What did I do the summer after I earned my master’s degree? I spent the better part of my free time on the couch watching Roseanne reruns. An F4 tornado unceremoniously concluded my last semester at the University of Alabama, and the frightful costs associated with cleaning up my life and property kept me solidly out of vacation mode. Things had been rough even before that. Those closest to me were experiencing layoffs, long-term unemployment, and bankruptcy. My own medical bills were piling up, and to top it all off I was growing out my bangs.
Now, Roseanne’s domestic goddess persona has been a heroic figure for me ever since I saw her HBO standup bit where she challenges those who accuse her of not being feminine enough to “suck my click.” But it was watching her show at this low point in my life that made me see her as a symbol for possibility and a muse for reimagining class identity.
There is much to be said about Roseanne these days. Just ask my RSS feed: Roseanne is running for president; Roseanne is running for Prime Minister of Israel; Roseanne’s Nuts, new on Lifetime; Roseanne’s Nuts cancelled; Roseanne plans new sitcom. But my newsfeed and I are not the only ones tuned in to the relevance of her presence. Roseanne, it seems, has noticed too.
Roseanne’s relative commercial media absence in the Bush years (save for her Blonde and Bitchin’ release in 2006) stands testament to the timeliness of her sudden ubiquity. It reveals to us where this iconoclast’s cultural clout lies: with class struggles. In a time when the housing market crashes, the unemployment rate hovers at around 9%, protestors target Wall Street, and the words “Class War” don’t become as inflammatory as the Republicans intend, entertainment needs are bound to change.
But the presence of Roseanne’s image isn’t enough to reconnect with her working class audiences, as evidenced by the one-season flop of her Lifetime reality series. In Roseanne’s Nuts Roseanne faces such trivialities as a burping crystal lady and forgetting a tent on a family camping trip when it may or may not rain. Roseanne’s Nuts was picked up by Lifetime as part of a larger effort to “stay competitive in the age of reality TV.” I’m going to step outside of my academic waders, put on my speculative dunce cap, and wager that the major problem with Roseanne’s Nuts is that it is nothing like reality. Unlike the Kardashians and the Osbournes, we expect a little more grit from Roseanne (and teaching a toddler how to spell “shit” because it is unlikely he or his family will face any consequences doesn’t count). Roseanne the sitcom communicated far more reality than her reality show ever could—Barr herself admits to “losing perspective” in her May 2011 treatise in New York TV. Reality TV, we are reminded once again, contains about as much reality as their scripted counterparts.
What an opportune time, then, as we peer over stacks of bills to get a better view of Dancing with the Stars (since we couldn’t find any coverage of the Wall Street protests), to reevaluate television as a stage for class humor with Roseanne as a case study. My larger goal in this post, and perhaps in future work, is to highlight humor as a tool for social change.
The 1990s sitcom Roseanne dealt with difficult topics like unemployment, domestic violence, failed business ventures, and troubled hierarchies of race, class, and sex from a mostly white, working class, feminist perspective. But for all this seriousness, Roseanne still sold itself with comedy. “I and the mostly great writers in charge of crafting the show every week never forgot that we needed to make people laugh, but the struggle to survive, and to break taboos, was equally important,” Roseanne said in her New York TV essay. The need to make people laugh, to reiterate, is equally important as the need to accurately portray the struggle to survive (a goal which broke taboos in and of itself). What is this tie between imagining and portraying a struggling working class with laughter (besides Neilson Ratings)? I think a great place to start answering this question is Louis D. Rubin’s piece on “The Great American Joke.” Rubin argues that the “incongruity” between an idealized democracy and the actuality of day-to-day shortcomings defines not just the American experience, but the American joke. Imperfection and incongruity double as punch line and exposé. While neither Rubin nor I believe that this equation is uniquely American or sums up the myriad expressions of humor in America, it is a useful framework for understanding the utility of humor as a tool for contextualization and revelation. In a land where all men are purported to be created equal, Rubin’s theory fits especially well onto the humor of class inequalities.
But Roseanne did more with humor than expose. Instances where the Conners encountered and clashed with members of non-working classes are few and far between until the unsettling and misguided 9th season where the Conners win the jackpot. The focus of the sitcom’s story line primarily remains within the family, revealing to viewers that class struggles do not center around advancing one’s class standing, but on trying to survive within it. When humor develops in this closed loop, it becomes less about class movement than the necessary step before social action: building identity. Humor allows the viewers to relate without shame to the struggles of financial hardship. In the episode “The Dark Ages,” the Connors come up too short to pay the bills (at around 1:40 if you watch the clip):
I too, had played the lifeboat game with bills. To be able to see, objectively, that the Conners simply came up short as a result of circumstances beyond their control helped me gain perspective on my own situation. More importantly, perhaps most importantly, was that the laughter facilitated the erasure of shame. The audience can laugh empathetically with the Conners, and although shame is certainly an aspect of this exchange (i.e. the toaster in the bathtub), it is not central to the Conners’ reaction. It is laughable.
The myth of American society as meritocracy produces positive feedback where shame prevails, and conquering that through laughter may be an essential step in building mobility through identity. “I made it from nothing, why can’t you?” someone asked me at a health care town hall meeting in 2009. The answer to this too-oft posed accusation implies that the askee has not worked hard enough to deserve good health care or a living wage. The objective of this question is to shame the askee into working harder, and/or quieting down, since the answer “society!” or “circumstances!” will only be interpreted as an excuse for lacking work ethic. Where we start, in other words, has more to do with where we end up than is commonly believed. Would that I could have thought of a witty reply for this man to erase my shame and shame his arrogance, but the daunting feeling that perhaps he was right kept me from channeling the sharp-tongued retort that I know Roseanne Connor would have delivered.
There is a dark side to the potential of class humor and identity. That comedy should provide an outlet for solidarity among an oppressed group is no untapped observation, just look at the Blue Collar Comedy franchise. Working class pride and identity provide these comedians with millions from ticket profits and merchandise, and Roseanne Barr too has capitalized on this identity. Here lays the danger of associating humor in popular culture with an identity. People become comfortable laughing off the inequality of their social status and others profit from it. The Conners’ humor is focused inward as a coping mechanism and not outward to create social change, subjecting viewers to the same risk.
How, then, can we think about the current economic unrest in terms of popular television humor? What can and should we expect from Roseanne Barr’s upcoming sitcom Downward Mobility? Roseanne was an anomaly: a sitcom with a soul. There is a delicate balance for Roseanne to walk if this new show is to be a success both financially and ideologically. She has to compete with the escapism of reality television and ridicule the elites, all while striking a relatable tone with the millions living on American soil who are feeling disenfranchised and angry—not dissimilar, you may have noticed, to the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement. If Roseanne wants people to watch, she has to be real, and she has to be funny. Therein, I believe, lies the lesson for viewers and activists to take from Roseanne. In this world of entertainment junkies, where some of the only honorable news shows are satirical, you have to be entertaining to be heard.