Two questions into Roseanne Barr’s packed appearance at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in late January, it happens: A reporter goes right for the Valerie Jarrett.
Last May, Barr tweeted 11 words that managed to reference the Obama adviser, the science-fiction film “Planet of the Apes” and the Muslim Brotherhood. Within hours, ABC killed its most popular show of 2018. And Barr went from beloved sitcom star to spreader of hate.
“You are a sorry excuse for a human being,” actress Rita Moreno tweeted at the time.
“Roseanne made a choice. A racist one,” added “Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes.
“There is not any room in our society for racism or bigotry,” tweeted civil rights icon and congressman John Lewis.
Now, from the third row of the auditorium, Sagi Bin Nun of the news website Walla takes his own shot.
“Israel is the place where people ask to be forgiven by God,” he says. “Would you like to take this opportunity to apologize for your racist tweet?”
Boos rain down on Bin Nun, and some guy yells, “You’re a jerk.” For two days, Barr has been telling anybody in Israel with a camera that she’s a “Jewy Jew,” a warrior for their homeland and disgusted with “repulsive” Natalie Portman and other so-called Hollywood hypocrites. During her two-week excursion to the Holy Land, she will pray at the Western Wall, tour the West Bank, huddle with government officials, serve on a panel with spoon-bending illusionist Uri Geller and, when she’s worn out, crash back at her suite at the Inbal Hotel.
But right now, she can’t let Bin Nun go.
“You’re a mean person who just wants to insult people for no reason whatsoever,” Barr says in front of everyone. “I pray to God to raise the sparks in you so that you’ll become a decent person.”
What to make of this. It’s uncomfortable and entertaining and weird, particularly with Barr sitting between an Orthodox rabbi and the deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset. Last March, Barr was on the cusp of one of the great comebacks in television history. Twenty years after wrapping her groundbreaking sitcom “Roseanne,” Barr, 66, had signed to return with the entire cast. The reboot premiere reached more than 27 million viewers. Three days later, ABC renewed the revived “Roseanne” for another season.
There was a problem, though: Barr had Twitter, and she wasn’t afraid to use it.
Just after Christmas 2017, a few months before the reboot’s premiere, she tweeted: “i won’t be censored or silence chided or corrected and continue to work. I retire right now. I’ve had enough. bye!”
The tweet did not slip by network brass.
“Sorry to bother you with this at the holiday, but wondering if you know what spurred this tweet from Roseanne,” Channing Dungey, then ABC Entertainment Group president, wrote in an email to the show’s executive producer, Tom Werner, on Dec. 29.
Thus began an unusual, behind-the-scenes battle, as ABC and Barr’s producers tried to protect their TV property, and Barr continued to speak out on Twitter, her preferred medium for pushing tales of Pizzagate and George Soros as well as profane blasts at TV personalities such as Stephen Colbert and Rachel Maddow. The network didn’t propose a no-tweet clause in Barr’s contact. Instead, as revealed by interviews with people close to the show and messages shown to The Washington Post, they spent months nudging her to stop while also trying to keep from offending her.
“It was always this back and forth of ABC not wanting to appear they were censoring Roseanne but also not quite pulling out the big guns,” says James Moore, Barr’s longtime publicist. “Going, ‘You’re one tweet away from us canceling the show.’ Something that would jar Roseanne.”
Despite repeated warnings — and even after her youngest son briefly hid her Twitter password — Barr stayed online.
“I admit it,” she says, in her hotel room. “I’m a troll. I’m the queen of the f‑‑‑ing trolls.”
‘They had to know’
By all accounts, Barr, whose 1990s network go-round had been surrounded by chaos — whether it was firings on the set, the “Star-Spangled Banner” debacle or that whole Tom Arnold thing — was a model citizen during the reboot, hugging audience members after tapings, hustling to news conferences and baking chocolate chip cookies for a get-to-know-you-again lunch with Disney Chairman Bob Iger.
Online, though, she remained as polarizing as ever.
This shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Comedy is full of misfits and oddballs obsessed with disruption. They roam stages, television sets and the Internet, teetering between the sort of shock that sparks deep reflection and that other kind, which leads to groans, backlash or, at worst, a public retraction.
Wasn’t that President Trump’s bloody, rubber head that Kathy Griffin offered to the masses? Didn’t Samantha Bee call Ivanka a “feckless” four-letter word that rhymes with bunt? And why did Trevor Noah make that joke about Aboriginal women? Of course, they apologized — or, in Griffin’s case, apologized and then retracted the apology — and were forgiven.
Barr and her family contend there’s a simple reason she has been treated differently: her support of Trump.
“I’m not saying any of the others should be fired,” says Jake Pentland, Barr’s 40-year-old son who runs her studio and voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016. “I’m a free speech absolutist. But you can pretty much say whatever you want as long as you supported Hillary Clinton. Soon as Mom donned that MAGA hat, she was an enemy.”
As a comic, Barr has always ignored the typical standards of subversion. Her freewheeling attacks seem almost designed to rack up a list of enemies in high places. It’s as if she’s not just playing for laughs, she’s trying to blow up the entire system — even if that means blowing up herself.
After the Jarrett tweet, daughter Jenny Pentland’s first words to her mother were to accuse her of self-sabotage.
“You did this on purpose,” she told her.
The pre-Internet Barr had been the most headline-grabbing comic of her time. At her 1990s peak, she blasted the women allegedly harassed by Sen. Bob Packwood, saying “they should have just kicked his balls in.” In a sprawling New Yorker profile, she called Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster and Susan Sarandon “castrated females.”
Her Twitter feed would go even further.
In 2012, she tweeted the home address of George Zimmerman’s parents after the Trayvon Martin shooting. The Zimmermans sued, but the case was dismissed. As the 2016 election heated up, and she completed her shift from lefty agitator to Trump booster, Barr was distributing deep-state conspiracy theories like a UPS driver on Christmas Eve.
“Her tweets, before the one that got her in trouble, were absolute nonsense,” says Doug Stanhope, a comedian and friend of Barr’s who had a bit part on the “Roseanne” reboot. “Zionist things, a Palestinian thing, none of it made sense. The idea that a network would give her a show . . . they had to know what they were getting into.”
Whitney Cummings, the “2 Broke Girls” co-creator and an executive producer for the reboot, says Barr was her “hero” back in the day. But she signed onto the show, she admits, without looking closely at Barr’s social media: “I had not gone through the years of past tweets, and that was my mistake.”
Sara Gilbert, who was 13 when she starred in the first “Roseanne” and was a driving force with Werner in reviving the series, felt reassured about the reboot after talking with Barr. “I knew that Roseanne, the person, was unpredictable at times, but she told me this was her redemption,” says Gilbert, now 44. “I chose to believe her.”
It didn’t take long for Barr’s tweets to create tension within the show’s production team. In August 2017, Barr tweeted to defend Trump’s handling of the violent conflict in Charlottesville and attack the Antifa movement. Gilbert and Werner called Moore to set up a conference call. “I don’t want to talk about it — it will be gone,” Barr emailed Moore, before deleting the tweet.
That fall, Gilbert and Werner set up a meeting with Barr and Kelly Bush Novak, the powerful press agent they had hired to represent the show. Novak, who had read an upcoming script involving the grandson’s curiosity about girl’s clothes, was concerned the plot would lead the LGBTQ community to examine Barr’s online comments.
So Novak asked GLAAD, which had once lauded Barr as a champion of gay rights, to prepare a report called “Roseanne Barr’s Anti-Trans” record. The private, 27-page document called her out for such acts as “Tweeted story that Obamas killed Joan Rivers for saying Michelle Obama is a tranny.”
“I said, ‘I’ve already apologized’ ” Barr said, recounting the meeting with Novak. “And I did. Over days on Twitter. You know I understand that there’s a real serious issue with trans lives and trans rights for trans people. They want to be safe. But you know we tell our little girls to watch out for penises basically to stay safe. So what a mixed message this is. And I think it really needs more analysis and a lot more conversation, and I said that 400 f‑‑‑ing times.”
Ultimately, there was only one way to keep Barr off Twitter. In December 2017, Buck Thomas, 23, the youngest of Barr’s five children, saw her phone open on the table and grabbed it. He reset her password and signed her out. He had grown weary of her online presence. “And I didn’t want her to get in trouble before the show even started.”
In January, Barr complained about losing social-media access at a huge ABC press event. At some point, the badgering worked. Thomas turned over the password.
A month later, Barr questioned whether the Parkland shooting survivors were actors. Co-showrunner and executive producer Bruce Helford texted Barr, suggesting she take her tweets down before ABC saw them.
“I’m really sorry to ever ask you to hold your voice,” he wrote, “but I think there are even more powerful ways to put ideas out there through the show itself, which I hope we have the opportunity to do many, many more episodes of together.”
A complicated narrator
Barr’s trip to Israel is a lot of things. A chance to return to a country that in previous visits has renewed her spirit. A way to raise awareness of what she views as the rise of anti-Semitism and the threat of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. A paid-for vacation.
She’s been brought here by Shmuley Boteach, who calls himself “America’s Rabbi” and runs the World Values Network, a New Jersey-based organization funded largely by the Trump-boosting, casino-owning billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Pentland, Barr’s daughter, views Boteach as one more in a line of men who cozy up to her mother to get attention.
“At least,” she says with a laugh, “she didn’t marry him.”
Barr considers Boteach a great friend. When ABC canceled her show and she was holed up in her mom’s basement in Utah, chain-smoking and in tears, it was Boteach — not her co-stars — who called to check on her.
“Shmuley saved my life,” Barr says. “I was suicidal. He was the only person who stood by me and said they were going to destroy me because I love Trump and Israel.”
Boteach also helped Barr deliver what remains the closest thing to a heartfelt apology. He recorded the raw exchange with her two days after the cancellation and aired it, a month later, as a podcast. Barr has never listened to it. On the call, she tries to explain herself. That she didn’t know Jarrett, the Obama adviser, was black. She just knew Jarrett had played a part in the Iran nuclear deal, which she hated. Few may believe her, but she insisted that she would have never used the “Planet of the Apes” reference if she had known Jarrett’s race.
“I’m a lot of things, a loud mouth and all that stuff,” Barr said on the podcast. “But I’m not stupid, for God’s sake. I never would have wittingly called any black person, I never would have said, ‘They are a monkey.’ I just wouldn’t do that. And people think that I did that, it just kills me. I didn’t do that. And if they do think that, I’m just so sorry that I was unclear and stupid. I’m very sorry.”
As she tells the story now, from a couch inside her hotel room, Barr is completely unguarded. She doesn’t have a publicist or an agent to watch over her. (ICM dropped her after the tweet.) With no makeup or jewelry on, she nibbles at a hummus plate as the Jerusalem sun descends over the eighth-floor balcony.
She’s not an unreliable narrator so much as a complicated one. There are moments, now that it’s over, when she’ll insist she never had a chance. The lefty narcissists were always going to get her. There are other moments when she concedes she should have been smarter. Nobody wanted her on Twitter, not even her kids.
It feels like forever since she had nothing at stake, when a short set on “The Tonight Show” on an August night in 1985 introduced the world to her glorious, spontaneous laugh and marked the rise of the self-appointed “domestic goddess.” Gum-chewing. Overweight. That dry, nasally, Midwestern voice. Acting like she was about to say something so boring you might as well change the channel. Except you couldn’t.
She grew up in a family haunted by a generation wiped out by the Nazis. At 16, Barr was badly injured when she got hit by a car and, as a result, spent months in the state’s psychiatric hospital. As she found success, she didn’t hide her battles with mental illness. She revealed her multiple personality disorder, her compulsions with food, cutting herself and sex, and the years she spent in counseling.
In 1988, Werner and Marcy Carsey, the producers behind “The Cosby Show,” brought her to ABC as Roseanne Conner, the central figure of a sitcom that included husband Dan (John Goodman), sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) and daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert). The show went where other sitcoms hadn’t — into working-class Middle America. It rose to No. 1 on the way to a nine-year run.
“People forget how groundbreaking and how good that show was,” says David Mandel, an executive producer on “Veep” and a former “Seinfeld” writer. “The notion of the house that wasn’t perfect and the multiple jobs and the factory line work. Things we had never seen before or in this exact way.”
Feminist activist and author Barbara Ehrenreich proclaimed Barr “the neglected underside of the American female experience, bringing together the great themes of poverty, obesity and defiance.”
“Roseanne” was daring — not only for the famous lesbian kiss episode, but also for the honest way it portrayed gay characters. (Barr’s brother and sister are gay.) There was also the 1994 episode centered on her son’s refusal to kiss a girl in the school play because she was black.
“I didn’t raise you to be some little bigot,” she snaps at D.J.
Most sitcoms would have ended there, with the star as the hero. Except “Roseanne” adds a scene. A black man approaches her diner one night. Roseanne flips the door’s sign from open to closed. It isn’t until the man identifies himself — he’s the father of the girl D.J. wouldn’t kiss — that Roseanne lets him in. He tells her he’s not surprised her son is prejudiced.
“If he was a white guy with the exact same build in those exact same clothes, you would have done the exact same thing,” sister Jackie says.
“Yeah, well, I’m glad one of us is sure,” Roseanne responds, as the credits begin to roll.
Beginning of the end
Barr had high hopes for the reboot when she signed on in early 2017. Her politics had shifted hard to Trump. But the country was deeply divided. The reboot would show that American families, like her own, could disagree politically without hating each other.
“She really wanted to bring people together and get them talking about it,” Goodman says.
The first episode, which premiered March 27, found Roseanne, a Trump supporter, re-connecting with Jackie, who wore a pink pussy hat and “Nasty Woman” T-shirt to dinner.
It also tackled racial issues. Roseanne had a black granddaughter, and there was the Muslim couple moving onto the street. At first, Roseanne snickered that they were “a sleeper cell getting ready to blow up our neighborhood” — until she met them and realized that she had been unfair.
Off screen, Barr’s politics were harder to resolve. At a January news conference in Los Angeles, reporters pressed Barr about Trump. She mostly deflected them. Then she took a question from Soraya Nadia McDonald of the Undefeated, an ESPN website.
McDonald, a former Washington Post reporter who is African American, told Barr how much she appreciated as a child watching Roseanne Conner blast her son for refusing to kiss a black classmate. But wouldn’t that same Roseanne find “candidate Trump’s xenophobia or racism to be a disqualifying trait for the office of the presidency?”
Barr: Well, that’s your opinion.
McDonald: But he said Mexicans were rapists.
Barr: Well, he says a lot of crazy s‑‑‑.
“It was a trial,” Goodman says now. “I just thought we were going to do this dumb a‑‑ ‘Entertainment Tonight’ s‑‑‑ but it just got heavy quickly. I can understand that there was still a lot of residual anger about Trump. . . . But she’s entitled to the way she voted.”
For Barr, already a conspiracy theorist, the message was clear. Everybody was in on it: ABC, the producers, even the press. They couldn’t sit idly as a Trump crazy took over their television sets.
She felt betrayed in May when the ABC entertainment president, Dungey, in a conference call with reporters, said the next season of “Roseanne” would move away from politics.
Who told her that? Barr had been planning to cast Luenell Campbell, an African American comedian and a good friend, and dig deeper into race.
Helford, the co-showrunner and executive producer, was as baffled as Barr when Dungey talked about the show’s new direction. During “Roseanne’s” first run, Barr had considerable clout, forcing out the show’s co-creator, Matt Williams, only 13 episodes in. This time, she began to feel powerless. When she learned the writers were starting work on the reboot’s second season without her involvement, she thought, “Oh, they took my show.”
Helford takes issue with that. “We didn’t do anything without consulting her,” he says. “One of the agreements was that Tom, her, Sara Gilbert and I would work as a group and whoever had the best idea would be the one who would win. She was very much a part of everything we were doing.”
But now, as he hears her take, Helford can see how Barr may have grown wary. There were the constant nudges from the producers over her tweets, the knowledge that her colleagues differed so much politically and that jarring statement from Dungey.
“I understand why she was paranoid and why she would feel the network wasn’t in sync with her,” he says. “But no one came to us and said ‘You’ve got to do it our way,’ and not what Roseanne wants.”
That evening in May, while Barr was visiting her mother in Utah and feeling down about the show’s direction, she says she took an Ambien and dozed off next to her laptop. In the middle of the night, she woke up and saw a thread started by SGTreport, whose tag is “the corporate propaganda antidote.” SGTreport referenced a WikiLeaks “bombshell,” which would apparently reveal that the Obama CIA had been spying on the French government.
@MARS0411 responded by bringing up the Obama aide: “Jarrett helped hide a lot.”
It was 2:45 a.m. in Utah when Barr replied to the thread: “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.”
Barr has continuously repeated that she was comparing the movie to Iran’s repressive regime. But even she understands it’s a leap to interpret that from those 53 characters.
That morning, people who didn’t know Barr slammed the tweet as racist. Her friends figured it was another perplexing online blast.
In the morning, ABC held an emergency call with Barr, Werner and Disney/ABC Television Group President Ben Sherwood.
Why did you do that? Sherwood asked her.
“I’m a comedian,” Barr told him. “We step in s‑‑‑ all the time. I already took it down. What else can I do?”
At 1:48 p.m., only hours later, ABC canceled “Roseanne,” after Iger called Jarrett to personally apologize. (Jarrett declined to speak to The Post.) In a statement that morning, Dungey called the tweet “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values.” Werner would eventually negotiate a settlement with Barr — neither party will say for how much — so ABC could launch a spinoff. When the network announced “The Conners” on June 21, the release made sure to note that Barr would have “no financial or creative involvement.”
That deal now infuriates Barr. She says Werner told her she would be a hero if she signed over her rights and saved so many jobs. He would go out and say Barr was not racist. She had even hoped to perhaps return to the show. Instead, “The Conners” killed off Roseanne with an opioid overdose in the first episode. And Werner remained virtually silent.
She also can’t forgive Gilbert. On May 29, 27 minutes before ABC announced the cancellation, Gilbert tweeted that Barr’s comments were “abhorrent and do not reflect the beliefs of our cast and crew or anyone associated with our show.”
“She destroyed the show and my life with that tweet,” Barr says. “She will never get enough until she consumes my liver with a fine Chianti.”
Gilbert, in a brief interview with The Post about Barr, said that “while I’m extremely disappointed and heartbroken over the dissolution of the original show, she will always be family, and I will always love Roseanne.”
Like Gilbert, Werner reluctantly agreed to an interview with The Post after first declining several times. He said his focus has been on keeping the cast and crew working. He also acknowledged that, after the cancellation, distributors had briefly taken the show’s original nine seasons off the air, with deep financial implications for him and Barr. The original series is available again. ABC, though, has pulled the “Roseanne” reboot from all platforms. (Iger, Sherwood and Dungey declined interview requests.)
“The process has been difficult for me,” Werner says. “I did not want the last note of the series to be such a sour one.”
When asked about Barr’s complaint that he had not defended her, Werner said he has always found “her to be tolerant of others and inclusive.”
“It’s my belief that Roseanne is not a racist person,” Werner said, “although I find the tweet to be repugnant and racist.”
Goodman calls Barr’s tweet “stupid” and “incoherent,” but also says she isn’t racist. He believes that defending her will probably turn people against him. But he feels terrible for her. He texted her last May but didn’t press when she didn’t write back.
Luenell, the comedian Barr planned to cast on the show, remains torn. Barr had been one of her supporters and heroes, someone who “represented hope” for outsiders who didn’t fit into Hollywood culture. But she remains unhappy with how Barr handled herself after her tweet.
“The way she could have got some traction is if she immediately did a news conference and said, ‘I have f‑‑‑ed up. I am an idiot. I’m going to be seeing somebody to try to get myself together. I apologize to Valerie Jarrett. I apologize to the African American community and when you see me again, I’m going to be a more sensitive, responsible Roseanne.’ If she said that, she might be able to chill and come back.”
In Jerusalem, Barr meets with attorneys as she considers whether to sue ABC or Werner or everyone involved. She talks about an upcoming gig scheduled for Detroit and other potential projects, including a cartoon show and a Torah-themed program with Boteach.
At the Begin Center, after scolding Bin Nun, Barr calls on another journalist: Jordana Miller, a local television correspondent.
“To be honest, I had kind of a spiritual question about what happened with ABC,” Miller says. “Why, looking back, do you think this really happened?”
You can feel the mood shift. Barr walks to the front of the stage.
“Oh my God,” Barr says. “I’m so glad you asked that.”
She launches into what will effectively be an eight-minute monologue. It’s May 29. She’s in Utah, so proud to tell her mother she’s back at No. 1. That night, she surfs around all this Iran stuff, goes to bed and wakes up to find that, as she puts it, “Roseanne said that black people look like monkeys.”
She talks of pleading with ABC — to apologize, to get help, to do anything — and her voice cracks as she recounts how quickly they canceled “Roseanne.”
“I can’t believe that it takes them a year to get paper towels in the bathroom, but Disney in 40 minutes decided to fire me from my own creation,” Barr says.
But she doesn’t sound angry. She’s in control.
“I was so embarrassed in front of my mother, because she’s finally so proud of me that I was not married to any a‑‑hole. . . . You know. You know what I mean?”
“I know you’re all bored to death. I’ll end quick.”
The story ends in her mother’s basement. She’s terrified that everybody hates her, of the paparazzi gathered outside, when a group of fans knock on the door.
“And they said, ‘We don’t think it’s right what they did to her. We know she’s not racist.’ And they said, ‘Here’s some cookies.’ ’’
Barr chokes up again.
It could be a cheery ending, the comic reconnecting with her fans. Except this is Roseanne Barr — and as soon as she returns to Los Angeles, she’s in the news again. Her Twitter remains off-limits. Daughters Jenny, 42, and Jessica Pentland, 44, each have part of the password so Barr can’t bully one of them into turning it over.
So, Barr finds other outlets.
In a self-made YouTube video posted Feb. 16, Barr calls Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) a “Farrakhan-loving . . . bug-eyed bitch.” On a podcast hosted by Fox News commentator Candace Owens in early March, she calls the creators of the #MeToo movement “hos” and attacks Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford.
On a Saturday night, just after the Owens podcast makes headlines, Barr is asked if there’s a part of her that ever considers quieting down, just for a few months, like everybody keeps telling her to. Wouldn’t that help? Wouldn’t that make things easier?
“I can’t,” she says in a text message. “Do I look like the kind of woman who obeys?”