Twenty years ago, on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 1988, with a wailing harmonica theme playing in the background, Roseanne introduced America to TV’s ultimate blue-collar family: brash mother Roseanne (Roseanne Barr), goofball husband Dan (John Goodman), prim brainiac daughter Becky (Lecy Goranson), sarcastic tomboy Darlene (Sara Gilbert), misfit son D.J. (Michael Fishman), and wacky aunt Jackie (Laurie Metcalf).
At the time, television was dominated by lavish soaps (Dallas, Falcon Crest) and sitcoms with upper-middle-class clans (The Cosby Show, Empty Nest). This made Roseanne’s salt-of-the-earth arrival seem all the more radical.
The most grungily realistic sitcom since The Honeymooners, Roseanne became just as famous for its behind-the-scenes realities: Barr’s infamous tantrums with executives and writers; the aggressive antics of her boyfriend/husband Tom Arnold; and her stubborn creative decisions that led to the hit show’s spectacular demise. Many of the details are revealed here in EW for the first time through a series of interviews with the cast, execs, and producers. ”I could never go back to television,” Barr says today. ”But then I look at the show and I’m like, ‘F— it! It was all worth it.”’ And it certainly was. So take a seat on a sagging chair, as EW celebrates the show’s 20th anniversary by dishing with all the players who kept that kitchen in Lanford, Ill., brimming with life for nine seasons.
I. Meet the Conners
In 1987, ‘The Cosby Show’ executive producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner wanted to bring a no-perks family comedy to TV. After commissioning a script from ‘Cosby’ scribe Matt Williams about factory workers, the team signed comedian Roseanne Barr, who’d won raves for her working-class ”domestic goddess” stand-up routines on ‘The Tonight Show.’ But they wanted to pair the inexperienced actress with a skilled actor as her husband, and set off to cast the rest of the family.
Carsey: We had to cast the best possible actors around her, so she could learn from them.
Williams: The linchpin — and, I’m convinced, the key to the series — was John Goodman. We brought him in the room, he looked at Roseanne, and said, ”Scoot over.” She said, ”Shut up,” he plopped down, and it was like they had been married for 16 years.
Goodman: I went in there, and it was just easy as pie. We got along great. For some reason, I just knew I had the job.
Barr: Goodman was the only person who read for the role. There were more planned, but the second I met that guy, I fell in love with him.
Williams: I knew Laurie Metcalf from Steppenwolf [Theatre Company in Chicago]. When I heard we could get her, I went, ”Are you kidding me?” To me, it’s like hitting the grand-slam home run. She made that character far more interesting than I could ever write her.
Gilbert: It came pretty naturally and I remember them having me improv, pretending to be fighting with my sister. With Darlene, they let me have a lot of angst.
Goranson: At the audition, one girl said to me, ”You’re never going to get this because, obviously, you have blond hair and Roseanne has dark hair.” Then I saw Roseanne come in. I thought she’d be like Meredith Baxter Birney with an apron on, and instead Roseanne comes in with her sweatpants on and no makeup. She was like, ”Heeeey!” I’m like, ”Oh, s—!”
Young son D.J. proved toughest to cast. Producers considered future ‘Home Alone’ star Macaulay Culkin, but instead went with Fishman.
Barr: I wanted Michael Fishman because he looked like my family and he was a little Russian boy. He was so not like all the other little Hollywood bastards.
Fishman: The network wanted one person, the production company wanted another person, and she wanted me. In many ways, I’m one of the first battles she won.
Brandon Stoddard, who was president of entertainment at ABC at the time, says the network was ”desperately looking for a hit,” so with the cast in place, the pressure was on to deliver something magical. The day the pilot was to shoot, however, the ‘Roseanne’ set was shut down because of fire code violations. Ultimately, though, it was a blessing, allowing the cast and crew an extra week with the first script before the episode was shot.
Metcalf: Roseanne had really curly hair at the start. For some reason, then I would wear a curly wig. It looked really ridiculous, like, ”Oh this will make us look like sisters!” That bond grew into a sister bond, but at the beginning you’re just like grabbing at straws, like, what can we do here that makes us look related?
Goranson: For me, it was absolutely terrifying. I was like, ”Will I be able to handle this? What am I doing? Am I doing a good job? Am I good enough? There are all these pros around me.” I was staying at Sara Gilbert’s guesthouse the night before our first table reading and I just threw-up all over her beautiful pink carpet because I was so nervous. I was terrified, horrified.
Metcalf: When the audience came in and they started the first scene, Roseanne blew the doors off of it! She knew exactly what she was doing. We were all just standing there around the monitor with our jaws hanging open saying, ”She is f—ing amazing!” She never got credit, in my mind, for how good her acting is. Roseanne would kill. She got every laugh.
Ellen (né Falcon) Gittelsohn, director, season 1: I had this feeling only one time before that we were sitting on something special, and I felt that on the pilot of Designing Women. It seemed like the right thing at the right time.