July 24, 2003
Roseanne Makes Nice in Reality TV
In her new reality series, "The Real Roseanne Show," a svelter, calmer Roseanne Barr struts onstage to perform her comedy act. "I want to talk about this spiritual change I went through," the provocative comic-actress says.
She describes how it began one day, when she looked at one of her three ex-husbands and became incensed by the sight of his hair transplants.
"So I just, like, pulled a whole handful of 'em out," she says, demonstrating with a plump fist.
After accosting him further, an alarmed Barr telephoned her rabbi. "I was like, 'Man, I almost killed a human being. I'd better give some money to, like f-- -- crippled children or something. And my rabbi goes, 'Well, Roseanne, those are real nice ideas, but I think probably the best thing for you to do is just try to be nice.' Of course, I thought, 'How hard can that be?' I didn't know it was going to be like a walk through hell."
The nasal-voiced Barr, 50, told The Journal during a telephone interview from her Los Angeles home, she didn't really tear her ex's hair out by the roots.
"It's kind of an allegory of what happened," she said. But she did undergo a transformation after her friend, actress Sandra Bernhard, introduced her to the Kabbalah Centre, the controversial Los Angeles program frequented by celebrities such as Madonna, around 1995. One of its leaders really did suggest she try to be nice -- no easy task for a person who admits she once tried to stab an executive producer.
Her battle is the sometimes hilarious subtext of "The Real Roseanne," which follows Barr as she struggles to get back on television by developing a cooking/lifestyle show, "The Domestic Goddess Hour." On the reality show, reminiscent of "The Osbournes," the "cast" includes her five children and her on-call rabbi, Eitan Yardeni, who helps her with decisions such as choosing a producer she will not want to stab.
Along the way, viewers learn that Barr's white trash "domestic goddess" persona, perfected on her hit sitcom, "Roseanne," is "actually a Jewish mother," she said. In the pilot, an apron-clad Barr bustles about her vast kitchen, preparing Friday night dinner for her extended family.
"My spiritual teachings have really helped me to ... not strike out, lash out or lose it," she says while preparing to light Sabbath candles.
The show's Emmy Award-winning executive producer, R.J. Cutler ("American High"), noticed her use of Judaism as anger management. "Roseanne is larger than life, almost like a mythic figure, and when she's upset, it's mythic in a way that makes one think of Zeus," he said. "Like many people, she's on a spiritual path to try to become the best person possible, although she'd be the first person to tell you she's better at it some days than others."
Indeed, Barr is as famous for her volatile behavior as she is for the haughty hausfrau character she created in comedy clubs in the 1980s. In her early act, she dissed lazy husbands with cracks such as "Is lemon Joy kryptonite to your species?" On "Roseanne," her loud-mouthed, working-class character helped change the outmoded way women were depicted on television.
But recently, the actress expressed doubts about her old domestic goddess image.
"One reason I wanted to go back on TV is because I look at the messages I put out on my other shows, and some of them I don't believe anymore, so I feel like I should take them back or replace them," she said. "I just had a lot of anger and hatred in my old comedy, and I've been wanting to show that my life got better when I tried to let go of that."
Barr traces her fury to growing up in a working-class Jewish family that was profoundly scarred by the Holocaust. Her grandparents, who lost all their relatives in Nazi concentration camps, ran an apartment house for survivors in Salt Lake City. "When I was 3, they would recount things in front of me, which horrified me so badly," she said.
It didn't help that non-Jewish neighbors told Roseanne and her family they were destined to roast in hell. As a result, Barr's mother, Helen, was so paranoid, she hid her children in the basement when the doorbell unexpectedly rang.
"She said, 'Don't ever tell anyone you're Jewish,' and we had to pretend like we were Mormon," Barr recalled. "I truly believed that if people found out we were Jewish, they were going to kill us. First, I learned to be fearful, and second, to cover that up with rage."
Barr -- who performed skits after the Sabbath evening meal -- discovered that laughter provided the best defense against the neighbors. It also helped shield her from her volatile, salesman father, a comedy fan who let her mouth off if she was funny.
"He taught me that comedy was mightier than the pen and the sword," Barr told The New Yorker in 1995.
When she began making a name for herself on the comedy circuit in the early 1980s, the young housewife's material was cutting. "My husband comes home and says, 'Don't you think we should talk about our sexual problems?'" she would say. "Like I'm going to turn off 'Wheel of Fortune' for that.'"
As Barr rose to the top of the comedy world, she continued her Jewish journey. Even though her mother sent her to church as well as an Orthodox religious school, she says, "I always remained interested in Judaism." In the early 1990s, she wed husband No. 2, Tom Arnold, a convert to Judaism, in a Jewish ceremony.
On her daytime talk program, "The Roseanne Show," in 1998, she announced a personal ad seeking "three normal, healthy, Jewish single men" for her three daughters. Then there were her studies at the Kabbalah Centre, which blends Jewish mysticism with self-help spirituality.
Barr started meditating daily and, in 1999, she and Yardeni visited Israel, a trip she regards as "the bat mitzvah I never had." She immersed herself in an ancient mikvah and wrapped red string around Rachel's tomb, which she now wears around her wrist "to remind me to keep my big mouth shut when I'm ready to say something nasty."
On her reality show, she sometimes can't resist saying something nasty, screeching at her relatives or making supercilious comments such as "I'm the genius. I'll take care of the 'funny.'"
Nevertheless, she evinces interest in bringing spirituality into all areas of her life, occasionally to comic effect. In one sequence, Yardeni and another rabbi, an expert "face reader," help Barr pick an executive producer. While viewing videotaped interviews with the candidates, the rabbis study their facial features and make remarks such as "The nose is about the honesty of the person."
One of Barr's friends asks the inevitable question: What if the person has had a nose job?
"You've got to see before and after," the expert replies.
Eventually, the mercurial Barr herself tears up the rabbis' recommendations -- although she ultimately selects the person they suggest.
"The story on the show is that I have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other," she said. "The internal struggle between the two opposites is powerful but also kind of funny."
"The Real Roseanne Show" debuts Wednesday Aug. 6 at 9 p.m. on ABC.