ABC executives knew exactly what they were getting into when they hired Roseanne Barr.
While her off-key, crotch-grabbing rendition of the national anthem in 1990 is the most viral example of the comedian’s polarizing past, the original run of ABC’s “Roseanne” in the 1990s made headlines for being a toxic work environment: Barr herself threatened to quit, and one producer announced his exit by saying he was fleeing for “the relative peace and quiet of Beirut.”
But in the wake of Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016, ABC decided it needed a show that would appeal to Middle America. So, tapping into TV’s current nostalgia obsession, it went with a reboot of “Roseanne,” in which Barr plays a Trump supporter — as she is in real life — and clashes with her family over their respective political views.
As everyone — including the president — knows, the ratings for the premiere were jaw-dropping. A whopping 18 million viewers tuned in, and that number jumped to about 25 million with DVR-delayed viewing. This week’s episode notched 15.2 million overnight viewers, a slight dip but still an outstanding number for a sitcom in 2018.
ABC immediately renewed the show for a second season last Friday. Then, mere hours later, Barr sent social media into a frenzy when she tweeted that Trump has “freed so many children held in bondage to pimps all over the world” — a debunked claim that has been circulating on far-right sites. Barr eventually deleted the tweet, but it was a stark reminder that the network had indefinitely tethered itself to an extremely controversial figure — and as a result of the show’s success, given her a very powerful megaphone.
“If this had happened five years ago, people may have laughed it off. But people are not laughing about this anymore,” said Bonnie Fuller, president and editor in chief of the entertainment website Hollywood Life. “There have been too many consequences from fake news and conspiracy theories.”
It wasn’t the first time Barr’s tweets recently landed her in hot water. On the day of the “Roseanne” premiere, she accused teenage school shooting survivor David Hogg of giving a Nazi salute. (“Argh. Hit show on ABC. We have reached peak normalization,” model Chrissy Teigen tweeted with an image of the tweet, echoing many criticisms.) Barr later retracted the claim and said she was misled by a doctored photo.
At the Television Critics’ Association Press tour last summer, a reporter posed this scenario to ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey, as Barr was already known for tweeting fringe conspiracy theories: “Is there somebody whose job it is to monitor her Twitter feed in absolute terror in case she says something that’s going to make this new show untenable?”
When Dungey replied that Barr planned to turn the keys to her Twitter account over to her son, the reporter pressed: “No matter who is actually doing her Twitter feed, if you look at the things that whoever it is has tweeted in the past week, there’s some wacky conspiracy stuff that either she or her son has tweeted, and it’s not like this is a new thing. I’m just wondering if that concerns you.”
“I try to just worry about the things that I can control,” Dungey said, eliciting laughter in the room.
ABC declined to comment for this article, and according to industry experts, that’s the typical decision in the TV controversy playbook — there’s little to be achieved by executives saying anything other than, “We’re thrilled that America has welcomed the Conner family back into their homes.”
“They’re smart people over there [at ABC]. They knew. She was controversial the last time, so it’s not like they thought they were getting an angel,” said Preston Beckman, a veteran broadcast executive and media consultant who worked at NBC and Fox. “I think that any network who says, ‘Gee, had I known what she tweets or that there were pictures of her allegedly dressed up like Hitler, we wouldn’t have gone near it,’ they’re lying to you.”
Indeed, Barr appeared on the cover of Jewish magazine Heeb in 2009, dressed like Hitler while holding a tray of burned cookies shaped like people. Although it was explained as “satire,” that didn’t really help when those images flew around social media without context.
When the Hollywood Reporter this week asked “Roseanne” co-showrunner Bruce Helford about seeing the star of his show dressed as a Nazi, he noted Barr is a “staunch supporter of Israel” and added that he assumed it was a parody.
“My feeling is that people should just watch the show and judge it on its merits,” Helford said, emphasizing that Barr’s real-life persona is separate from her character. “Watch the show without the accompanying background noise.”
Beckman said that although ABC doesn’t have to make any excuses for Barr’s behavior, “there’s always a line you don’t want to cross.”
“Once you cross that line, there are consequences,” Beckman said. “But I think to her fans and her kind of going against the grain and not acting like a typical TV star is the reason why she’s popular with them. There’s a lot of similarities between her and our current president.”
Plus, history shows viewers don’t necessarily care about the behavior of stars off-camera. In early 2011, CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler dismissed concerns about “Two and a Half Men” lead Charlie Sheen, who was then in the news for trashing a hotel room in New York and reportedly locking a prostitute in the closet. The year before, he was arrested after a domestic dispute with his ex-wife and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge.
“On a personal level, we are concerned, but he has his job, he does it well, and the show is a hit,” Tassler told reporters at the 2011 TCA press tour. But only two months later Sheen checked into rehab and started calling radio shows to bash “Men” creator Chuck Lorre. Soon, CBS was forced to scrap production on the season, and Sheen was eventually fired.
Even beloved comedy legend Lucille Ball was once caught up on a controversy: In 1953, she was investigated during the “Red Scare” when it was revealed she once registered to vote Communist, at her grandfather’s behest. But fans of the show remained fiercely loyal. As the story goes, her husband, Desi Arnaz, addressed the audience during a taping one night to combat the rumors, saying, “The only thing that’s red about Lucy is her hair — and even that’s not real.”
Everyone laughed and the show remained hugely popular, according to former network executive and TV historian Tim Brooks. While these incidents seem like a big deal in Hollywood and the media, he said, it’s important to remember that for most people, television is an enjoyable yet small part of their lives.
“Viewers look to TV not for its politics but for its entertainment,” Brooks said. “If it’s a funny show, they’ll forgive a lot.”
Also worth noting is that no matter the backlash to Barr in real life, it’s giving the network what it would want for any new show: attention.
“In this particular era, since the Trump presidency, this seems to be what works,” said Mary Murphy, associate professor at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a former TV Guide reporter. “I think ABC was so smart to put her on.”