Whitney Cummings Reveals the Real Reason She Quit the ‘Roseanne’ Reboot
The former showrunner for ABC’s reboot speaks out for the first time, at length, about what went down with Roseanne Barr.
When I ask Whitney Cummings how she became the showrunner for ABC’s Roseanne reboot, a sly smile flashes across her face. “I just am a fan of her tweets,” she jokes. “I just think she makes some great points.” She lets out a laugh as she adds, “That’s going to be quoted out of context, I can see it now!”
It’s been more than a year since Cummings announced she was stepping down as head of that show, and this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast is the first time she’s really talked about it at length on the record.
“It made a lot of sense at the time,” the comedian, whose new stand-up special Can I Touch It? started streaming on Netflix this week, adds dryly of her decision to team up with the controversial sitcom star. What some people may not realize is that she actually walked away before ABC fired Barr and rebranded the show as The Conners without her.
“Working on Roseanne was a surreal, incredible experience,” Cummings wrote in a since-deleted tweet in May 2018. “Due to work commitments and my tour schedule, I’m gonna have to watch the Conners from the sidelines next season. It was an honor to work with such an incredibly talented group of actors, writers and crew.” Referring to the TMZ founder, she added, “Harvey Levin, you can stop calling my cell phone now.”
The real reason Cummings left the show had everything to do with Barr’s racist tweets.
“I wanted her to get off Twitter,” she tells me, frankly. “I felt like it was going to come to a head. It was like whack-a-mole.”
Acknowledging that “maybe people won’t believe me,” Cummings says she was unaware of Barr’s long history of offensive tweets when she accepted the job. She realized it was going to be a problem before Barr posted the racist tweet about former Obama administration official Valerie Jarrett that finally prompted ABC to cut ties with her. “Roseanne's Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show,” ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey said in a statement at the time.
As the story continued to spiral out of control from there, Cummings tried to stay as far away from it as possible. When a TMZ reporter ambushed her in an airport to ask her if she wanted to see Barr’s character killed off—a plot twist that did end up happening that fall to explain her absence—she admits she didn’t come off looking great. “I don’t even want to think about it,” Cummings said at the time, visibly annoyed. “Killing her would mean I’d have to think about her and I don’t even want to do that right now. I’m too pissed off.”
“That was a nightmare,” she says now. “I was pissed. We all worked really hard on that show and it’s just a shame. You put your heart and soul into something for 12 months and it’s just for nothing.”
“I grew up watching Roseanne, I loved it,” Cummings adds. “I grew up poor and that was the first show that looked like my house. It was the first show that didn’t make me feel bad about myself.” She’s talked in the past about how Kat Dennings’ character on 2 Broke Girls—the hit show she created for CBS in 2011—is what she imagined Roseanne Conner might have been like in her twenties.
After Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Cummings wanted to do something to channel her frustration creatively. The chance to add her voice to a show that might be seen by those who—like Roseanne Barr—supported Trump, was too good to pass up.
“There’s this huge disconnect between Hollywood writers and America,” she says. “And there’s this idea among some Hollywood writers that America’s stupid.” She thinks Hillary Clinton’s comment calling half of Trump supporters “deplorables” played into that notion. “What I loved about Roseanne, it was always, just because we’re poor doesn’t mean that we’re stupid. And I have family members that are poor who live in red states and I think a lot of people weren’t feeling seen or heard.”
“I’m not saying that’s why people voted the way they did, but they did and they weren’t being represented on television,” Cummings continues. “The opportunity to get content with a message into red states was very appealing to all of us. Because a lot of stuff that we make, only our echo chamber sees. We’re so delusional about who watches what we make and a lot of times we’re in our echo chamber and we sort of forget that there’s a ton of people who are not watching and we’re preaching to the choir.”
The writers room she and original Roseanne showrunner Bruce Helford assembled together included comedy legends like Norm Macdonald and Wanda Sykes. “There’s this idea that it was a bunch of right-wing racists writing the show,” Cummings says. “It was really not like that at all.”
Before the show premiered in 2018, Cummings said in an interview that she sometimes felt like she had to be the “PC police” in the writers room. “Ugh, that makes me hate myself,” she tells me a year later. “It was more that we just really had to be careful in terms of depicting how this family and these characters would actually talk and actually behave. And if we were going to be offensive, it was for the right reasons and on purpose.” She cites as one example a “big argument” they had over whether John Goodman’s character Dan should use the term “undocumented workers” or “illegals.”
“In the privacy of his kitchen, with his wife, sixtysomething years old, he probably would not say ‘undocumented workers,’” she explains. “But ‘illegals’ is not the PC term. It’s a tough one. And people got angry on the crew.” Cummings ended up having to defend the reality of the scene against the objections of those who found the term offensive. She says it was up to them to “get it right so we know how the characters get it wrong.”
As a “very big fan” of Roseanne Barr growing up and into adulthood, Cummings describes the comedian’s ultimate downfall as “heartbreaking,” “surreal” and “so traumatizing” that she’s nearly blocked the entire episode out of her memory.
“I just thought we were all signing up to hold a mirror up to what was going on and hopefully do something funny, healing and nostalgic,” she says. “I think it had the potential to be really healing and start interesting conversations.”
Cummings points to a conference call former first lady Michelle Obama had with TV showrunners before leaving the White House in which she talked about how a show like Will & Grace actively changed perception about same-sex marriage across the country. “So that made me think, this maybe can be a powerful thing, especially a show that so many people are going to watch,” she says. “Maybe this can bring us together, which sounds so naive now that I’m saying it.”
Asked if she thinks ABC made the right decision when it effectively canceled Roseanne, Cummings says, “Yeah, I think it was. It’s just a shame. I’m still too shocked and confused to even know what to even think. It’s just wildly unfortunate.”
At the same time, Cummings says that “maybe what needed to happen in the grand scheme of things is the head of that network made a very public statement about what will not be tolerated.”
“And maybe that’s the message that needed to be transmitted to everyone,” she says. “Because that story was massive. It was all anyone was talking about. Maybe that’s what needed to happen.”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Comedian and co-star of Fleabag and Stranger Things, Brett Gelman.