helen, get your coat and the kids; we’re never coming back here again.” He went out to the car and sat there honking the horn. Mother did not get up immediately, because Bobbe said, “Let him wait.” We took our time getting on our coats, and Bobbe kissed all of us, for a long, slow time. The horn stopped honking; Mother was, for the first time, standing up to her football-hero husband, and as we left, Bobbe said: “Will you be here for Shabbas?” Mother, thinking for a full minute said, “Yes.” That was it, it was over.
We drove home in silence and my sister Geraldine and I were elbowing each other in the back seat. We couldn’t wait to get home, go to our room and impersonate Bobbe doing the “Showdown at Park Street.” Sometimes, being a daughter is remarkable.
We lived on Park Street, in Salt Lake, in a big tenement slum which my grandparents owned. After WW II, they sponsored several Jewish survivors from Naziville [concentration camps], and almost every one of the 12 apartments were filled at one time by these people.
There was a big windowsill where I created the Las Vegas-style entertainment that came almost mystically to me at the age of 3. The family loved my act and used to call me “Sarah Bernhardt.” The stage was the only place in Utah where I felt safe. I entertained like mad, because I was afraid if I didn’t everyone would start to talk about the Holocaust. When it would happen anyway, I tried to go into the bedroom and put pillows over my ears, or watch TV with the sound up loud, or sing to myself. Still, I always heard and I was afraid. I didn’t understand geography; I thought that these horrible things had happened just down the street, on the next block, very close to me. Now I feel it was even closer than that. It was one breath away.
There were no other Jews in our neighborhood. I was always the only Jew at my school, and so very paranoid. I always felt the onslaught of the Nazis was very close. When we played [with Barbie dolls], I said, “Why do we always have to play like she’s getting ready for a wedding or a date, why don’t we do something daring? Like say she’s a resistance fighter parachuting behind enemy lines with a secret code to save people?” The Mormon girls would say, “Oh, I’m sure, Roseanne. You have to be her cousin Skipper.”
My parents, Helen and Jerry, were deeply in love with their respective mothers, as well as each other. When Daddy was in a good mood, which was extremely rare, he would do fun things with us children like hide and squirt us with the hose, dance around in his underwear, or lift a leg and let loose with a creature release. Mother would say, “Now Jerry, your children are young ladies and gentlemen; set a good example for them.” And then he would say okay and grab his huge beer gut and belch at her.
Sometimes Mother would get mad, and not talk to Daddy, and sometimes she would laugh and sometimes she would cry…whatever she would do, he would always apologize to her and then they would kiss in that grotesque manner which only one’s parents can do (and turn a young girl’s developing heart, mind and stomach into a huge black void). Their displays of parent-passion were enough to psychically cripple all four of their children forever. [These displays] sent me into a state of sexual paralysis (with dreams of worms and fish) which lasted until many years later when I was aroused for the first time by the man I later married (and made a fortune making fun of).
Daddy always had a joke or two about boobs. We would go around and around and he would say things about women and I would say things about him and we would have contests and showdowns and I would always win. My father taught me that comedy is mightier than the sword and the pen. And even though he was a sexist pig in every way, if I would say something that was very anti-male, or anti-him, and it was funny, my father would applaud and say, “Good one.”
My parents were not like other kids’ parents in the ’50s and ’60s. My dad didn’t even own one jacket with patches on the sleeves, and he never went around on Saturdays in dungarees. He wasn’t exactly a clothes-horse. He wore the same outfit for about two weeks, I guess. He was a slob. About every two weeks he’d call us kids together and say, “Kids, go draw me a bath.” We’d cheer and run around, kiss our mother, clean our rooms. We’d get the bath ready and he’d go in there. We’d hear a big loud wet plop. We’d stand outside in the hall and yell, “Daddy, get under your arms, too! Daddy, don’t forget to wash your hair!” We’d peek through the keyhole to make sure he was actually in the tub. Sometimes, he’d fool us though, and when we’d look through the keyhole, there would be a big pair of eyes staring back at us, or worse. Daddy was never ever ashamed of the functions of the body, except for sex, of course.
My mother was different, too. When I was a little girl, there was this mean boy who called me Fatso all the time. He picked on all the kids and had us all very scared. My mother told me once to go and invite him over for a piece of cake; she said she’d teach him about being nice, so I did. My mother was always a bit frightening, the way a good mother should be. She said, from inside the house, “Curtis, would you like some nice chocolate cake? Wait on the porch a minute, okay?” She had already smeared this purple facial mask on her face, and as it dried, it drew her face taut, making her eyes look very bloodshot and her lips very swollen. She took out her false teeth, and smeared ketchup all over her hands and mouth and neck. She ratted her hair way out too, and she came out, holding a piece of cake covered with about one and a half bottles of ketchup. “Here, Curtis,” she said, real slow, “here’s your cake.”
I’ll never forget that kid’s face. It turned completely white and he stood there not even breathing. “Don’t pick on the other kids anymore, okay, Curtis?” she said. He just nodded. I have no doubt that Mother has changed not only Curtis, but Curtis’s seed, down to the fourth generation.
When I was 3 or 4, I fell on the leg of the kitchen dinette and my face froze in a manner that resembled an older person who had had a stroke. When it did not return to normal the next day, Mother called the rabbi, who said a prayer for me and nothing happened. The next day, in escalating panic, Mother called the Mormon priests, because she feared that my face would mar my chances of acquiring a meal ticket at a later age. Anyway, the day after the Mormons prayed, I was miraculously “healed.”
Why, you may ask (as I did at a later age), was a doctor or a health professional not contacted? Well the only rational answer to that is that we lived in Utah, where all illness, disease and mild upset is considered to be a SIGN.
Even though we were not Mormon but Jewish, the mystique of the “new Zion” had also enveloped us and Mother feared the wrath of the God of the gentiles.
When my face became healed, Mother (never having lived anywhere on earth but Salt Lake City) accepted it as a sign from God that the Mormon faith was the one true religion on the face of the earth, and that she and I should join it.
But she was afraid of the wrath of her own mother, and so there was a compromise. Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning I was a Jew; Sunday afternoon, Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon we were Mormons. So, after I learned about my people being murdered in every country but America, I could then learn about my new forebears being persecuted in Illinois, New York, and Utah. This made for a complete and well-rounded feeling of paranoia.
I remember at the age of 16 I was at school, skimming through a medical journal, another of my “hobbies.” The book opened to the page on Bell’s palsy, the disease which had led me into what turned out to be 10 years of Mormon lifestyle. The information in the journal stated that Bell’s palsy was a [facial] paralysis, often lasting only 48 hours.
[That same year], I was on my way to school walking up this huge hill. The hill was so steep that sometimes when you would walk home in the winter, if you lost your footing even for A SECOND, you would ski down and crash in a heap at the bottom. I was up there, this one day, that day, the big day, with my girlfriend Sherri Ann Jaggi, and we were wearing our twin outfits that we had sewed in Home Ec. Being twins or looking like them, or dressing like twins, is and was a big thing in Utah. I don’t know why, and don’t care to think about why, either.
So, we are crossing the street, dressed like twins, at about 8:40 A.M. and I remember standing on the corner and looking down the hill and up the street, looking for cars, and then we stepped off the curb and kind of jaywalked a little bit, not too much.
A car coming up the hill hit both girls. Roseanne was thrown in the air, cracked her skull and was dragged 30 feet by the car. She had to have skin grafts and plastic surgery on her legs. However, her emotional injuries proved far greater. After the accident, Barr began to have nightmares and was afraid to sleep. She was unable to remember things. When she suffered possible convulsions, her worried parents felt she should be institutionalized.
After I went nuts, I went to the Utah State Hospital for almost a year. How do you really try to write about a time in your life when you were crazy, nuts, out of it, lost?
I think the best way is to think about it as being a kind of distant and misty place, surrounded by fog that rolls in and rolls out of your memory every now and then. Especially when you are all alone, and it’s night time, and you’re in some hotel room, in a strange city, opening for Julio Iglesias. Being “sane” is like being off balance a little; it’s just like one part of your brain takes over and gets a little bit bigger than the other parts. You can really feel the parts of your brain when you’re nuts, too. You know that you can really function the way that people in the regular world do, but it really bores you to think that you might have to.
I probably would have remained “sane” and never gone off the deep end, off the edge, into the abyss, off my rocker, out of my tree, off my nut, if I would never have been hit by the car. So, I guess that’s how I start to tell this story, that when I was 16, I got run over by a car. There.
One time I was at home—a Utah nut on a weekend home visit from the nuthouse—and this guy in the neighborhood, Sandy, kept trying to have sex with me. He said, “Let’s smoke some pot and do what comes naturally.” I had smoked maybe two times in high school and nothing happened, so I thought I was highly evolved and wouldn’t feel anything this time either. So I’m sitting in Sandy’s apartment, smoking pot, looking around—and everything suddenly looks interesting. The ceiling is intensely interesting. The cracks in the ceiling are incredible.
My eyes are whirling around and my mouth is gaping open, and he says, “What’s the matter with you?” “Nothing, nothing. Why, does it seem like anything’s the matter?” He goes, “Have you ever been high before?” and I go, “Of course!” Then we start having sex on the couch, just foreplay, and I was really getting into it too, which was amazing for me. We went to the bedroom and f—ed then; I still didn’t know what you were supposed to do. I thought of something like an article from Seventeen. “Why, what you do Roseanne is you lay there poised, and smile.” So I’m with this guy and I’m smiling at him like this: I tilt my head to one side, then to the other, as if I’m saying: “My, aren’t you doing a very good job. You’re so intelligent to have figured that out.” Immediately afterward, I pulled my dress down from over my head, and a wave of paranoia hit that almost knocked me through the wall.
I ran out into the park and started thinking: I am not in the park, I’m still at home in my bed, no you’re not, you’re in the park, no you’re home in bed thinking you’re in the park. I just didn’t know what was true so I went over to this tree and I go, now run your hand along the bark. So I take my hands and I just gouge them down the tree and my palms are bleeding. I go: good, blood, that means I’m in the park. I see these Mormon Girls and they are playing volleyball or some other Mormon Girl kind of thing, and I go, “They will see you standing here and they will know you are stoned and they will take away your weekends.” And then I think those girls will help me, and I went up to them, and I go “Excuse me,” and they go, “Yes,” and I go, “Are you LDS?” [members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints] and they said, “Uh huh,” and I go, “well I’m LDS too. Do you live around here?” They said they lived across the street and I go, “Could we please go over to your house? I have taken a lot of drugs. I’m never taking drugs again. I have already asked God to forgive me, and he has spoken to me saying, ‘Asketh ye these girls playing volleyball and therein ye shall find comfort!’ ” That’s how folks talk in Utah and they are not on drugs.
So we go over to their house and they start talking to me like Mormons would. Why did you take these drugs? I go, “Please, please don’t say anything to me, I really can’t talk right now. Please don’t say anything to me. I swear, I’ll call you guys when I’m better, and I’ll talk about the whole thing, but please don’t talk to me now.”
I say, “I feel better now, can I use your phone?” I call up Daddy and say: “Could you please come and get me? I’m really really messed up and I’ve lost my way home.” Daddy goes, “Where are you?” “I’m at Liberty Park [three blocks from our house].” Daddy goes, “You stay there, we’ll be right there.” I’m standing in the park and up drive Mother and Father in their station wagon, and they go, “Get in the car. Get in here.” They had that look, that panicked look that parents get when their crazy daughter is out loose. I felt myself come down just then. I get into the car and say, “I was just joking, I just didn’t want to walk home.” Daddy goes, “Well, good.”
After eight months at Utah State Hospital, Barr returned to high school but dropped out almost immediately. She worked as a salad girl in a restaurant until she was 18, when she decided to leave home. Barr then set off for Georgetown, Colo., to visit an old friend, Linda Rizzardi.
I told Mom and Dad that I was going to visit Linda for a two-week period, after which I would return home and get a job. It was the only way they would have allowed me to get on that bus and leave at all. After eight hours, when the bus pulled into Grand Junction, Colo., I got off, went into the terminal and vomited. Standing outside in the Colorado air, and taking what felt like the first free breath of my entire life…leaving home, this time not institution-bound, but leaving home for my own life, my own self.
Eight more hours later, the bus arrived in Georgetown. There, waiting for me, was Chad, Linda’s best friend, a cute guy with hair down past his shoulders, and Linda, looking like the Mountain Queen of all the Hippies. I was wearing false eyelashes and a sweater two sizes too small. Chad was instantaneously in love with me. Linda said, “We’ll go down to the Motor Inn and use their bathroom.” We got to the Motor Inn and a guy came out, the night clerk. This guy was the cutest guy in the world, his hair was really long and he had on a jean jacket, torn up, torn up jeans, leather moccasins and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. My God. We followed him into the room behind the desk, where he lived, and there sat two more of the most gorgeous hippie men I had ever seen and only dreamed about in my state of mind, which was the state of Utah.
When nervous, or excited, I tend to process all the s—in my head out loud. I tell every new person everything about me, wanting them to know me immediately, revealing myself too much, usually pushing them away. I told them that I had just left home, escaped, and was now ready to take a lot of drugs and have sex a lot. They became quite quiet, and the night clerk stared at me, sideways.
Linda was laughing, and then we went home to her apartment, which was three miles out of Georgetown, underneath a rock ‘n’ roll bar called the Lift. And the bar was full of MEN, the kind of men that I yearned for at that time, dreamt about.
Four days after moving in with Linda, Chad came over to our apartment with the night clerk from the Motor Inn. They wanted to know if Linda and I wanted to go down the road and have a beer.
Linda was working that night and Chad said, “Well, then do you just wanna come?” I said, “Don’t you have to be 21?” They explained that in Colorado, you could drink 3.2 beer when you’re 18. Imagine my joy. So we crossed the creek, and sidled up to the bar, where you could order frozen pizza too. My God, all of my Mario Thomas as That Girl dreams were beginning to come true. Amazed and delighted at the fact that merely by going on a bus 500 miles from home, one could find beer, pizza and sexual healing, my soul began to come alive, stirring in my 130-pound body.
Drinking my very first beer, and being with not one, but two males, was overwhelming to me…they wanted to know about me, and this was the first time in my life where I was encouraged not to be a good listener, and ask the guy how he felt about everything, but that two males wanted to listen to me. It was glorious. So, I overprocessed, telling them everything, from how my face became paralyzed to the nuthouse. The night clerk, whose name turned out to be Bill [Pent-land], told me that I was the most interesting chick he had ever met, and that he was “totally blown away at how intelligent I was, since most of the other chicks he had met were stupid, shallow and petty.” (Yes, he’d never met a Jewish woman.)
I had fallen madly, passionately in love with someone who had to be home all night long, because he was a night clerk, and if he screwed up his job, he would be homeless…what a perfect setting for romance…a man, almost a captive, who could not leave me. Well, it was just too highly erotic for yours truly.
The next evening, Roseanne and Bill Pent land began an intense affair.
While he was working in the next room I just wrapped a sheet around myself, and sat waiting for him, smoking cigarette after glorious cigarette. At 10, when he closed down the motel, we would begin [having sex] until 6 in the morning, when we’d sleep until 4 in the afternoon, when he would get up and get ready for work, eat, and punch in at 6 P.M. We never spoke. I was still uncomfortable talking to someone I had just had sex with, and he was still uncomfortable talking to someone he lived with.
I felt the honeymoon was over one night when, as I was kissing him and the TV was on (to create a mood), he sat upright, and said, “No, stop. I’ve got to hear this.” It was a guy talking about how people from other planets had colonized the earth. Bill considered this information to be some of the most important information he had ever heard. I was incensed, felt rejected, and hitchhiked home.
He came over the next day and told me his now infamous…”I’m a ramblin’ guy and I’ve gotta wander” speech. That night, enraged, and full of hate, I went over to his house and walked up to him and started to kiss him. He placed both of his arms in the air, like he was not going to touch me, like he could withstand this great test of his male will, and then, he folded, and then he surrendered. So, I stayed a few more days, but then it happened again, he refused to incessantly rut away his life with me, and kept foolishly insisting that there were other things to Life. He wanted to have separation with me, and I wanted to get closer and closer. You know how men arc.
Barr struggled through ups and downs with Pentland while working at odd jobs in Georgetown. Finally, Pentland came around and on Feb. 4, 1974, Bill and Roseanne were married. While Bill continued to work as a night clerk, Roseanne cooked and waitressed. In 1975 she gave birth to Jessica, the first of their three children.
There was a time when I was the Queen of the Barefoot and Pregnant. I would wait all day until Bill would come home, feeling excited about being able to speak to another adult, to exercise my brain. Bill was usually too tired, though, and could only handle watching TV and drinking beer, and somewhere in that time, I just slipped away, so far away inside myself, so far down, that it was becoming harder and harder to come out at all. I would try to talk to the other mothers in our building, but I was very uncomfortable, and would usually just sit staring and smiling, empty, listening to them talk about household chores and fighting with their husbands and things their kids had learned, and sometimes, the same things came out of me, but I was aping them. I just wanted to be with someone, to feel some connection. And always after the fourth or fifth time I would visit with them, I would say that I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to be a poet, and then I would tell some ideas I had for a book or a story, and these other women would look at me, like there was something wrong with me for wanting that, for saying that, for thinking about anything besides kids and dinner and husbands.
I turned on the radio once and there was a talk show, and I just became hooked on it, absolutely hooked, on this one host/dj whose name was Alan Berg. One day I called in, it had been three months since I had started listening and I sat down and wrote a funny little bit that I could call in and read to him.
I called, and waited, and then he said, “You’re on the air”…”Hello, Alan. I really like your show,” I stumbled. “What do you wanna say?” he asked, impatiently. I read the thing, and while I read it, I actually peed my pants, because I was so scared, and so rusty, so afraid. He said, “That’s very funny, you make a very good point there. Please call in again, I enjoyed talking to you.”
I hung up the phone and started to cry, and it went on and on and on, lots of tears. Someday, I thought, I’ll tell that old Alan Berg how much that day meant to me, and how I’ll remember it forever. [Berg was murdered in 1984 by members of a neo-Nazi organization.]
For years I thought [comedy] wasn’t worthy of me, though I adored watching others do it. I aspired to be Gertrude Stein, or Dylan Thomas, or some poetess tragically and forlornly trying to scrape some piece of misery off the sole of my soul. I thought fat girls had to write poetry until I heard [50s comic] Lord Buckley, and Lenny Bruce, and understood the jazz of words that had a rhythm and a beat and a sensuous movement that you could get lost in.
There came a time in my life that I, thinking myself a writer, walked into a place called the Woman to Woman Bookstore on Colfax Street in Denver, Colo. It was in the beginning of the 1980s. I thought I would find books by women writers, and I was looking specifically for books about women writers, by women writers. It had just dawned on me that I was a woman and a writer, and each and both of these words were huge masses of veins and hair to me, all tangled together, needing to be sorted, cleaned, defined.
God, I was so very fulfilled. I had three healthy, beautiful children, a husband who loved me (and had learned to share housework), sisters and friends, and I was thin, dark, fit, working toward a career as a buyer in the clothing industry. I was for the ERA, I had raised consciousness, I had a nice suburban home, and a subscription to Ms. magazine. I was working one night a month with a committee of concern for Soviet Jewry, writing letters, speaking. I had come up from poverty and despair and all that was behind me, it was a wonderful day for me, that day, in that bookstore on Colfax Street. When I got up, I turned to look out the back window, and I noticed a staircase that went down into a basement. I asked about that staircase, what was down there. The woman said, “This bookstore is run by a collective. We have meetings down there.” “Can anyone go?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. I felt elated, excited. I can go to meetings on Tuesdays, I thought.
Tuesday came, I had fixed everything for dinner, I had been to my part-time job. I was ready now to go from wife-mother-career woman to Writer with Something to Say. My sister Geraldine and I were in the car, driving to the collective meeting at the bookstore. We parked, we walked in. I was wearing a purple jumpsuit, high-heeled shoes, and lots of makeup.
We descended into the underworld. What I saw down in that basement, what I heard, what I spoke, became a painting that I see often in my dreams, and in my head when I’m staring into space. There was the smell; there was almost no light. When my eyes became focused, I saw dozens of women. They were talking. One was a very fat black woman with a babushka on her head. The black woman said, “But we have to talk about your racism.” I was excited, because anyone could speak, and I knew how to speak, from all those years as a Mormon youth speaker, and I loved to speak, and I knew how to move people.
And so I spoke, and I said I knew about anti-Semitism because I was a Jew and I was from Utah. I said, “Why don’t you talk about racism? After all, it has no place in the women’s movement, does it?” God, I was good that night.
Inspired by her visit to the Woman to Woman Bookstore, Barr soon joined a feminist collective. Although she studied books by and about feminists, she began to feel that her own voice was that of a working-class mother trying to reach out to women on the street. She yearned to be a writer, yet the bills were mounting.
By the end of 1980, I was well-Versed and ready to get a career. I became a cocktail waitress. I was working part-time as a window dresser for $50 per week and had to get a better job. I went over to Bennigan’s and must have sufficiently blown the guy away because he created a job for me. I was the cocktail captain, a hostess and, if they needed me, a waitress. The men would come in, and it took mc a long time to spar with them. First I took all of the horrible degrading s—-they would say about your boobs or something, and just store up the info, probably like most women do.
One day something just snapped and I talked back to them. This man said, “Bring me one of these, honey.” I turned around and I said, “Don’t call me ‘honey,’ you f—-ing pig.” He just started laughing—good thing he started laughing is all I can say or else I would not have done anything else again in my whole life. So I owe him thanks whoever he is. I started doing it more and more, and testing it out.
And then it would get really involved. Like the guy who told me, “Do you know anybody who is married and does not want to get divorced, and wants to fool around with somebody else who is married, who has a lot of money who likes to spend it on a special woman and have sex a lot and go to special places and be taken care of?” And I go, “Well, only your wife.”
The bar was on a platform slightly up above the restaurant, and as soon as I’d take those three steps up to it, I felt as if I were entering Rosieland. I mean, I really felt like a star. I was receiving all the male attention I had not had in quite some time, and I was receiving instantaneous gratification for it (in the form of great tips). I very much enjoyed it, and my customers used to come in every day.
I owe these men so much; it was because of them that I knew there was a place for me in comedy. The men were very much like my father in that you could say anything to them as long as it was funny. They would come on to me with the usual male flirtations, and I would respond with the meanest comebacks imaginable, but I was learning to be fast and quick, with the constant practice I was getting from 8 o’clock in the evening until 2 or 3 in the morning. These men at the bar were my friends…. It was in part because of these men that I say what I say…and I would like to say thanks, but unfortunately, I have forgotten all their names (even though I do remember what all their eyes, lips and butts looked like).
One customer said, “This is just like going down to the Comedy Works, coming to see you, except that it lasts about six hours.” I said, “What’s the Comedy Works?” He said, “It’s that comedy club here.” “Oh, wow, I’m going to go down there.” I started all the time thinking about going down there.
I went into the club [four months later]. I went backstage and all the guy comics were in their corners not talking to each other, and the women were in their corners, and I didn’t know that that is how comics are.
I went up to all of these comics and said, “Hi, everybody, my name is Roseanne and I am so excited, and this is the first night I have been on stage, and I think that I have a really great routine. How long have you guys been doing it?” They all turned around and looked at me with great loathing. Just like, “Oh, my God.”
I went on stage and did my show and people just loved it. The very first night was just great. The second time I did not do well. One lady got up and turned her chair around so that her back was to me, and when I was done there was no applause. So I went offstage, and that night everyone talked to me.
Yet Barr became a regular and soon began performing at other Colorado clubs. At first she varied her routine, trying everything from Jackie Kennedy jokes to an anti-men shtick.
In the middle of all of this, I kept thinking: If I keep playing these coffee houses, I’m, going to be a radical comic. But I want to be a mainstream comic—or do I? Then I figured out that I could say everything that I wanted to say by being a housewife. I could say, “Why don’t men clean things up?” I worked it out with my sister, evolving this character from just six jokes.
We discovered it one day in a restaurant. I remembered my mom and all the neighbor ladies reading Fascinating Womanhood’ when I was young, and how there was a chapter on manipulating your old man by becoming a “Domestic Goddess”…Perfect Wife, Homemaker, etc. I said, “What if I say ‘Domestic Goddess’ as a term of self-definition, rebellion, truth telling?” My sister stood up in the restaurant and screamed: “My God, Rose, it’s Millions, no, it’s Billions!”
When I started doing that act, suddenly I was just so popular. I headlined my very first time out in Kansas City with 20 minutes of an act and 20 minutes of playing around and made $500 for the week. It was the best show I had ever had in my life. I had a standing ovation every night.
What I do is a brand-new thing I call funny womanness. Based on a brand-new theory that we women have our own way of thinking, different from the way men think, and really different from the way they think we think. The joke used to be that sex is dirty and women are for sex, so they’re dirty, too. But now, it’s a new age, and the joke has changed. Sex is good clean wholesome fun, and women are for sex, so they are good, clean wholesome fun too. WE’ve come a long way, Baby.
When I performed, my sister [Geraldine] would watch people laugh and watch how they watched and tell me how they laughed and at what jokes they would put their heads back in fear, and when they would laugh loudly and rock forward, when the men started to let go of their balls. The women seemed so afraid to laugh in front of the men. They wouldn’t laugh unless the men did. So if the men laughed at me, the women might too.
In Louisville, Kentucky, I got booed off the stage by 300 college punks at midnight in a pizza bar. I had to leave the stage by walking out in front of the crowd that was booing me, and I stood by the door. When they filed out at the end of the show I said to myself in that voice that everyone has that saves your life: “You are going to stand here by the door and look every one of them in the eye and tell them that this did not kill you.” I looked at the women who were all looking at the floor and not looking at me, and the men who were looking at me and sneering at me, and I would say, “Thanks a LOT.” If a woman would look me in the eye, I’d say, “You cowardly Bitch, Thanks a LOT.” I did that to 300 people.
After I won the Denver Laff-Off contest [in 1983], Geraldine started to bitch at me all the time, “Rose, there is nothing left for you to learn here, go to L.A., get out of here. Now is the time.”
A lot of L.A. comics who were working the local club in Denver told me, “Come out to L.A.; Mitzi Shore will fall in love with you.” Armed with all this support, I did venture out to L.A., the Comedy Store, hoping for the approval, guidance, support of the Mother of Comedy, Mitzi Shore. It was a name that all comics hold deep in their hearts. The stories about her were unwittingly hilarious and extremely frightening. She could hate you for no reason, it seemed, or love you, for no reason. She had turned away some of the greatest comics in the country, but by the same token, she had picked out most of the great ones: Richard Pryor, Steve Landesberg, Tim Thomerson, David Letterman, Sam Kinison, Louie Anderson, Sandra Bernhard, Robin Williams, and many others whose careers started someplace else and caught fire in L.A. at the Comedy Store.
Everyone said, Mitzi loves the women, she goes out of her way to develop women comics, it’s her thing. The night I auditioned for Mitzi Shore, I went on stage and blew the room away. It was the greatest five minute set I ever had and as soon as I went offstage, the Mother of all the night people, Mitzi Shore, with her signature tablecloth on her head, polka-dotted fingernails, platform shoes, and whining voice, not unlike my own, said to me, and I’ll never forget it, even when she drives me nuts, “Go do 20 minutes in the Main Room.”
After my 20 minutes, she said, “You gotta move out to L.A., Roseann-A, I’ll take care of you. You are going to be one who breaks down the doors of Comedy for Women.”
At that point Barr made a difficult decision: to leave the children with Pentland while she tried to break into the L.A. comedy scene. Eventually the whole family joined her.
[In 1985] came to L.A. to rehearse my act for a TV segment on women comics that Mitzi was co-producing. The show was called Funny. I had nowhere to live, I had no money, I did have a drive to succeed, and new Comedy Girlfriends like Diane Ford and Karen Haber who generously opened their homes, couches, floors, and blankets to me.
During the week of rehearsals for Funny, I was staying at Diane’s. She was on the road working and she left me her little red MG convertible (which I have since purchased from her for its sheer sentimental value). Geraldine was en route to Los Angeles. She arrived at the Comedy Store in time for the dress rehearsal. To prepare for my television debut, Mitzi Shore, acting as both my wardrobe consultant and mother, took me out shopping for an appropriate stage outfit and a “Look.” I ended up wearing a pair of funky designer cotton overalls because as Mitzi in her wisdom pointed out to me, “You should wear overalls because yours is a kind of a ‘farm act’ anyway, it’s kinda Midwestern, and I’m from the Midwest myself and I know what you need to look like.” She bought me some other less formal evening attire as well.
I had just come offstage the night of the dress rehearsal when I was approached by a man who was telling me that he loved me. I thought that he was a regular fan, and said my usual: “How nice. Move.” He then handed me his card, and of course as I read the card JIM McCAWLEY/Talent Coordinator/ The Tonight Show, I knew the name immediately. He said, “I’m putting you on the show. Can you come to my office tomorrow?”
I remember walking past my sister calmly, out the side door, asking the doorman to “Go get my sister!” I was standing in the parking lot of the Hyatt hotel (the same hotel that I have checked into to write parts of this book), next to the Comedy Store when my sister came out and said, “Who was that guy?”
I showed her the card, we started screaming and crying, began running up and down the parking structure, dancing ecstatically for ourselves and our grandchildren, recognizing the moment, celebrating together the possibility of getting our very own credit cards, and finally our very own bedrooms complete with bath.
The next morning I called Jim McCawley and set up an appointment to meet in Burbank at The Tonight Show offices. We got in the red MG, we brought the big portable tape recorder with us. We drove to Burbank while we listened to Prince sing, “Tonight, we’re gonna party like it’s 1999” all the way. My name was at the guard’s gate just like Jim told me it would be. We parked the car, walked through the building and were directed toward Jim’s office. I remember passing the “NBC Commissary” on the way and we both said “O Sis, look it is THEEEE NBC Commissary, we really are here.”
The next night I was on the show, and the rest is herstory.