A small, instantly recognizable woman sits down across the table from me. She bumps fists, leery of the germs that tourists from around the world bring with them to Las Vegas. Roseanne, one of the few stars identifiable by first name only, is in the middle of a six-night-per-week standup gig at the Tropicana’s Laugh Factory. She admits to being a little tired, but nothing slows this woman down.
Roseanne is a steamroller who’s made a career of breaking down walls. She calls comedians “psychic boil-lancers,” and she embodies that concept to a tee. Named by Comedy Central as the ninth-greatest standup of all time – the only woman listed in the top 30 – Roseanne ruled the airwaves for a decade in her eponymous hit TV series, even as she fought Hollywood’s power structure every step of the way.
Backing down is not in her biological makeup. She’s forthright in her opinions and unafraid to attack hypocrisy and injustice wherever she sees them, whether it’s on women’s issues or the War on Drugs. Her activism led her to run for president on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket in last year’s election, finishing sixth.
The fact is that everybody has an opinion about Roseanne. She may be funny, but she’ll rattle your cage, too.
When you ran for president, you said some hilarious things about marijuana, even mimicking Charlton Heston’s famous NRA quote: “You’ll get my joint when you pry it out of my cold, dead fingers.” That was pretty funny – but seriously, how deep does your activism go?
The War on Drugs in our country has brought fascism here. It’s brought institutionalized racism to the streets through racial profiling. At Oaksterdam University, I gave a whole speech on legalizing marijuana, because it would be the first way to escape from the box that they’ve put our whole country in to lock down on. If we can legalize pot, we give the Drug War a huge kick in the ass. We’re seeing so many of our national resources being used against us and our kids. It’s a total fascist setup to control people and keep the power out of their hands and the systems of discrimination in place.
These teenagers, mostly boys, that they arrest for a joint in the street – especially in New York, Florida, and LA – they put them in prison and they have to work. Do you realize that 95 percent of all house paint in America is manufactured by prison labor for six cents an hour? Kids who are in jail, at the height of their strength, teenage strength – that’s who’s making house paint, and they don’t have to pay them.
Our government is a union-busting, anti-worker, corporate fascist state, and legalizing pot is us fighting back at last. If we don’t, it’s just going to get worse and worse.
What’s your take on President Obama?
I ran for president to oppose him as well as Romney, because the American people weren’t getting a choice. It was a vote between two Republicans. Remember what it was like when we had a choice from the middle-left? That wasn’t Obama ... it was me! I ran on the same issues that Roosevelt, Lincoln, and even Eisenhower ran on. I resurrected their points of view. Eisenhower right now would be looked at as a leftist radical.
Our government has gone farther and farther to the right. They put Romney in there to make Obama look like he was good. But he’s not. He headed the largest heist in the history of humanity – the biggest heist of working people, who gave over whatever wealth they could earn in their lifetime to the rich. He gave us bullshit health insurance instead of health care. He’s just a corporatist. He’s a figurehead with little power. The people he serves are Goldman Sachs and the banksters – the tricksters.
You supported the Occupy Wall Street protests. How do you respond to criticism that you’re speaking out against the so-called 1 percent despite being a wealthy person yourself?
I’d say it’s pretty negative and small-minded. I didn’t make my money from slave labor like those guys; I did it from telling jokes, from entertainment and art. To put artists, especially social critics, in the same boat as thieves and banksters is just another tool of the powers that be. Not all rich people, not all rich artists, are against the people. I’m not a thieving, lying whore of a bankster. I’m not a fucking Congressperson. I don’t inside-trade. I’m not criminal. I’m an artist.
That “1 percent” is bullshit, too. I told people OWS and all the way up – everybody I talk to – don’t say “1 percent,” because that’s three million people. It’s not three million people who have the power in this country; it’s 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent! In actuality, it’s 400 families in the world who own almost everything.
Interesting point. So tell us about your personal interaction with pot.
The first time I smoked, I was 17. I was with my sister, and we were sleeping out on our porch. I remember sitting on the porch with my mouth hanging open, looking at a tree and going, “Jesus Christ, is that a tree?” I couldn’t stop staring at it – the complexity of it, the patterning. It opened up my mind to whole other conscious rhythms.
But for a long time after that, I didn’t smoke – probably 10 years. When I was a young mother, I never smoked. I came back to it in my mid-30s. It helped me with a lot of anxiety and other issues. It’s my treatment for anxiety ... because I get really anxious when I think I might run out of pot!
It’s helped me so much, in so many ways. I have social anxiety bad, and it helps me with that. I have OCD. I have ADHD. It gets me out of the room. It helps me really relax. Plus I have glaucoma.
Wow. How about its powers for stoking creativity? Do you use it for writing?
Do I ever not? Writing is so hard, so fucking hard. When I’m writing for myself, it’s crazy suffering – just torture. Like say it’s due on Friday, and I already knew it was due on Friday for six months. Every day, nothing’s coming, nothing’s funny, I’m late, I’m fucking pissed off – I’ve built up so much anxiety by then. Everyone hates me because I hide out or scream and get angry. But like two days before the deadline, I’ll be sitting there, or sometimes I’m asleep – it’s just so weird – and I start shaking, I seriously start shaking: “Oh my God, it’s coming, it’s coming! I feel it!”
Are you serious?
Yeah, I’m serious! Like I gotta get a fucking pen! But it’s a torment, a stupid torment.
Magazine articles and stuff that I write seriously, and books – I’ve written three – I can do that. But when it comes to writing comedy, God has to come in. And pot helps – it just puts you in that altered state.
Powerful, creative women like you are often a lightning rod for controversy. Why is that?
Because we’re brave. Women aren’t supposed to be brave. In this culture, you’re supposed to be accommodating and nurturing, kind and sweet and quiet. Like the Chinese say: “The nail that stands up gets hammered.” I’m one of those nails.
Few of us will ever experience the backlash you did following your singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a baseball game back in 1990. What’s it like when the weight of the country’s opinion comes down on you?
Horrifying. Also illuminating, because you see the real America. I saw the real American people, good and bad. There were a lot more good ones than I imagined. But the level of hatred that Americans harbor – the bigotry and hatred of women or Jews or whoever is their target that week – is very disturbing.
I was a useful idiot. When Desert Storm got underway, they blacked out the news but rolled me singing the anthem over and over for days, because they were hiding the fact that they had gone into Iraq.
I have a joke that I tell: “I know this is a Christian country, but can’t you forgive me anyway?” They go around blabbin’ that shit about forgiveness all the time, but if somebody makes a mistake or misjudges things, they keep bringing it up and never forgive. They still try to blacklist everything I do nearly 25 years later, no matter how many times I’ve explained or apologized or even corrected it.
Early in the Roseanne series, you went to war with one of the writers who claimed he created the show. It made national headlines. Did you ever question yourself when you sought more creative control?
You mean did I want to quit? Yeah, but I didn’t have the guts. I didn’t want to let go, so I had no choice but to fight it. They were trying to fire me. They had already stolen my work; now they wanted to boot my ass on top of it.
Many shows on television over the last 20 years were written by people who worked for me. I see lifting of the Roseanne show and the characters. That’s just how this culture is in regard to everything women do. First they kiss your ass. Pretty soon, they’re excusing themselves because they think calling you a genius absolves them from stealing your shit. I always say, “As soon as somebody calls me a genius, I know I’m getting fucked in the ass.”
But so many women identified with the Roseanne character and the problems of a lower-income family.
It wasn’t just a hit show; it exploded all cultural boundaries. It spoke up for working-class people, for women, for girls – for working men, too – and family. It was the first time the phrase “working-class” was used in American media. The media keeps saying bullshit like “blue collar.” They never want to talk about class in America. I feel I was the first socialist on TV.
People come up to me every day and say, “You raised me,” or “Your show was my only refuge – I was a young gay kid in Yahooville or Hicksville State, and the show was all I had.” People say it was liberating or comforting. A lot of people saw me as a surrogate mom – and that’s cool. It’s kind of why I did it.
In a Rolling Stone interview with the Seinfeld cast, you were quoted saying the Seinfeld people acted as if they were doing Brecht. [Bertolt Brecht was an influential German playwright and theater director.]
Yeah, I said it.
In the interview, Jason Alexander said, “I doubt if Roseanne has ever read Brecht.”
Classic. Seinfeld was a good show, not a great show. We were on the same lot as them, and they were just so arrogant, it pissed me off: “Are you aware of the fact that I’m a producer? I’m not Roseanne Connor. I don’t really work in a hamburger joint.”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus would park her car in my clearly designated parking space all the time. It just got on my nerves – like, why are you doing this? And we asked politely. It pissed everybody off. I took a picture of one of my cast members’ ass and stuck it on her windshield and told her to go fuck herself. So we were never friends after that.
But, God, the way she acted toward me was like, “You’re a disgusting person.” And I’m like, “Hey, bitch, you parked in my space over and over and over!” I felt like: ”Man, that classism stuff really works – even for your character.”
It was weird because Rolling Stone always excluded me when they covered television comedy also. Seinfeld was on the cover like 92 times, but just last week I did my first Rolling Stone interview. I always felt that there was a drive to diminish me because I’m a woman, because I’m a socialist or whatever reason they’ve got. Maybe because someone who looks like me, and who I represent, happens to be the viewers that watch their shitty shows.
I get really defensive about it. I really put my ass on the line to feature gay characters. When my show became number one, I was like: “I’m going to burn the motherfuckers down! Now it’s gonna be gays, it’s gonna be girls and depression, it’s gonna be alcoholism, it’s gonna be jobs, it’s gonna be starting a small business, family dynamics, class, race – all of those things and many more.”
When I got the Peabody Award, they said that Roseanne got a Peabody for finally being about something. They also gave Seinfeld a Peabody for being about nothing. It was like getting slapped. It always was like that; it continues to be.
But didn’t you draw satisfaction from the show’s success?
As far as the work is concerned, I don’t have a choice: I have to do it. I might do some damage if I didn’t have my creative outlet, like a lot of artists.
Do you think comedy is more mean-spirited these days?
Comedy reflects the times we live in. We’re traipsing around 52 countries with our army, so of course we’re bullies from the top down. People like bullyism in America; they love it on every level.
Like comments on the Internet – so many of them are disgusting. Here’s the question: Do we want freedom of speech? Maybe we don’t, because the level of intellectual debate and discourse is so reduced – that’s what’s really getting censored by all of that stupid bullshit. It keeps smart people away ... and anybody who has anything smart to say is completely suspect in this country.
Which comedians impress you?
I’m a comedian, so I like all comedians. I like to watch them. I judge them. Perhaps I say, “Oh, this isn’t my cup of tea” or “Boy, that’s juvenile. That’s something a fucking chronic masturbator comes up with” – which is mostly guy comedy. I’m a comedy fan, so if I’m gonna break it down, it’s intelligent comedy versus lower comedy. There are women and men who are frigging great. I don’t see it being a gender thing: There are great comics – male, female, black, white, gay, straight, everything. And there are a lot of dumb ones.
I admire all comedians because it takes a lot of guts to get up and put yourself out there. Not many people can hold 300 people’s attention for an hour with just words. Fewer women than men can do it, so I’m proud of anybody who even tries it, because I know how hard it is.
What do you think of Sarah Silverman?
I love her. I love everything she does.
Love Lisa ... she’s in a class all by herself. She’s so daring, she’s beyond gender. Sarah is, too. Sarah plays with the limitations of gender because she’s so attractive. But Lisa just mows it all down. She’s a wonderful person, and she’s a fierce activist, too, when she puts her mind to it. I’ve got to say, my favorite living comic is Mort Sahl. He’s still hilarious and edgy – edgier than anybody.
How about Chelsea Handler?
I really like Chelsea, too. She’s really good and very different. She’s an angry comic, like the rest of us. She found her niche because she looks like she looks, but she’s another angry comic. She’s transcended the girl thing, even though she plays it as well.
Do you think a comedian can make a difference?
We’re psychic boil-lancers – that’s what we all do. We’re angry people because we don’t like injustice and bullshit. We’ve probably seen a lot of it and fought back against it.
Everybody says, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” But the joke is mightier than the pen. The joke, man, can take empires down when people start laughing up a shit storm. I’m really proud to be one of the people that get to help do that.
At age 60, how do you view your life?
I think the older I’ve gotten, the more limitations leave or disappear. Life gets broader and bigger with the loss of limitations. I’m not afraid to challenge myself. I just want to keep going for now. I don’t feel constrained – I’ve already got 60 years that I don’t have to do again, so I’m just going to keep going.