No funny business, OK?

The queen of comedy lost the plot in the last series of her sitcom, not that she'd admit it. Whatever, Roseanne's latest wish is to become empress of the US chat show. Rob Brown was granted an audience
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The Independent Online
It's not every day you get to meet a working-class heroine, feminist icon and top-notch sitcom star who has won four Emmys and the prestigious Peabody Award. So I was on a bit of a high before m interview with Roseanne at the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal over the weekend ... until our encounter. Each journalist had been allocated just 10 minutes, which seemed ridiculously short ... until our encounter.

I never realised that 600 seconds could be so excruciatingly long, or that Roseanne Barr, the archetypal blue-collar American matriarch, could be so defensive and uptight. Every question I put about her forthcoming daytime talk show or the less-than-successful last run of her eponymous series produced a vague, almost monosyllabic response in her trademark deadpan drawl. Maybe it was my misfortune to be first on the list. Sunk in a deep sofa, she was quietly moaning about not having had her morning coffee yet when I entered the hotel suite. Or maybe this wasn't Roseanne Barr at all, but Roseanne Conner the lottery winner, that character to whom even her most avid fans had deep trouble relating in that questionable last series.

Perhaps I would have struck up a much better rapport had I adopted the same approach as the woman from the Montreal Gazette. "I feel I should kiss your ring," she stammered.

"Well don't, because you're wearing a brace and somebody could get hurt," retorted the comedy queen.

Mercifully such quickfire wit made more of an appearance when the wise- cracking Roseanne we used to know and love (at least before that last series) faced a public question-and-answer segment at the end of a special tribute event in her honour.

Her interaction with the live theatre audience in Montreal suggested that, in the not too distant future Roseanne may well be challenging Oprah Winfrey for the title of empress of day-time TV. She is devising a syndicated daily talk show which will air in the US in autumn next year and in the UK soon afterwards.

It is still at the concept stage, so she's giving very little away, except to say: "I want it to be fun. I want it to be funny. I want it to be inspiring and sometimes outrageous. But more than anything, I want it to be entertaining ... There's a dearth of real entertainment in America, by which I mean stuff that stimulates and gives you something to think about."

That seems to be enough for most network schedulers. Although they have been given few clues about its format, TV stations coast to coast have signed up for the still-untitled show, which has been sold to more than half the relevant affiliates more than 14 months before its premiere.

One other thing they've been told is that the programme will be quite different from Oprah. "It has to be because we're produced by the same company," Roseanne told me in one of her forthcoming remarks. (Her production company, Full Moon and High Tide, has acquired a significant stake in King World Productions, the corporation which syndicates Oprah around the world.)

Hold on; isn't hosting a talk show an ultra-conventional thing to do for a woman who's spent her entire TV career merrily smashing conventions? Roseanne thinks not. "I don't think of it as being conservative or conventional at all. People said the same thing about sitcoms and I managed to break new ground there." Roseanne the sitcom was, she points out, "a kind of talk show". In its nine-year run on prime time the series certainly tackled every hitherto taboo topic, including child abuse (Roseanne and her sister's at the hands of her father); alcoholism; gay marriage; teen pregnancy; heart disease (her husband Dan's) and masturbation (her son's problem with puberty).

But the star-producer-writer and sometimes director of the series evidently lost the plot towards the end when she had the Conner family win the lottery and move from their blue-collar existence in Illinois to a life of affluence in sun-drenched California. The show slipped seriously in the ratings and was slated by the TV critics.

Roseanne is clearly uncomfortable dealing with even the most subtle criticism of that final series. "Everywhere I go in the world people come up to me and say: `What the hell was that last show about?' " she told one gentle inquisitor at the Montreal tribute. "The message I was trying to impart was whatever one you get. So fucking nothing, I guess."

Earlier in another of the allotted 10-minute interviews she offered up this defence to another journalist: "Playing the lottery is such a working- class thing, so I never really lost that audience. It was the people in the press who wanted the same. But I didn't. There aren't a lot of artists who have balls. Some artists have risked one or two shows, but I risked a whole series. And I did that to say something.

"I said everything in the last show that I came into television to say. Yes, it really was very weird being a normal person, getting rich and famous. A lot of things are sacrificed. You don't change, but others do ... people are mean and jealous and spiteful and they want to teach you a lesson because of their own sense of failure."

Roseanne Barr grew up as a Jew in the largely Mormon Salt Lake City in the mid-western state of Utah. Her mother - traumatised by the loss of close relatives in the Holocaust - was inflicted by such paranoia that she used sometimes to hide with her four children in the basement of their home when someone came to the door unexpectedly.

Roseanne's youth took an even more tragic turn at the age of 16 when she was knocked down by a car. Having had her head impaled on its bonnet ornament, she spent a year in a mental hospital. Shortly after her release at the age of 18, she bore an illegitimate child and gave her up for adoption. After moving to Denver and marrying a motel night clerk, she found herself in a cramped apartment with three children. But she got her big break in Colorado; after first trying out her comic talents as a cocktail waitress, she was persuaded to enter a local stand-up comedy contest - and won.

She then moved to America's entertainment capital Los Angeles, and after a triumphant appearance on the Tonight Show was soon stirring up headlines with her antics on screen and off. She seemed to be forever sacking writers and producers she regarded as incompetent or uncreative. She also shocked her fellow Americans by screeching out their cherished national anthem off key and, on another occasion, dropping her pants to display a tattoo on her posterior on national television.

But it was her stormy relationship with her second husband, Tom Arnold, which provided the most material for the gossip pages.

"For a while I kind of lost it," she now admits. "It was like being in the eye of a hurricane. I felt removed from the real world by being in Hollywood and being a product. I never liked it. In the end I got rid of a lot of people and things that were part of that and I worked at my real values."

She claims to have found true happiness with husband number three Ben Thomas, a former bodyguard, and their two-year-old son, Buck. "He and Ben were playing with a battery-operated car on the floor yesterday. When I walked in he said: `Get out!'. He didn't want any girls around.

"Hostility to women in such a little child? I think it starts at conception," she says.

Both Ben and Buck travelled with her to Quebec, and were sampling some very non-French cuisine while she was being interviewed by CTV for its breakfast programme, Canada AM. We know this because Ben called her on her mobile phone to tell her their whereabouts, smack bang in the middle of the recording.

"You know he called me once in the middle of a synagogue service," the slightly embarrassed star explained to the highly amused camera crew. As this aside confirmed, one of the biggest inspirations in Roseanne's life today is her religion. "You have to be able to look yourself in the eye and feel you've been true to your own ethics," she says. But her reverence for Judaism didn't stop her being quite terse with a fellow Jewess who attempted to turn the Montreal tribute event into a religious discussion: "OK, shalom, we'll talk afterwards."

Asked by another member of the audience how she wants to be remembered when she dies, she responded: "As the richest fucking woman on earth." Not quite the answer one might have expected from an iconoclastic artist who regularly slams the "crass materialism" which pervades her homeland. Then again, hasn't Roseanne Barr also said she expected to be worth a billion dollars by the year 2000?

"I only said that because I wanted to be positive," she explains to CTV. "What does it matter?" A very interesting question, and perhaps an ideal topic with which to kick off her new talk shown Roseanne Online

This dedicated (obsessed?) German fan has assembled an archive of articles

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"20 Roly-poly Secrets of Big Hit Roseanne" from a 1989 copy of The Sun.

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