Just two weeks ago, Roseanne Barr was on top of the world.
The always controversial comedienne took the stage at Lincoln Center on May 15 as the crown jewel of ABC. Her beloved eponymous sitcom, which had been off the air for two decades, had been revived to a degree of success that literally no one thought possible, giving the beleaguered network the No. 1 show in TV for the first time in 24 years. She’d returned to a network that she often publicly sparred with during Roseanne‘s original nine season run and become something of its savior.
As the network’s presentation of its 2018-19 line-up began, Barr was made the focal point of a pre-taped sketch featuring ABC talent auditioning before the American Idol judges, with the bit culminating in a surprisingly proficient performance of Frank Sinatra‘s “My Way” from the women who once butchered the National Anthem to a stadium full of stunned baseball fans. She then took the stage to thunderous applause from the crowd of Madison Avenue ad buyers, where she introduced Disney-ABC Television Group Ben Sherwood as “the guy responsible for most of my tweets.” Even her long history of incendiary, vicious, offensive social media posts was something to be, well, if not outright celebrated, then merely laughed off.
Well, that was then and this is now. And the laughter has stopped.
As pop culture fanatics returned to work after a long holiday weekend on Tuesday, May 29, they were greeted by a series of since-deleted tweets from Barr taking aim at former adviser to President Barack Obama, Valerie Jarrett, in which she “joked” that Jarrett was what resulted when “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby.” When confronted by incensed Twitter users over the racist overtones involved in comparing the Iranian-born African-American civic leader to an ape, Barr shot back, “Muslims r NOT a race.”
For Barr, the tweets, which also followed a bizarre attack on Chelsea Clinton that involved the further propagation of a conspiracy theory aimed at liberal benefactor George Soros that claimed the Holocaust survivor was actually “a nazi who turned in his fellow Jews 2 be murdered in German concentration camps & stole their wealth”—yes, really—were merely par for the course. By now, we’ve lost track of how many times Barr has kicked up some internet outrage after shooting off a few ill-advised tweets full of racist, Islamaphobic, transphobic sentiments or unhinged conspiracy theories, only to “quit” Twitter or turn her account over to her kids and then pop back up shouting the same hateful nonsense into the ether days leter. (We’ve documented most of them here.)
This behavior had been going on long before ABC made the decision to revive the classic sitcom, but was swept under the rug in a wave of nostalgic feelings for a series that was rightfully considered one of the medium’s greatest offerings coming back to the airwaves with its entire original cast in tact. Who had time to think about the person Barr had become (or simply revealed herself to be) when the prospect of John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf getting to do what they do best together again was before us and the prospect of tapping into audiences in the Midwestern states (and the dollar signs that come along with that) was before ABC?
So, the network willfully turned a blind eye to Barr’s years of documented toxic behavior and began production on the nine-episode revival season. Ahead of the show’s return, it was not exactly smooth sailing, as Barr sparred with journalists during a truly contentious panel during the 2018 Winter Television Critics’ Association press tour over the decision to turn the once seemingly liberal Roseanne Conner into a MAGA-hat wearing Trump supporter in line with the performer’s own beliefs. Meanwhile, when asked about Barr’s Twitter habits earlier that day, Dungey noted that she liked to focus on things she can control.
And for a while, after Roseanne returned to unexpectedly massive numbers (18.44 million, to be exact), what Dungey wanted to control was keeping the sitcom on her network for as long as possible. Three days after the season premiere, the network renewed the sitcom for an 11th season. “We’re thrilled that America has welcomed the Conner family back into their homes,” Dungey said at the time. “The show is as fresh and relevant today as it was when it left the air 21 years ago. We can’t wait to see what the Roseanne team has in store for next year.”
While numbers began to erode as quickly as the second week—something that was expected and happens to nearly every TV show—the show was a bona fide hit yet again. And just as immediately as Barr was receiving congratulatory calls from President Trump himself, she’d begun to ramp up her Twitter behavior yet again. The very night the show premiered, Barr sent out a now-deleted tweet calling David Hogg, one of the Parkland massacre survivors, a Nazi. For that? No consequence at all.
As the season progressed, perhaps emboldened by the show’s success and the complete lack of consequences for any of her prior behavior, she engaged in more and more Twitter rants, promoting unfounded right-wing conspiracy theories about child sex trafficking and igniting a rather vile feud with porn star Stormy Daniels. Her uglier tweets were, of course, deleted at a later date.
“I can’t back off from what’s really going on in the world, because I’m very fascinated by it and I have to stick my nose in everyone’s business,” Barr told Adweek only a week ago before sharing with them her new social media strategy. “I’m going to just try to talk about what I’m for, rather than what I’m against.”
Of Barr’s new plan, Dungey seemed hopeful at the time that all would work out, telling the publication, “Roseanne has said herself that she does not want what she says publicly to overshadow the show in any way, and I do hope that she will continue to be thoughtful about what she shares on social moving forward.”
Well, we all know how that worked out.
It’s hard to surmise why this particular tweet was the one that crossed the line for ABC. Was it that the racism aimed at Jarrett was just so much more nakedly blatant than many of Barr’s other screeds? For a network that seemed to have truly been in for a penny, in for a pound after essentially the face of their network during their Upfront presentation, the swift, decisive action following Barr’s tweets was truly remarkable and unprecedented.
Perhaps consulting producer Wanda Sykes‘ decision to jump ship, as she tweeted soon after Barr’s tweets, signaled to them a sea change in the way even those willing to work with the controversial comedienne all season long viewed her behavior? (Surely, there had to have been turmoil behind closed doors. Co-showrunner Whitney Cummings, who loudly and proudly defended the series and her place as the liberal counterpoint all season long, quietly departed her duties weeks ago, as confirmed by fellow showrunner Bruce Helford.) Perhaps the rumbling call for an advertiser boycott, gaining traction in the time between the tweets and the cancellation, made Dungey and all others involved realize that this situation was quickly becoming untenable? Or perhaps Dungey, the industry’s only African-American network president, was simply so disgusted by the display of racism that she couldn’t stomach the idea of employing Barr any longer.
Whatever the case, the statement came quicker than anyone ever expected. “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show,” was all Dungey had to say on the matter. Meanwhile, Robert Iger, president and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, ABC’s parent company, expounded on the decision a bit more, tweeting, There was only one thing to do here, and that was the right thing.”
In the hours since the cancellation was announced, the fallout for Barr has continued. She’s been dropped as a client by her agency ICM Partners and reruns of the show’s original episodes have been pulled from Viacom networks (including TV Land, Paramount Network, and CMT), the Laff broadcast network, as well as removed from streaming service Hulu.
It’s a stunning reversal of fortune for a show and an actress whose return to TV had been seen just days ago as proof that broadcast television isn’t as dead as everyone seemed to believe. And to think it all came crashing down in the time it took Barr to press send on a tweet. How’s that for irony?