What Doesn't Kill Roseanne Barr Is Still Making Her Stronger

04/23/2015 09:24 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2015

roseanne barr

"My political views have pretty much ended my career."

That quote could be attributed to any number of people, but it seems to define no one more accurately than it does Roseanne Barr. Hailing from a new documentary that chronicles the comedian's 2012 presidential bid, the sentiment is an exact encapsulation of a star whose brash cultural identity took a nosedive once it was no longer the subject of a half-hour sitcom.

In truth, Barr's career isn't over, at least not definitively. When you're the star and executive producer of a top-rated, Emmy-winning series that ran for nine years and arguably redefined what a sitcom could be, it takes a lot to pulverize your entire legacy. What it does do, however, at least in the case of Barr's brazen persona, is preclude you from telling a new story that isn't infinitely tied to your offscreen reputation. In her eyes, that began before "Roseanne" even hit the air, back when she debuted the "domestic goddess" stand-up routines that would form the cornerstone of the fictional Roseanne Conner and her family. "I’m a comic, so that’s what we do," she said when The Huffington Post asked what prompted the quote while discussing the documentary, "Roseanne For President!," which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week.

The movie showcases Barr's efforts to secure a third-party nomination. First it's the Green Party's, because her friend, former Democratic Representative Cynthia McKinney, asked her to "carry the water" as someone who knows what it's like to come from a working-class family with no direct lineage to wealth or politics. Barr was unsuccessful with the Green Party, so she moved on to the Peace and Freedom Party, a left-wing group that first gained momentum for opposing the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Securing that nomination, Barr appeared on the ballot in the three states that recognize Peace and Freedom -- California, Florida and Colorado -- and came in sixth place during the general election.

[People] don't want anybody to say the stuff I say, no matter who they are. Their first reflex is to silence it. Roseanne Barr

Before hopping on the campaign trail, she connected with Eric Weinrib, who produced her pal Michael Moore's "Sicko" and "Capitalism: A Love Story." Barr had met Weinrib at various events in recent years, sparking a friendship in part because Moore is one of her mother's two favorite celebrities (the other being Paris Hilton). In making the film, Barr sought to shine a light on the inscrutable process of becoming a second-tier candidate -- just as her intent with "Roseanne" was to introduce a new kind of family (cheeky, blue collar, willing to discuss birth control and job insecurity) to America's living rooms. Weinrib embedded himself with Barr, attending campaign events and spending time at her Hawaii home. At night, they'd "get fucked up and goof and have a good time," he said while seated next to the comedian in a dim room at a Manhattan steakhouse where Barr donned oversized sunglasses. Weinrib would put the professional lenses away and capture bits and pieces of their interactions on a small Kodak camera. ("I told him not to use that shit, but that’s what he used, of course," Barr said of the footage.)

The 96-minute film, to Weinrib, proves that Barr, 62, has always been an "activist." If viewed as an extension of the work she has done within popular culture, Barr's fight to win a national election against insurmountable odds harks back to her television days, when she battled ABC after Matt Williams (read: a man) received the "created by" credit on "Roseanne," even though the titular character derived from Barr's stand-up act. Her latest efforts recall, for example, Barr wearing her own clothes because the show's wardrobe master insisted on dressing her in purple stretch pants and brightly colored smocks, rather than the attire of a laboring mother. One could also say they channel the time she staged a "sit-in" on the set because Williams refused to cut a line about the bedroom being the only place a woman is her husband's equal. (It wasn't until Barr called her lawyer after four hours of battles that the network finally took her side.) Williams left the series after 13 episodes, and Barr gained full control for the rest of its run.

Amid fights with the men (and, sometimes, women) who attempted to weaken her, the defining identity of "Roseanne" came to revolve around the social issues it addressed. Its most famous may be the kiss Roseanne shared with another woman (played by Mariel Hemingway) in 1994. ABC threatened to nix the episode, and after relenting, the network aired it with a "parental advisory" warning. ("To me, that was a show about homophobia," Barr said on HuffPost Live last week.) It is there, perhaps, that Barr's unofficial political career begins. But after entering the real bureaucratic realm in the lead-up to the 2012 race, she realized the actualities are not much different than they were under the guise of a sitcom. The chief distinction is that she can't stage a sit-in in order to get her way.

"This is all just theater," she said of America's politics.

That reflects Barr's thesis about the way ballots work in national races just as readily as it does the behind-the-scenes machinations of a hit show. Voters who don't reside in California, Florida or Colorado could write her in, but those votes are only counted if "the number of write-ins is greater than the difference between the people who are actually printed on the ballot," Weinrib said. Barr still to this day doesn't know how many votes she garnered. Nor does she know how a third party can truly rise out of oblivion.

"It’s just all bullshit," she said. "And the most third-party things are the Libertarian Party, which is to the right of the Republican Party, and the Green Party, which is to the left of the Democratic Party. But they’re all hooked up. There’s no real opposition to either party allowed. You see how all that works, and then at the end you’re like, 'This is the perfect bullshit system that nobody who isn’t part of the war business is going to get into.'"

Just as Barr was initially dismissed for seeking rank within the hierarchy of the show that bore her name, she struggled to find stature within a system that also rejects celebrities who attempt to thrive outside of Hollywood's confines. Maintaining her position that people born into immense privilege are the core political contenders, Barr noted the many detractors who dismissed her candidacy on the basis of her fame, which retained its ties to proletariat mentalities even as her bank account swelled. The sole quality that Barr considers an aid is an ability to write her own speeches, which she says most celebrities cannot. (She counts Sean Penn and Alec Baldwin as exceptions.)

"People didn’t like that," she said, referring to her built-in fame. "The only celebrities they like to elect are friggin' stooges like Reagan and Schwarzenegger -- friggin’ corporate stooges who speak for big money. They don’t like somebody like me who’s like, 'You serve us.' But playing the president or the governor, they like that. [...] It's because they’re mostly whiners. Their whole gestalt is going, 'We’re not able to do that.' And then I do it and they’re going, 'Shut her up.' They don’t want anybody to say the stuff I say, no matter who they are. Their first reflex is to silence it."

Even without the presidency, Barr looks to the film as her victory. If her goal in controlling "Roseanne" was to popularize a family that reflected the middle class, having a Top 10 show for seven of its nine seasons indicates she was successful. If her goal in running for national office was to educate herself and others about the knotty third-party system, "Roseanne For President!" also succeeds. Where the content of both "Roseanne" and "Roseanne for President!" finds derision is in couching the serious issues they address in outlandish humor. But, like Barr said at the start of our conversation, she is a comic. That's what she does.

This is the perfect bullshit system that nobody who isn't part of the war business is going to get into. Roseanne Barr

And Barr hasn't totally abandoned Hollywood anyway. She didn't find much that inspired her after "Roseanne" ended and her eponymous talk show, which ran for two seasons, was canceled, so she high-tailed it to Hawaii to farm macadamia nuts instead. (That became the subject of a 2011 Lifetime reality series -- aptly titled "Roseanne's Nuts" -- that spanned 16 episodes.) Still, she takes pride in the times she has been "lured back" to performing, as with shows like "Portlandia," "The Office" and "Cristela." But no, she was never again offered an appealing vehicle like, say, "She-Devil," the 1989 comedy she made with Meryl Streep.

She hasn't abdicated from politics either. Barr doesn't rule out the possibility of running for office again, but what she really wants to do is form a political action committee called Americans Incorporated, where she would serve as the self-proclaimed president for life. "We’ll pull our interests and then put the weight of those members to be for somebody or some issue in bigger elections," she said. "Also because I think that’s the only way that American people can have equal rights, since they made corporations equal to humans. This has 350 million people in corporations. I’m always looking for a way to outthink things."

And what about her final goal, stated simply as wanting to make this film her version of "Apocalypse Now"?

"It doesn’t have that kind of a doomsday feel to it," she said of "Roseanne for President!" "I feel it has the opposite. It’s like, 'Wow, get involved.' So it‘s kind of a happy 'Apocalypse Now.' I was telling people, 'You’re getting the kind of government that you deserve.' So let’s turn this around. Let’s have a better one."

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