Roseanne Barr on Losing Her Sight, Smoking Weed, Rejecting Feminism, and Not Voting For Hillary
As a documentary of her 2012 presidential run is released, Roseanne Barr talks about political power, mortality, and why a Hillary Clinton win wouldn’t be as symbolic as many hope.
The Roseanne Barr of today, sitting in an airless meeting room of a restaurant in New York’s Meatpacking District, looks very different from the Roseanne Barr captured in Eric Weinrib’s intimate and brilliantly observed documentary Roseanne For President!
In the film, which follows her ill-fated attempt to become the presidential nominee for the Green Party in the 2012 election (she eventually became the Peace and Freedom Party’s nominee), Barr, 63, sports shoulder-length, straggly gray hair, and hippyish duds.
Today her hair is short, dyed blond, and she wears a metallic fitted jacket and tight trousers. The look has gone from “weaves-her-own-hessian” to techno DJ, complete with yellow-tinted sunglasses. She is direct and blunt, very funny, and also deadly serious. You’re never sure which, in person and on screen.
Weinrib tells me that working with Barr was “like getting fucked up with your friends playing with a video camera, and thinking that it would be hilarious if other people would watch it—only in this case it was true because the person I was hanging out with was a world-famous comedic icon.”
That scratchy, deadpan monotone, familiar as her delivery during her years starring on the groundbreaking sitcom which bore her name, remains a constant—even when discussing how she is going blind.
I had asked why she was such a fan of marijuana, which we see her smoking in the film, and which she claims is excellent for releasing us from “mind control.” Obviously she wants it legalized.
“It’s a good medicine, you know,” she says.
For pain, I ask.
“I have macular degeneration and glaucoma, so it’s good for me for that because I have pressure in my eyes. It’s a good medicine for a lot of things.”
Will the macular degeneration ultimately leave you blind, I ask.
“Yeah,” Barr replies, flatly.
Have her doctors given her any kind of time frame on when that will come to pass?
“No, they can’t. My vision is closing in now,” Barr says, making a narrowing motion with her hands near her eyes. “It’s something weird. But there are other weird things. That one’s harsh, ’cause I read a lot, and then I thought, ‘Well, I guess I could hire somebody to read for me and read to me.’ But I like words and I like looking. You do what you have to do. I just try and enjoy vision as much as possible—y’know, living it up. My dad had it, too.”
And she believes pot releases us from mind control, in what way? “It’s expansive. It opens your mind. You’re like,”—she looks up—“Wow, you’re in awe. You look up into the stars. It makes you wonder. It doesn’t close that down.”
“Mind control,” and “they” (meaning, amorphously it seems, the corrupted political elite and their associates), she refers to a lot.
Before we meet I am told by her representatives with cautioning expressions that Barr is tired and not feeling well after a day of interviews. I already know from the film—which is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, hence the New York sojourn—that she doesn’t shake hands.
Indeed, Barr doesn’t like big groups at all, which made campaigning for president obviously a little tricky, with all the handshaking and contact with necessary allies and ordinary voters.
While her Green Party rival, Dr. Jill Stein, presses the flesh and attends multiple town hall meetings in an array of fetching scarves and blazers, Barr Skypes in to speak at events from her California home. When she does turn up at events, her star charm, straight-talking, and comedic timing are a winning combination: Audiences love her. In the film she gets her most rapturous reception from a crowd at a music festival: You sense it is the fame she knows best, and likes best.
One of the heroes of the film is the tireless and devoted Farheen Hakeem, the co-chair of the Green Party and Barr’s very own political operative. The indefatigable Hakeem sets up tables in crummy halls, speaks for Barr, canvasses for her. Barr says she’s running a modern, very “green” campaign—low on spending on air flights and the like—but it’s Hakeem, battling away with nails and planks of wood and pacifying surly party members, whom she should be indebted to.
The derision Barr faced when her candidacy was announced is well documented in the film—TV anchors smirk one after the other—but “as a woman I knew that would be the lens,” she tells me.
During the film, as support flows Stein’s way, Barr is incredulous why the Greens can’t see that, as a celebrity, Barr can advance their agenda in the public realm, and among the powerful, more than Stein can? But Greens seem to like evidence of years of legwork and commitment, rather than Barr’s brash, parachuting-in, star quality.
Weinrib expected Barr’s to be more of a satirical campaign, like Dick Gregory’s presidential run of 1968, and Hunter S. Thompson running for sheriff of Aspen and Pitkin County in 1970.
“I was excited to see Roseanne shake things up,” Wenrib tells me. “What surprised me was that the longer we went, the more serious she got, and that comedy is deadly serious. Historically, it was the jesters who spoke truth to kings. I’ve always been a fan of people taking risks, not people on the sidelines critiquing them. For me, Roseanne embodies that.”
If Stein wins, Barr says in the film, she will make all the right, Green-friendly noises about working with her, then simply not. They barely speak to each other backstage at one event. After she is defeated, Barr offers this assertion (twice): “Fuck Jill Stein.”
Her bitterness today seems dialed down. “I loved it, it was fun, exciting, and interesting,” she says of the campaign. What does she think of Stein? “She’s very entrenched, and they like their candidate,” Barr says tightly.
I ask if Barr really feels her celebrity should have convinced the Greens to take her on. “In some ways it should have counted for more, in that I knew had I been a man who had accomplished the things I accomplished in television I think they would have been more respectful towards me.”
She was not surprised not to win the Green nomination, she says—although on screen, we watch her glued to the results coming in, a contender to the last moment.
We speak days after Hillary Clinton announces her own presidential candidacy. Barr is emphatically not a Clinton supporter.
“I think she’s a Democrat just like they all are. She seems like every other Democrat. I would not like to see her win. She’s the same old shit. I’d like to see me win. I don’t see how she can win, but it will be interesting to see how the process goes—although its kind of offensive that the American people for 21 months have to live through the mudslinging that goes on between the two parties, which I think is just a tactic to prevent government from doing anything about any of our problems. It just elongates the election process. It’s like a traffic jam. That’s how it works: blaming and mudslinging.”
So, Barr--herself a much-hailed trailblazer--isn’t excited by the prospect of the first female president?
“No, not at all. I think that a party that was woman-friendly would be revolutionary, and that party could be headed by a male or female. It’s what the party itself stands for that matters. She is standing as a Democrat so she’s a Democrat, and I don’t see much difference between them and the Republicans. They both get paid by the same guys. They do the same thing, they want the same stuff, more business.”
A Clinton presidency wouldn’t even be a symbolic achievement, I ask.
“‘Symbolically’? What does that mean? I would rather see the first intelligent, honest American president. I don’t care what’s in their shorts. I don’t care what it looks like down there at all. The thing I did like Hillary for was that she was the first candidate who ever listened to what women said, because she had to.”
Barr isn’t sure if she will vote; she isn’t even convinced there will be an election.
Clearly, politics fascinates her and makes her passionate, but I also wonder if Barr’s campaign fulfilled her desire to remain relevant and in the public eye.
The film contrasts her doing daily chores and puttering around at home, with the magazine covers and pop-cultural hype around her at the height of the success of Roseanne, which ran for nine seasons from 1988 to 1997. The then-and-now dislocation is startling. Part of her seems to want attention, and part of her seems to want to retreat from it.
Her fame isn’t what it was, though she insists she is still famous. “Once you’re famous, you’re never not famous. My show is on five times a day in 15 countries or something. I’m still relevant to people. I was young then, man. I was in my late 30s, early 40s. You needed so much energy. I couldn’t keep that up now.”
She’s done a few roles (“I like doing small things”), but she’s glad not to be playing a character, as she did on Roseanne, “for a number of years in a big box with no windows. I was like Rumpelstiltskin. It’s hard in your 60s [to imagine doing] that much work again. It was boring. I just didn’t want to continue doing that because there are too many sacrifices to continue it.”
Barr famously fought with her own writers, she says, but after she got good ratings the network let her do what wanted. “It’s hard to get people to see things they weren’t raised to see. But I’m over fighting. I’m old now.”
That simply isn’t true, as the film shows: Barr likes fighting, raising hell, shouting for what she believes in. It’s her rocket fuel. Her brother Ben, in the documentary, says a lot of her family life was distilled for her sitcom. Barr was a born, impassioned agitator. She tells me that her mother’s side of the family was Republican (her grandmother was a small-business owner), while her father was a Socialist, “the working man’s party.”
Inspired by that, Barr has “always tried to do the right things with my privilege,” and recalls her first joke, written at age 3 or 4, was inspired by fury at a daily gender inequality she witnessed at lunchtimes.
“My grandmother ran around serving the men, they never said ‘Thank you,’“ she recalls. “One day my uncle had two or three bowls of soup. He complained every mouthful. ‘You put too much chicken fat in this,’ he said. ‘That’s what immigrants do.’ I did not like anyone messing with my grandma. ‘I said, ‘Well, if you don’t like it, how come you’re eating three bowls of it?’ And his face went…” and she widens her eyes… “because nobody had ever said that to any man in our family before. ‘That girl’s got a big, big mouth,’ my uncle said. And that’s still how I see the world: women doing the labor.”
Shooting the documentary depressed her “in seeing what passed for socialism these days.” Matching funds—wherein the federal government funds a candidate to the same amount they have raised personally—”is corrupt. You can’t have a revolution that’s profit-based. You feel compromised on every level. The level of mind control is really disturbing, the sanctified parroting of having to say this and having to say that. That has nothing to do with the real left. That’s the fake left. It never talks about labor. All they talk about is Israel, and whether it should exist, and the rest of that fucking bullshit, which is really about the corporate nullification of tribal rights.”
The thing she most enjoyed about running for president was talking to people, she says. The worst aspect was having to talk to, and cozy up to, those people with the power to decide her future—“the Gatekeepers,” as she calls them.
“They want to censor you,” Barr says. Even in the Greens? She nods. “I was like, ‘We’re doing it my way, not your way.’ They think you’re their puppet. I never seemed to see somebody who had real vision, they’re blind to that. They can’t tell the difference between their own ass and their own elbow. They don’t know the difference between truth and bullshit.”
She thinks a truly independent candidate could one day win the presidency, though that likelihood is “possible not probable.” As for herself, the last time she voted Democrat was for Jimmy Carter, because she liked his recommending voters “to put on a sweater and turn down your air conditioning [to conserve energy during a 1977 crisis]. He talked a good farmer thing.”
With Obama, Barr was initially hopeful of his promised “change,” but “I knew he had taken money from the nuclear industry, and they always pay back the people who sponsor them. I thought it was cool Americans voted him in. I was glad that in some ways it showed Americans were less racially divided. And he grew up [in income terms] on the other side of things, which we don’t see that much. But he’s just another corporate Democrat like they all are. He rushed to give the banks their bailout. They’re all the same, they work for big money.”
Despite her many frustrations with the current system, Barr says she is not pessimistic, but optimistic for a future in which Americans are forming coalitions, “and not being divided off or bought off.”
The viewer might think it would have been better had Barr really hit the campaign trail, but she didn’t want to get “shot by crazy people. I’m known. I’m pretty certain Jill Stein hasn’t had her life threatened. My life has been threatened ever since I sang the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ badly,” in 1990.
Does she regret that now?
“No, no, not at all. It’s my national anthem and I have the right to sing it. I sang it again a few more times after that. I did improve as a singer, I have to say. But it was so perfect. The next day there was a news blackout, they started Operation Desert Storm, and I was cast as the useful idiot. That was a time when I didn’t account for my thing. I just thought it would be funny.”
And therein lies another tricky minefield for Barr, because she is a comedian, a risky, questioning, convention-defying, profanity-loving one at that—and the thing about running for office, as she says, is that you “can’t do any dick jokes.”
She was frustrated herself that when, say, she went to Florida, “ready to discuss stand-your-ground gun laws, the questions were all about Israel and Palestine. That’s the American mind control: not playing up what’s going on in your backyard, but talking about what’s going on ‘over there,’ where whatever it is will never touch you while you live in relative privilege and safety.”
Does she describe herself as a feminist? “I did for a while. I’m tired of words. Now I just describe myself as a thinker. I don’t want to buy into any of their code words, so that it makes mind control. It activates mind control. If you say ‘feminist,’ it means certain things if you’re pro or con. And you know you could change your mind when the right facts are presented, if you’re not married to a certain rhetoric or dogma.”
Barr is proud that she came in sixth overall in 2012 (she ran only on three state ballots), but isn’t looking to run again soon. “I earned my wings because I know how the system works. I might run again for the Peace and Freedom Party, but they’d have to get rid of a lot of their platform—it’s obsolete. I thought about starting my own party, the Green Tea Party, a hybrid of freedom and safety net. That’s what I think the future is all about: a limit to government size and power, government made efficient. There’s a party called the National Woman’s Party, which started about 100 years ago: That would be a great party to run with.”
The thing that seems most evident, on film and in conversation, is that Barr wants to have her voice recognized, in politics and/or entertainment—and taken seriously. But there is a built-in conflict with her wanting to play serious politics, while also shooting her mouth off, and saying what she likes, which she often does via Twitter.
That contradiction echoes her desire for controversy and banner headlines—indeed her making this film—which sit alongside the prevailing mood of our conversation, which seems to suggest a desire for a quieter life and retreat. She may want both, of course, and why not. She still enjoys doing stand-up, and is a judge on the talent show Last Comic Standing.
One of the intriguing moments in the documentary sees Barr’s family saying she radically changed after a catastrophic head injury she suffered as a teenager, which almost killed her.
“I died, and I came back changed,” she tells me. “I did that whole tunnel, white light deal. I saw very clearly that this was my life and I was the author of it. It took 10 or more years to heal from.”
Your family said your personality changed after the accident, I say. “They say shit,” Barr says, and laughs. “I guess a little bit. I got more convinced that I could do whatever I wanted.”
Certainly, she was hailed as a pioneer for women in comedy, given not only the helm of Roseanne, but her strong character therein, its working-class focus, and the many then-controversial issues the show covered, even featuring a much-hyped lesbian kiss.
“I feel I was a good link in a big, long chain that stretched from Mae West to all the woman comics today, that I think was needed to open the door wider.”
But still no women presenting in late night? “I know. That pisses me off. I had a daytime chat show that moved to late night. I always wanted to do late night.” What’s the late-night “glass ceiling” all about? I ask. “They [the networks] don’t want to do it, to go there. Women like to watch men at night, and other women during the day: That’s it, period. At night they want a cute guy.”
Barr has thought “a million times” about bringing her sitcom back. “I don’t know if I can do it again, I’ve thought about it doing it as a movie too. I don’t know. I appreciate living life with no deadlines or stress. It’s too hard.” Is the cast still close, do they still talk? “We do. We don’t see each other that much, but we are still connected.”
As for comics, she’s a fan of Doug Stanhope (“I think he is a genius”), Louis CK, Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler too. “All stand-up comics I love because I know how hard is it and what it takes to get up and there and do it. It’s a great art form.”
In the movie, the one person Barr defers to (-ish) is John Argent, her partner of the last 13 years. They met when he entered a competition on her website for people to write children’s songs. He’s a genius, she says. They haven’t married. “I’m lazy. You know, we’re thinking about it, but we’re OK as we are. I’m too old to get married.” She smiles. “It’s not like we’re going to have any kids or anything.”
The film shows her taking great delight in swearing. “Fuck yeah, I do,” Barr says with a smile. “I love colorful language. I used to get my mouth washed out with soap by my mom for doing it. So of course I never did it around her too much. I did around my friends. I love it. I just—” she smiles, ecstatically—“It’s so free.”
She and Argent orbit between their homes in Hawaii, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Happily? “Happy’s a weird word... I’m content with my life.”
Was passing 60 a big deal? “50 was the big one, wooo, half a century. After that I was like, ‘OK, I’m lucky I’m here another year, it’s all a plus.” So, she thinks about aging and her mortality? “I think about them all the time. It’s tough you know. It’s bittersweet. I’m in the youth of my old age.” She smiles. “It’s very different from the old age of my youth. I’m just passing from one to the other.”
She may seem weary, but Barr will return, almost certainly, to rabble-rouse via one platform or another. Tired as she may feel today, she is off shopping for Weinrib, and orders him to join her at a nearby branch of All Saints, so she can buy him a scarf with the legend “Director” on it. He laughs that he will be there imminently. Hers sounds like the command of someone whom it’s wise to obey.
Roseanne For President! shows at the Tribeca Film Festival on Tuesday and Saturday. Screening details here.