Roseanne Barr & The Comeback That Never Came

June 12, 2012

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Roseanne Barr & The Comeback That Never Came

I’m so old, I remember when Ellen DeGeneres was straight; Rosie O’Donnell wasn’t merely straight, she was the “Queen of Nice”; and Joan Rivers would never eat lunch in this town again.

I wasn’t the only fan shocked to see “Queen of Mean” Lisa Lampanelli devolve from balls-out (ovaries-out?) Comedy Central Roast-er (who can take it as well as dish it out) into touchy, sniveling teenager on this year’s Celebrity Apprentice.

Is it possible that Roseanne Barr is the only famous female comic who hasn’t changed a bit since her big break, getting “called over to the couch” by Carson in ’85?

In showbiz, if you simply manage not to die, sooner or later you’ll enjoy a career revival. Sure (to borrow from Sondheim), by “then you’re camp,” but does Neil Diamond care that half his post-Saving Silverman concertgoers are just being “ironic”?

“Sure, the general public still recognizes Barr’s name and face. They just don’t seem to long for her return.”

Roseanne’s smash eponymous sitcom went off the air in 1997 after a nine-year run. That means she’s had fifteen years to mellow into “camp” and “ironic”—practically a generation, which is a pretty fair fermentation period.

But for whatever reason, in her case that usually reliable pop-culture formula has flopped.

This isn’t a matter of “How can we miss you when you won’t go away?” Roseanne never branched out into film or snagged lucrative endorsements or recaptured the stand-up circuit. Her Q Score likely plummeted around the beginning of Clinton’s second term and stayed put.

Sure, the general public still recognizes Barr’s name and face.

They just don’t seem to long for her return.

Roseanne holds up well in reruns, but its creator isn’t the sui generis genius she portrays herself to be in every bombastic interview. Gertrude Berg predates Lucille Ball (never mind Barr) as a female TV auteur, and her sitcom about a lower-class family debuted way back in 1949.

As for being the courageous soul who “introduced the subject of gay characters on television”—as Barr claimed this week—I suspect the creators of Soap (1977-1981) would differ.

(The Roseanne show’s most lasting yet least appreciated legacy may be its role in helping turn Halloween into a multi-billion-dollar American industry.)