Check out the gold lamé pantsuit Roseanne Arnold wears on her new stand-up special, HBO Comedy Hour: Roseanne Arnold: It’s the Roseanne version of the famous glittering suit Elvis Presley wore on the cover of his 1959 album, 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. Like Elvis, Roseanne wears such clothes first of all because she thinks they look pretty cool, but also as a proud assertion of vulgar power. After all, Arnold must reason, the roughly 30 million fans who most weeks make ABC’s Roseanne the top-rated show in the country can’t be wrong.
The massive, ongoing success of Roseanne, which begins its fourth season in the fall, has filled Arnold with the confidence of a popular artist at her peak; she knows that whatever she says, her audience will make an effort to agree with her, to stay on her side. And so on this, her third HBO Comedy Hour, Arnold uses her power and the creative freedom of cable television to launch hilarious, thrillingly pointed attacks on a wide variety of topics.
Using vehement profanity as routine punctuation, Arnold lowers the boom on, among many other subjects, anti-abortion protestors, George Bush (”I hate that…pinhead of a wimp”), the fashionable rock band the Cure, and Murphy Brown’s Candice Bergen (”that f—-ing stiff board rates an Emmy and not me?”).
Barbie dolls — ”the most heinous invention of the 20th century” — receive special contempt: ”It’s always Beach Party Barbie, Malibu Barbie…that s—- does not prepare you for the true horror of a real woman’s life; where is Single, Abused, Trailer-Park Barbie?” Arnold stands in the spotlight of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and crows, ”I just live to get even, don’t I? And it feels so good!”
Remember when she started out as a stand-up comic about a decade ago, offering herself as Roseanne Barr, the wisecracking housewife-from-hell? Then, her jokes were cutting but cunning; she made fun of her always nameless husband and the tedium of housework as if she were getting away with something — as if she felt she had to disguise her nascent feminism as naughty, harmless silliness.
That’s undoubtedly one reason Roseanne made such a big deal about changing her last name when she divorced that husband, Bill Pentland, and married Tom Arnold in 1990: Emboldened by a unique combination of show-biz triumph, feminist theory, and psychiatric counsel (”I (was) in therapy, like, 24 hours a day,” she reminisces here), Arnold was signaling to us that she had become a different person, a different performer.
Like Richard Pryor, to whom she dedicates this performance in the closing credits, Arnold has come to avoid flip one-liners when she speaks of her past. She now talks about her life in brutally honest terms — some of this is extremely funny; some of it is tedi-ous; all of it is brave. There’s a section here in which Arnold talks about what ”torture” it was, as a child, to have dinner with her tense, squabbling, ”dysfunctional” family. As comic material, it’s monotonous and a bit discomfiting, like eavesdropping on a therapy session — the theater audience hardly chuckles.
But I like the boring parts anyway, for what they reveal about the combustible mixture of insecurity and defiance that fuels Arnold’s worldview. Raised lower-middle-class in Utah — ”I used to live in a trailer,” she never lets us forget-the 39-year-old Arnold has ended up a radical populist, for lack of a better term. Unlike many people with similar upbringings, she never took to political or social conservatism — in this special, she razzes Pat Buchanan as well as Bush. (There’s a big hole here; the concert was taped in April, too early for her to address a question that has probably occurred to many fans recently: What does Roseanne think of Ross Perot?)
”I tried to raise my kids according to the ideals I had in the ’60s,” she muses on the Comedy Hour. ”I told ‘em you shouldn’t respect anyone except yourself, which I still agree with and was fine…until they got old enough to disrespect me.” This is the sort of observation — funny but laced with pain — that makes Arnold such an endlessly interesting star.
By the way, if you think my comparison of Arnold to Elvis Presley was a bit much, be aware of Arnold’s next TV movie project: Now filming on location in Iowa, under the working title Graced Land, the ABC movie will reportedly feature Arnold as a Iowa woman on welfare whose growing obsession with Elvis changes her life. Makes you wonder whether, 25 years from now, some hot new star will do a movie about, perhaps, a man obsessed with the legendary Arnold. Roseanneland? Then-senior-citizen Paul Simon could do the soundtrack…A