The Other Time Roseanne Got Cancelled

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Whoopi and Ted. Bruce and Demi. Gareth and Norman. But amid the early 90’s landscape of wonderful celebrity couplings, there were none quite like Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold. In many ways, they were the Kim and Kanye of their time, a true Hollywood power couple virtually printing money, and wearing their brashness like wrestling heels, as exaggerated versions of their true selves that, in hindsight, was just who they really were. Though perhaps a better comparison is Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers, with a reputation as tyrant backstage leaders of NBC’s Roseanne. A genuine classic, which had the young me wanting nothing more than to marry Darlene, the sitcom was almost as notorious for its behind the scenes politics as it was for its jokes. Even now, with the revival pulling monstrous ratings, Roseanne‘s biggest story is the ousting of its creator and star, after the kind of racist tweets you’d expect from that uncle who always cocks a leg when he farts. But imagine if she’d hit back by producing a cartoon, starring herself, entirely devoted to burning the network execs who fired her. Even in this gibbering nightmare timeline of 2018, that’s too wacky. Well, she did it once before.

First, we need to go back a couple of decades. BBC documentary, Feeding the Monster: A Week in the Life of Roseanne, aired on 13th December 1992, and was shot in November of the previous year, during production of the Roseanne Christmas episode. Its opening gives us the single most encapsulating portrait of Roseanne Barr as viewed by the culture of the time, that is, trolling America by screeching a purposely horrendous rendition of the national anthem at a baseball game, beneath a rain of furious booing. Capping the performance by grabbing her crotch and spitting on the ground, national reaction was immediate disgust at the flagrant disrespect of such a holy sacrament, with then-President Bush Sr declaring it “disgraceful.”

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Barr (“I think I did great, and people wanted more”) and Arnold (“she sang the best she could”) sidestepped the usual apology tour, as was fitting with their image as a pair who wallowed in their obnoxious personas, and could get away with anything. Ironically, 25 years on, she’s a free-speech darling of the flag-hugging conservatives that shit their pants when a black football player dares sully their precious anthem by taking a knee to protest police brutality. Anyway, that unrepentant fuck-em attitude was familiar to a nation drowning under gossip column inches about Barr and Arnold’s behind the scenes dictatorship at Roseanne, then in its forth season.

Tom Arnold was a former meat-packer and prop comic who’d been hired as a writer on the show, quickly writing himself in as an onscreen character, and getting married — offscreen — to its star. Arnold was promptly elevated to creative co-head, alongside his new wife, which led to a purge behind the scenes, during which the entire production team was ousted. Feeding the Monster beautifully captures the terror of a group of frazzled writers trying to appease the twin gods of Roseanne and Tom Arnold, particularly head writer Bob Myer, in a position Arnold describes as “the job with the highest turnover.” There’s a sense of banana republic in Roseanne‘s crew, with two of the writers Tom’s old roommates, one the boyfriend of the wardrobe designer, and of course Tom himself, a mediocre comic who’d be creatively out of his depth in a cup of tea, having married his way in.

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Appropriately, each day is marked by a Shining-style caption, in a week-in-the-life doc laden with a growing sense of impending doom. The BBC, whose classic sitcoms were written solo or in pairs, seem intoxicated by the concept of giant American writing teams, punctuating its opening with “FEED ME!” soundclips from Little Shop of Horrors, with the monster of the title, of course, Roseanne herself. So stressful that merely watching turned all my hair white, it starts with a bad table read that leaves Barr and Arnold with faces like thunder, and follows the increasingly exhausted writers as they try to nail down a funny draft, bleary-eyed beneath humming lights in all-night scramble sessions, while the clock ticks towards Friday’s shoot. “We are in hell,” says one, slumped on a couch, exhausted and desperate, though most of them are making $45k a week in 1991 money, and for that amount I’d let Tom Arnold funnel his cold piss directly up my nostrils while I typed.

Aside from the scene where they show off their tattoos — him with Rosey’s face on his chest and name on his arse, and her with ‘Property of Tom Arnold’ across a buttock — the most telling moment comes when Barr discusses the writers. People from NY and California, she says, have no idea about Mid-Westerners like the Conners, viewing them as a “sub-class of people,” and have only experienced working class families through television. Backstage, the trailer park girl made good barks orders with pointing fingers clad in 10-carat diamond rings. In another apposite comment from Rosey, Roseanne is not just “a show about fat people,” but it’s a show that’s “anti-television… anti-media,” and she hates TV because it ruined her whole generation. As for the troubled script, it all comes together in the end, though an end caption states Bob Myer is no longer head writer, and out of the writing team of ten, only one remains. An additional caption informs us the syndication rights have just been sold for $180m.

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Roseanne‘s enormous success gave its star the power to do whatever she wanted, which at the time, was her own cartoon. Forget your weird-arse manga about Japanese girls going to school inside a giant alien penis, everyone knows the best cartoons came out of the early 90’s fad for animated shows based on real celebrities. There was Camp Candy, featuring John Candy running his own summer camp; Hammerman, where MC Hammer got superpowers from a pair of magic shoes; and 1990’s Gravedale High, which will sound like I made it up, but I promise, really did star an animated Rick Moranis, working as the principal of a highschool attended by teenage versions of famous movie monsters. But within this genre was the even smaller sub-genre of autobiographical cartoons based around child-versions of celebrities, like Louie Anderson’s Life with Louie, and the show that chose to put Roseanne Barr’s foghorn personality in the body of a eight-year-old, Little Rosey.

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I hope one day to have an animated series depicting my own childhood adventures, such as the day I met Bill Oddie, or the time me and my friends went to look at a dead body before Kiefer Sutherland pulled a knife on us. Little Rosey aired in the autumn of 1990, a generic ‘kids getting into hijinx’ toon, as an effort to expand the Roseanne brand, by introducing her to a younger audience. The main character was voiced by an impersonator giving it her best Barr shriek, though the actual Roseanne intended on taking over the role for the second season. But ABC wanted other changes, such as adding more boys to Rosey’s gang, and they were unable to come to a compromise. Along with its low ratings, and perhaps due to the weirdness of having Barr’s parents feature as characters, having since been publicly accused by her of childhood sexual abuse, Little Rosey was cancelled after a single season. As the queen of a sitcom empire, not used to losing fights with network heads and tired of their meddling, the decision was not easily swallowed. It’s this retching that spat out The Rosey and Buddy Show.

Self-financed by Barr and Arnold, the 23 minute pilot had 11 credited writers, including two of Tom Arnold’s, a couple from Roseanne, and the guy who’d go onto write Shrek 2 and Daddy Day Care. Consequently, it’s not hard to imagine it was penned under the same strain as your typical episode of Roseanne. Though its cheap animation style seems made for the young Saturday morning audience, The Rosey and Buddy Show aired in prime-time, likely hoping to emulate the success of The Simpsons. However, as is clear from the very beginning, it’s less a cartoon than one giant diss-track against television and its interfering bosses. Incidentally, Roseanne and Tom do the voices, but while she’s playing herself, drawn as an obvious likeness, Tom is ‘Buddy’, a freckled child-looking character with a mullet. I’d loved to have seen the meeting where it was decided poor old Tom wouldn’t get to play himself.

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Playing on their real-life reputation as troublemakers, we begin in Cartoonland, where news of their arrival incites panic in its residents. An anthropomorphised fire hydrant gasps; a gorilla faints; a talking cab, just like the one from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, makes a run for it. The bad guy is a giant purple weasel; the network head of Cartoonland, which I guess is a place and a TV channel? Furious that Rosey and Buddy will “warp the minds of children all over the world!” he vows to stop them, “or I’m not an important guy with a really big office!” That’s the entire plot, as the evil bosses try to no-platform a pair of creative geniuses, in the 23-minute equivalent of those photoshoots where a comedian who swears has got a piece of tape over their mouth.

Roseanne’s earlier admission that she hates television emerges in a slew of digs about the crass, money-obsessed nature of a business that stifles her simple desire to make people laugh. They’re informed “there are ways of doing things in Cartoonland!” and shoved into a giant limo for a meeting, despite protests they’ve not got time as they’re trying to put on a show. Tied to chairs in the office of the Powers That Be — literal weasels, each with the surname Powers — they’re told they don’t belong in Cartoonland. “Cartoons are supposed to be cute!” yells a weasel, demanding they be more like the Care Bears, or big and tough like Transformers. When Rosey plays them a skit, hoping to get a few laughs, “cartoons aren’t about laughs,” spits the boss, “they’re about selling commercial airtime when little kids are glued to their TV sets!

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By now you’re thinking ‘okay, point made,’ as they’re forced into a show where talking lunchboxes push a sponsored snack product, before being sectioned at the Betty and Veronica Clinic. There’s a brief reference to the national anthem incident, before they walk into a padded cell filled with old cartoon characters, locked away because “all we wanted to do was get a few laughs.” Even Tom and Jerry are there, with Jerry hitting Tom with a hammer, and a sarcastic Rosey asking “but where are the redeeming social values?” Those aren’t the only ‘celebrity’ cartoon cameos, with appearances from Beetlejuice (voiced by his regular actor, but oddly green-skinned, for copyright reasons), Droopy, and even the Care Bears, with a “there goes the neighbourhood!” as Rosey and Buddy’s caravan crashes through their picnic.

After a couple more terrible sketches — Rosey as a lawyer for female fairytale characters, suggesting to Alice that the White Rabbit “forced you to take diuretics” to fit through a tiny hole; Buddy reporting on a palimony suit by a fox who had an affair with a duck — the end credits are finally within sight. Rosey breaks out all the old characters from the asylum, and they come for the Powers That Be with massive cartoon hammers, leaving her and Buddy free to spread their laffs and artistic genius all across Cartoonland like a malfunctioning sewage pipe.

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It won’t knock you off your feet to learn the pilot aired to terrible reviews, and was not picked up as a full series. Amid the bitter personal snipes, there were some valid, if hoary old points about the commercial nature of kids TV, with fake commercials where sickly green kids are revitalised by sugary cereal, and a throwaway line about a Desert Storm Barbie. As such a singly-focussed product, it’s hard to imagine where The Rosey and Buddy Show would have gone if it’d been gotten more episodes, with barely enough mileage in the meta angle for 23 minutes. If comics should always punching up, they were punching sideways at best, taking aim at the Powers That Be, while simultaneously welding huge amounts of stroke themselves; enough to get this abomination produced and onto screens. This is even alluded to in a gag which seems to reference Roseanne‘s charges of nepotism, when a terribly drawn stick man lumbers into frame, which Rosey blames on Buddy hiring his brother as an animator.

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Roseanne and Tom went through a caustic public divorce in 1994, and he promptly left the show. These days, she’s using that loud-and-proud outrageousness to be racist and believe everything she reads on Infowars, while he’s on the other side, pretending he’s going to bring down the government by finding tapes from his time on The Apprentice of Trump saying the n-word, as if President Pissbaby couldn’t just say it live on Fox News right now with zero consequences. With Roseanne reeling from another battle with the weasels, getting ousted from the wildly successful revival of her own show, maybe she should take aim at all those network heads and triggered snowflake libs with another cartoon. Picture this; it’s Scooby-Doo, except with Roseanne in a van, trying to stop Hillary Clinton from performing Satanic blood drinking rituals that turn our frogs gay, while also battling a team of Soros-funded Antifa goons. Roseanne, you in? I want an exec producer credit, but I’m not willing to marry for it. Unless Darlene’s interested.

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~ by Stuart on September 27, 2018.

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