Now Toronto: Roseanne Barr’s Oakville show was preposterously funny

Map out Roseanne Barr’s recent low-key Ontario tour, and you’d swear you were witnessing the work of some canny military tactician: Kingston, Guelph, St. Catharines, Brampton and, on Wednesday evening, Oakville. It was like the Red Army ensnaring Berlin from all sides, before pulling the noose tight on Hitler’s armies. Toronto, the capital, was absent from the touring itinerary of the comedian, actress, online shit-disturber and “original domestic goddess.” Yet it seemed, conspicuously, like the absent centre around which the whole campaign was organized.

Why? Was there not a time, not so long ago, when she’d easily pack a Sony Centre or Roy Thomson Hall? Maybe she tapped out her downtown audience with her 2016 Just For Laughs headlining spot? Or is the issue more that, given her recent pro-Trump turn and wandering into the weeds of alt-right conspiracy theory, she’d feel unwelcome in Canada’s liberal metropolis?

Maybe Roseanne – a very wealthy person who nonetheless trades on her hoary working class bona fides – merely feels more comfortable in suburbs and upper-crust bedroom communities surrounding the Big City, where the resentment towards the urban elites is pure and unshaded by realer concerns of class and social mobility. (A guy in front of me watched some of the performance through those miniature binoculars you see rich villains in movies using at the opera.)

Whatever the case, it’s not like Roseanne is some kind of baiting, falsely blue collar, Larry the Cable Guy-styled hack playing to the whitest, worst instincts of Ford Nation types. Far from it. Roseanne’s act was wide-ranging, exhilarating, occasionally exasperating, intermittently shocking (in both good and bad ways) and, most encouragingly for one of the greatest stand-up comics of all time, just preposterously funny.

“I like to drink a lot,” Roseanne confessed, in one of many nods to her borderline-dysfunctional alcoholism. “Especially when I’m fuckin’ tourin’ in Canada and it’s fuckin’ freezin’ as fuck.”

Still as a bawdy and foul-mouthed as she was when she emerged in the mid-1980s, there’s no topic Roseanne won’t touch, no “G” she won’t drop. She talked about booze, about smoking pot, about her weight (“I’m an anorexic dyslexic: I puke whenever I even think about not overeating”), and a great deal about how the times have changed (“When I was a kid, if you got molested it was was your own fault”).

It was joke after joke after joke, stitched together by some absentminded rambling (difficult to know if it was schtick, or genuine), limp puns and turns of phrase so clumsy they must have been rehearsed (when discussing the Kardashians she said, verbatim: “It’s hard to be assless in an ass economy; I’ve always wanted a ass butt like that”).

For just over an hour, the laughter was unending: titters of recognition, shocks registering disbelieving offence (as when she said “There are times when honour killings are justified”), and deep, rumbling belly laughs that seem to precede any thought or feeling. If you live, as I do, online, and absorb the sentiment of Twitter and the New York Times, you’d be forgiven for thinking that despite the top-rated revival of her namesake sitcom, and the convincing rally around her own celebrity, Roseanne is some kind of cultural persona non grata.

Not in Oakville. Here she’s received as if she’s still operating at mid-1990s peak fame, as if she’s still a voice of all put-upon moms fed up to the curlers with their husband and kids’ collective crap, as if she’s still the model of the modern “domestic goddess.”

“Let’s get this started before the pills and booze wear off,” Roseanne began, to gales of laughter from the mostly white, predominantly female audience. “Just kidding. Mine are already wearing off.”

This is the sort of stuff that reveals Roseanne’s appeal to a still-attentive audience of middle-aged moms. She’ll talk about white wine and Xanax and erectile dysfunction and vaginal mesh surgery like an X-rated Carla Collins, saying the things that per the cliché of comedy, “we’re all thinking.” She cuts through the proverbial peeeee-ceeeee bullshit and expresses the innermost feelings of her audience on their behalf. (This function is echoed on ABC’s current run of Roseanne episodes, in which an oldfangled laugh track still laughs for the viewer.) She speaks plainly, without caring what other people think, especially as she crests over the hill of middle-age. As she put it, “No more Mrs. Nice Guy.”

Writing in the New Yorker in 1996, when she was certified an American cultural phenomenon, James Wolcott noted that “The resistance to Roseanne is often a sort of rhetorical class warfare carried on under the guise of Good Taste.” Roseanne’s ascendancy through the ranks of class and American society has changed this. What she now offers (on her sitcom, in her stand-up) is the opportunity for the middle, upper-middle and straight-up upper classes to indulge Bad Taste, to bask in bad words and thoughts deemed unthinkable.

Roseanne, circa 2018, is less an embodiment of class conflict than of its feigned resolution, when notions of wealth and power need not be synonymous with notions of propriety and good taste. Is it any wonder she stumps for Trump, whose vulgarity is configured along a similar axis?

As far as Roseanne’s function as a front-liner in the current culture wars, well, I am unconvinced. First off: it strikes me that the issue we take with celebrities (Roseanne, Kanye, whomever) having the “wrong” opinions is itself a function of the desperate and corrupting cult of celebrity itself, which (wrongly) dictates that it somehow matters what know-nothing millionaire entertainers think or say.

But beyond this, Roseanne’s comedy is deeply compassionate, as it has always been. True, she has no use for the verbiage that defines liberalism (let alone progressivism), to the point of addressing the few gay people in the audience as “the gays.” Ditto the lesbians, the Catholics, the fat people, the Jews, the Muslim guy. While it may grate, nails-on-a-chalkboard-style, to ears that have been more finely tuned to the tones of cultural sensitivity, I nonetheless believe that it proceeds from a basic sense of decency and understanding. For Roseanne, laughing at others is an inverted form of dignity, an offer of mutual recognition from a comedian more than willing to laugh at herself.

It is (too) easy to try and bracket Roseanne’s uglier political opinions by attributing them to her severe and long-running struggles with mental illness, which she treats with the same candour she affords any other subject. Yet even if we grant that everything she says is honest, and genuine, and unclouded by fogs generated by chemical imbalance and the pharmaceuticals prescribed to balance them, I wonder, should it matter?

I don’t think it makes much sense to view Roseanne – or anyone – as the assemblage of their worst, or merely most disagreeable, instincts and opinions, especially when the gift of her comedy offers something so much more profound. A culminating routine about hand-writing individual suicide notes to members of her family (and McDonald’s) assigning them blame for her death rang out with a kind of pathos I had genuinely never felt before, as I sobbed tears of sadness and joy that entwined like some weird comic double-helix.

But the most resoundingly human moments in Roseanne’s act were between the jokes, when she sort of felt around to describe her views on the world. Sometimes she was perfectly clear: “Is everything just a plot to drive me out of my effin’ mind?!” At other times, however, she groped about blindly, searching for a word, or an emotion. Talking about Caitlyn Jenner (whom she referred to using the proper pronouns, rest assured), Roseanne took a moment to ponder how Jenner’s gender transition might have affected her wife, Kris.

“That would be scary,” Roseanne said. “Or depressing? I don’t know. It would affect you… somehow…” There was no nasty punchline or cheap joke about transsexualism. She just sort of trailed off. It was as if Roseanne, whose appeal is so rooted in her brassy confidence, genuinely didn’t know what to say.

This is, perhaps, Roseanne’s greatest contribution in our era of seemingly unresolvable political and cultural division: she is willing to show that she doesn’t quite know how she feels, or what to think. And if there’s anything like hope or optimism to be found these days, it’s hiding in these quiet moments of hesitation, when arrogance, self-righteousness and utterly unshakeable certitude fall away, and we’re joined at the dot-dot-dot suspension point of our shared uncertainty.

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