MONDAY, APRIL 9, 2018
The summer of 85: Long ago and far away, we spent a few days around Roseanne Barr, before she became hugely famous.
It was February 1986. Incomparably, we had decided to expand our empire by opening a second comedy club in the Baltimore suburbs.
By "we," we mean our partner at that time, comedian/writer Dan Rosen, and ourselves. We flew Roseanne in from the coast to headline at the new club.
As we were able to prove that week, Roseanne wasn't yet famous. That said, in August and November of 1985, she had appeared on the Tonight Show, where she'd rocked the world.
Through the miracle of YouTube, we watched those appearances again yesterday. We'll link you to them below. Within the comedy world, everyone knew that Roseanne was the next gigantic star, but her sitcom didn't go on the air until 1987.
We were surprised by our reaction when we watched those appearances from the late summer and fall of 85. We were surprised by how much we liked the person we saw performing those sets, and by the fact that they made us laugh out loud.
Don't get us wrong! We liked Roseanne, a lot, when she came to Baltimore. We also thought that she was just about the smartest person we'd ever met in the comedy world, though we can't remember what she said or did to make us react that way.
(We only remember one thing she said. Lunching at Baltimore's sumptuous Harborplace, she said this to us and our girl friend at the time: "So, are you kids gonna get married, or what?" We'll guess that some hemming and hawing ensued. The question was answered in a surprising way that fall.)
We liked Roseanne a lot that week; we thought she was very sharp. Also, she was a monster act at that time, as she showed when she came to the downtown club to do a guest set at the midnight show that Saturday night.
(If memory serves, her shows at the suburban club may have been cancelled due to lack of attendance. The Baltimore Sun had taken a pass on doing a profile of Roseanne. They didn't believe us when we told them that she was the next big thing. The empire quickly shrank back to its original size.)
Though they didn't know it at the time, a hundred or so Baltimoreans saw the next big thing at the downtown club that night. Yesterday, we watched her doing those two Tonight Show sets, and it made us both happy and sad.
Yes, it's true. Roseanne could be seen, at that time, as a bit of an updated Phyllis Diller—as the sassy, smart-talking housewife comic who wasn't going to take it any more, who was even going to give it back.
Yesterday, though, we were surprised by how much more her persona conveyed in those sets, and by the way the Tonight Show audiences responded to some of her jokes. We were also surprised by the way we sometimes laughed out loud, on each of two viewings—for example, when she explained what she did when her husband complained that she should be more aggressive in bed.
There was a lot of smiling and happiness being conveyed on that Tonight Show stage. Was Johnny perhaps a bit nonplussed? Famously, he'd rarely booked female comics, and he'd often been married himself.
Roseanne has been back in the news of late because her sitcom is back. She's also been in the news because she voted for Trump.
Results were perhaps predictable. At the New York Times, Roxane Gay may have flipped out a tiny tad in this op-ed column. Yesterday, the Washington Post followed suit, and added an explicit racial twist, with this front-page Outlook piece by C. Nicole Mason, a guest columnist.
Roseanne Barr says she voted for Trump. On the revived TV show, the fictional Roseanne Conner voted for him too.
What should anyone think about that? Tomorrow, we'll look at the essays by Gay and Mason. For today, we're still surprised by how much we liked the person we saw yesterday performing those Carson sets.
For her first Tonight Show appearance, click here, move to the 26-minute mark. You'll be traveling back to August 23, 1985.
Why were people applauding some of those jokes, like the one about refusing to stop watching The Wheel of Fortune? We can't answer that.
For her second appearance, just click here. You'll learn what she did when her husband said she should be more aggressive in bed.
We liked that person, a lot, when she came to Baltimore. On those tapes, you'll be seeing the next big thing before she became hugely famous.
Was there something to learn from that person? More significantly, is there anything to learn from her now?
Tomorrow: Those two columns
Vintage Roseanne: We can't find tape of this, so we're working from memory here. But at the First Annual American Comedy Awards Show in 1987, Roseanne started her chunk by saying something like this:
"You guys! Isn't this the kind of show we all used to make fun of?"
The program aired on ABC. And yes, it pretty much was!