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The 99%: What’s Funny About Being Poor? Roseanne and Working-Class Humor

the cast of Roseanne sitting on a couchCan being broke be funny, after all? 

Monday's post on 2 Broke Girls generated a lot of comments—from fans of the show who felt I was being too harsh, and from others who felt I was too forgiving of the show's many flaws.  One commenter said, "You can't expect a comedy to be so heavy and grounded in real life struggles."

Well, yes. I can.

One of my favorite Friends episodes deals directly with socioeconomic difference within the friend group.  Yes, the friend group was all white people from middle to upper-middle class backgrounds who live in preposterously large apartments in Manhattan.  But back on season two, there was an episode that specifically explored the clash between the friends who had more disposable income—Monica, Ross, and Chandler—and the three who didn't—Rachel, Phoebe, and Joey.  The friends with less money comically order side salads when they go out to dinner at a fancy restaurant, protesting the suggestion to split the bill evenly.  Later, the three who can afford more buy concert tickets for all six of them to celebrate Ross's birthday, and the others are made to feel like charity cases.  A lot of the humor is derived from the awkwardness of having to talk about money.  The line, "OK…. we can… talk about that" is delivered with the hesitancy of friends that know they're venturing into a sensitive discussion, but are willing to address the issue openly.  The zinger, of course, is that Monica loses her job at the end of the episode, showing how tenuous financial stability can be.

While Friends may have made a brief acknowledgement of difference within the group, economic disadvantage was certainly never a recurring theme in the show.  I use it only as example to show that entertainment that, superficially, has nothing to do with class doesn't need to ignore these issues.  Roseanne, though, was about finding the humor in the hardship.  And there was no one better at it.

Roseanne never shied away from real issues families face: social class, of course, but also gay family members, working conditions and job insecurity, birth control and unplanned pregnancy, divorce, domestic violence, mental illness, abortion, and alcoholism.  In fact, not only did it not shy away from these issues, but it embraced them as critical to the show's comedy and the "working-class domestic goddess" persona of the title character.

Where's the humor in unemployment, or in getting the electricity shut off?  In just one of many episodes that deal with real-life economic woes, The Dark Ages, the temporarily unemployed Roseanne comes home and her son asks what's for dinner: "Well, DJ, even though Mommy was out all day looking for a job, she still had time to plan tonight's menu. Go through these pizza ads and order whatever's two for one."  When filtering through the pizza menus, she finds a notice from the electric company that their service will be cut off that evening:  "I can't believe they're cutting us off after the very first final notice!"  As the lights go out, she sighs sarcastically: "Well, middle class was fun."

The episode continues with her children making fun of their parents' attempts at storytelling and shadow puppets.  They don't seem too put out, though; Darlene wryly notes that she's gotten out of having to vacuum the house.  When Darlene's boyfriend asked when they'll have light again, Roseanne answers, "Oh, just as soon as the earth spins back around towards the sun."

The next morning, Jackie, Roseanne's sister stops by, busily chattering and obliviously putting toast in the toaster and ingredients in the blender until realizing, of course, that nothing will work. "We don't have any lights," says Roseanne, "but now we know the speed of stupid."

Horrified that the lights aren't on, Jackie asks, "Did you tell them you have children?"  Well, yes, says the somewhat despondent Roseanne: "They don't want 'em."

All of this sarcastic banter also serves as a set up for a serious conversation with Darlene after her boyfriend accidentally spends the night.  Roseanne talks to her about birth control, and Darlene angrily responds, "Do you think I'd have sex with you twenty feet away?" Roseanne says, "You could do it all quiet without us knowing about it." Darlene's response: "Oh really? You can't!"

Later, when Darlene asks her father for money to get out of the house to see a movie, he laughs and answers: "Sorry! All I have is hundreds!"

All of this is pretty heavy stuff: Unemployment. No electricity. Talking about birth control with your daughter. Not having enough money to give your kid to go see a movie.  And on Roseanne, it was hilarious.  Television can be both entertaining and real.  We can talk about class, even real economic setbacks, and still be amused.  At the end of the day, that relatable, realistic humor might even be better for us.

In a piece for New York magazine that was published last spring, Roseanne Barr chronicles the ongoing battle with classist, sexist television producers and writers that she had to go through to get her show on the air the way she wanted it.  How many actors have this fight in them?  I don't know, but it's critical to acknowledge the systemic issues that stifle this type of representation of working-class families.   Roseanne writes: "Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing. And that's why you won't be seeing another Roseanne anytime soon. Instead, all over the tube, you will find enterprising, overmedicated, painted-up, capitalist whores claiming to be housewives. But I'm not bitter."

I think, perhaps, we should all be bitter about this particular pill that Hollywood is handing us to swallow, and we should be extremely suspect of dismissive lines like "comedy can't be grounded in struggle." If we're not seeing well-written characters and families that actually represent American lives that's not the reason—Roseanne (which is available to watch instantly on Netflix!) puts the lie to that particular statement.

I must admit, I wasn't a regular Roseanne viewer when it was on the air. What are your favorite Roseanne moments, or favorite moments from other comedies that find the humor in working-class life?

Previously: "Talk like a Cover Girl" and the Classing of Voice on America's Next Top Model, Fixing the 2 Broke Girls

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Comments

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Roseanne is amazing. A show

Roseanne is amazing. A show like 2 Broke Girls is paler than the palest shade of pale in its shadow.

Cheers to Roseanne!

I've only recently started catching up with "Roseanne" (grew up without access to it, thanks Netflix!), but am loving it. "Two Broke Girls" is a joke compared to "Roseanne." I long for TV to explore class-based issues more openly as Roseanne did, but I don't see that occurring any time soon as TV (especially network) is sticking to tired formulas (CBS's entire catalog?) and escapism ("Terra Nova"?). During such hard times for average Americans, i find it funny that no network is attempting a "Roseanne"-style show. Is it possible that "Roseanne" is an anomaly of TV never to be repeated? I hope not.

It was a great show, and that

It was a great show, and that it was able to address all issues in a real world way was fantastic. However, in the uber-politically correct society we now have - the series can't rise again. =(

Politically correct?

I would argue that Roseanne was the most politically correct, especially in the way it addressed how people wanted to identify themselves - the gay and lesbian characters, and even the Thanksgiving episode where Native American issues are addressed.

Political correctness is about allowing people to identify themselves, instead of having other people make that decision for them. So in a truly politically correct society, we would see more shows like Roseanne, not less.

Grounded in struggle...

This is a great post! Firstly, of course real comedy is grounded in struggle. All good comedy from the old world was grounded in it. Secondly, I had to laugh and applaud after reading Roseanne's depiction of today's housewife shows. Nobody could have said it better. Sadly though, this phenomenon is just another stroke in the process of upscaling of television, designed to create more envy and more want in regular TV viewers.

Excellent post -- very well-made points

And I'm glad to see Roseanne getting credit for the pioneer she was in this area: talking about "real" issues in a sitcom.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a dear friend a few years ago, about classic TV shows and their representations of class/wealth. We were talking about The Cosby show -- which my friend said represented a "middle-class" family.

I said, "Middle class? The Huxtables were rich -- loaded! Cliff was a doctor; Claire was a lawyer ... and I think a partner at her firm, even."

He said, "But their house was smaller than my house."

I said, "That's because *you* were rich, too. 'Middle class' is more like the family on Roseanne."

He said, "Noooo! They were poor."

I said, "But their house was bigger than my house!"

Anyway, I guess it's about perceptions. As a kid, I never thought about Roseanne as being poor ... but then again, we had power-bill and job-finding troubles in my home, too.

more shows

I thought that Malcolm in the Middle did a great job dealing with class issues. Malcolm, the protagonist, is a teenager who is very concerned with his social image. In one episode (if I remember correctly) there's a fire or something in their home and a classmate organizes a clothes and food drive for Malcolm's family -- to his abject mortification.

I always feel like I missed

I always feel like I missed the bus when it comes to Roseanne, mostly because the show never did anything for me as a Black viewer. I mean, that it wasn't a cartoon didn't help either but when I did get around to watching it in re-runs, I found myself pretty disinterested. My family's situation was much closer to that of Roseanne's than that of the Huxtables (I guess Roseanne was one of a series of shows starring mostly a white cast that eventually led to the end of The Cosby Show or something? I could be wrong) but with The Cosby Show, I was getting people that looked like me and promoted African-American culture.

Then this eventually goes into a whole other mess concerning this whole idea of "the 99%" being this one big label that ignores how race plays into class but that's another argument.

Missing the bus

I'm bummed for you, Anon. Because both The Cosby Show and Roseanne were cool, and both had a lot of very valuable, valid things to say. It could completely be my mostly-white privilege, but I watched both and saw my life represented, to some degree, in both.

I don't think Roseanne led to the end of The Cosby Show and in fact both were made by the same production company, Carsey Werner. The bigger element of change was probably the sarcastic tone that Roseanne had, but that was pioneered by Married With Children which was a show specifically described as the anti Cosby. I never understood that change in tone, or the mini "backlash" against Cosby's show to be even remotely related to race; I just think it was a statement that not all families were that closely knit, or normal.

In an awesome world we'd get representations of people all over the map - and it was cool to have both the blue collar Conners defy our normal POV of what a white family was on TV, as well as the Huxtables giving us a new possibility for what black families could be (which up to that point had been a very limited representation). But I agree 1000% with Roseanne - we're seeing very little representation these days of anything resembling the real world. Scripted TV is largely in fantasy luxury land and reality TV is so exaggerated and untrue that to even begin to unravel those representations is a headache.

I watch Roseanne as often as I watch Maude and for the same reasons - it's still funny, it's still true, and many of the same issues still exist almost word for word as they did 20 years ago for Roseanne and 40 years ago for Maude.

I have to agree. As a black

I have to agree. As a black viewer, Roseanne never really interested me but the reruns I've watch were enjoyable. I like the interaction between the characters and it was believable and funny.

The OWS movement is one of the biggest promotions white liberalism too me. Despite their over all message being good and true, a few years ago, there was no 99%. There was white poor and black poor. The racial segregated poverty was and still is unacknowledged and the white privilege over looked. Where were protesters when banks were foreclosing on a majority of black houses? Where were they when black men and women were exprinceing police aggression for only their skin color in the 2000's? Where were they when black people had to struggle to get a job over minimum wage? Now that these problems have transcended race, it's a big deal. Now mostly white protesters need to flock the streets to say their piece and need PoC( who should want to anyway) to stand by them. Where was this attitude when these problems were racially unbalanced?

Anyway, a good example of black poverty is Everybody hates Chris. I'm not a big fan of the show but I love Chris Rock and it's pretty good. It deals with the real problems faced by a black family trying to grow their kids up right in a surrounding that wants to chain them in ghetto.It deals with real conflicts like turning to drug dealing, going to an all white school for a better education, parents working multiply jobs, the risk of jail, and discrimination from the mouth of someone who has experienced it.

I definitely agree, and I'm

I definitely agree, and I'm white. When I see a majority of the OWS protesters, I see privileged white kids who are unhappy with the way things turned out for them. They complain because they were told by their parents to go to college and that was the only way they would get a good job. When the mortgage crisis happened, and when the recession really started taking effect, these college grads could not find jobs. They say that they felt pressured into going to college, went into loads of debt paying for expensive colleges, majored in something without a specific job market and demand, and then complain when they can't find a job. They want someone to blame because they were not handed a job upon graduation.

I graduated in May 2008 with a degree in English, planning to get my credential and teach. When that didn't happen, I made other plans. I was also without a job for 8 months in a town with a horrible job market. Am I complaining that I now work in a retail environment? No, I am happy that I have a job that pays decently with potential for promotion. I am also grateful that I have a degree.

Now, granted, there are absolutely people with a reason to be upset with the banking system and the way they handled the subprime mortgage situation, etc. The way that union workers are treated, people who are losing their jobs because the banks who own their mortgage engaged in shady business practices. People who were essentially conned into buying a home with a mortgage they could not afford. those people have every right to be upset, and I support them 100%. Those who were also laid off due to bad business practices. Companies who had to fire people because of mismanagement, etc.

Continuing off on your point, they didn't care about the racial disparity because it didn't affect them. They were comfortable in their middle-class surroundings, not having to worry about those issues. that's also why this whole OWS movement bothers me.

Many kinds of poor people, but one kind of rich people

Rosanne depicts the small town, poor and white experience. There are really three levels on which the show's viewers might not identify with it.

This conversation about how Rosanne doesn't necessarily appeal to black viewers is an interesting one in light of the seeming absence of shows that make comedy out of poverty. The Cosby Show is an interesting thing to bring up also, because it appealed to a really broad audience. Though in terms of presenting an economic reality, it's more on par with unbelievably large apartment world of Friends. I mean, there really is no stay-at-home-dad-who-is-also-a-successful-OBGyN-and-his-successful-lawyer-wife-who-live-in-an-amazing-brown-stone-despite-having-5-kids demographic to appeal to. It would seem then that struggling with poverty is not a universal American experience, though wanting to be wealthy is. Are people more inclined to see difference when a show is about poverty, and more likely to see similarity when a show is about affluence? This is pretty true for white people and the vast majority of shows about black life that they don't really get (which as others are saying often include instances in which the characters deal with racial discrimination as well as economic hardship - a combo pack white people don't love to acknowledge when discussing issues of class). It makes sense for TV producers to be drawn to shows that have universal appeal, though. So it seems like we're kind of stuck.

Becky Runs Away

My all-time favorite episode of Roseanne was the one where Becky runs away and elopes with her boyfriend Mark. I love how those episodes (I think its a two-parter "Terms of Estrangement" ), deal with gender, and really take a critical look at tradition and father/daughter relationships.
Also love every Thanksgiving Roseanne episode!

"Wel-come To the Tunnel of Ter-ror... Ahh Ha Haa!"

I loved, loved, *loved* Roseanne, especially the Halloween episodes. It was so much fun to watch a family joined together by creativity and a twisted sense of humor. It's like that holiday was the extravagance they waited for all year, as opposed to the syrupy, god-bless-us-every-one Christmas episodes.

Here's a link to their first one: http://youtu.be/2PNsjb0D-Bw. So good!

Love Roseanne

Roseanne is my favorite show of all time because growing up (and now) it is the only show that has ever related to. Growing up poor, white, blue-collar, and working class. The best episode is when Roseanne quits her job at the factory because of how the supervisor is treating them. Also, remember that it was one of the first girl-on-girl kisses ever aired on television. I could spend an entire day watching reruns, except the final season which sucked (they win the lottery and become rich).

Spoiler alert for final ep!

I have been watching Roseanne but had to give up on the terrible final season, so I just skipped to the final episode. Roseanne addresses the audience as a different fictional Roseanne who like "the real Roseanne" is the writer of the TV series Roseanne and says that she wrote the storyline about winning the lottery because Dan actually died of his heart attack and she wanted to rewrite reality so everything was okay. It seemed like an apology for how awful it was and it might have worked had the lottery storyline just run for a few episodes but it was over 20! Other than that I am in awe of how far ahead of its time Roseanne was and everything it deals with including violence against women and children. Even the fact that two middle aged, overweight people are totally into each other and this isn't played for laughs is amazing.

I like this, because my

I like this, because my husband and I have the same sense of humor, and while we're doing OK, we could be doing better, but that's OK. I laughed a few times when you were describing the Roseanne episode.

I think there can absolutely be humor found in trying to pay the bills, just like humor can be found anywhere. I had cancer four and a half years ago, and I was joking with the nurses in the recovery room, and it took away my thoughts for awhile. I think that shows with finding humor in being poor and working class are an escape and not in the Kardashian/Real Housewives way (which honestly, I hate, because you finish watching and you remember that you will never have that lifestyle, but after watching Roseanne, you look around your house and you relate).

Suggested Shows

Everybody Hates Chris and The George Lopez Show

Nostalgia?

I love Roseanne and I like 2 broke girls. I do think there is some danger in discussing series from the past. Well, no danger, but I mean looking at them with glasses of nostalgia. decades later, some great things always seem greater, while had Roseanne been discussed by a similar website back then (well you know what I mean), I'm sure there would have been more critique.

That's ok though, but I do remember some Roseanne story lines or episodes I thought were ridiculous or just not funny. Just from the top of my head, there was one about Roseanne's PMS, totally over the top and I didn't find it funny and it made a mockery of women. Also, there was one in which she and Jacky break in to their competitors lunch room and hide rotten fish in some places in their kitchen. About as equally unbelievable as the episode on 2 broke girls about cleaning up the hoarders apartment, for example.

Roseanne ran for many years, so it's easy to overlook a few storylines that might have been annoying or just not so hilarious at the time. However, in retrospect with the glasses of nostalgia on, you overlook them and see that overall it was a super show. And I do love the show! 2 broke girls just started. Perhaps it will be looked back on with similar glasses 10 years from now. Right now I'm looking at 2 broke girls with the glass is half full glasses: Like other people commented, at least it's a show in which there are some women with desires other then being some one's girlfriend

I absolutely love Roseanne...

I absolutely love Roseanne... I remember growing up thinking that there were only two shows that reflected my upbringing; Roseanne and Grace Under Fire. Grace Under Fire was similar to Roseanne, not as long-lasting, sometimes not quite as funny, but it was like the single mother version of the show... so, Roseanne wasn't once in a lifetime and can be repeated, however I would say that Grace only made it on the air because Roseanne was there at the same time and was extremely popular.

Roseanne is absolutely

Roseanne is absolutely fantastic. NOBODY could discuss so many of the issues this show discussed with such rich humor and seriousness all boiled together. It's disappointing through that today, that is still so uncommon even with shows like "Modern Family" or "2 Broke Girls" that aim to be comedies about real people but rarely are.

Another thing I loved about Roseanne was that it was so relatable to so many women who did not live up to the "perfect housewife" standards but did not want to be compared to Mrs. Bundy. For example, my mom - who was a stay at home mom for most of my life - loves this show and watched it often as I was growing up (it's even on in the background of one of our old home movies). One episode in particular that really affected me was when DJ was involved with a Thanksgiving pageant at his school, and Roseanne has a discussion with some other parents about how the children aren't being taught the REAL history of America's founding but rather the white version. Some parents disagree with her, some are happy for the opportunity to discuss race, and some are too stubborn to even listen. It ends up being a really great discussion and example of the way blue-collar, middle class towns relate in terms of race. Anyway, one line in particular really stuck out to me. Someone mentions that they were all taught the same version of history in school - where the pilgrims and the Indians got along in perfect harmony and Roseanne said "Luckily I spent all my time in the smoking section." My mom laughed and said "Me too Roseanne!"

I loved that because with that line and with many other episodes Roseanne talks about how she was a regular girl growing up and did not live up to the perfect societal expectations of her time, but she is never ashamed of how she is. She still doesn't live up to societal expectations as a mother and in the final episode she says that, being a mother "most of the time, [she] failed." But as a viewer you do not look down on her or roll her eyes at her when she "fails." Instead you say "me too Roseanne!" and you feel proud.

I never got into "Friends,"

I never got into "Friends," and one of the reasons was because I couldn't suspend my disbelief that these kids lived in an unfathomably large apartment in Manhattan. All my friends in New York lived with three or four other people in Brooklyn shoeboxes, and I myself had grown up in a Rust Belt city before moving to a modest apartment in Chicago. I just couldn't relate.

Roseanne, however, I could relate to on a closer level because that could have been any number of families in the neighborhood where I grew up (even though their house was WAY bigger than any of our houses). I loved the show, and agree that it really did tell a slice of the Real American Story...but I also think that while it might have been one of the most pivotal shows based on that premise in that decade, there were others worthy of mention as well. Does anyone remember the show Grace Under Fire? I didn't watch it that often, but I remember it being a pretty accurate representation of a working-class single mom. Malcolm in the Middle is another good example. The parents had average-joe jobs (and hated them) and the kids were real, misbehaved, misunderstood kids.

Going back to previous decades, what about shows like All in the Family? Their house was modest, if not downright shabby. I could practically smell it through the TV - I imagined it smelled much like my grandmother's house - a sort of homey bouquet of tobacco and cooking odors (just as an aside, too, The Jeffersons was spun off that, and it's not hard to see the Cosby/Married with Children dichotomy influence it might have created). Remember the Christmas episode when Archie lost his job? A lot of people like to dismiss it because of the racist overtones, but honestly - Lear addressed contemporary issues that were relevant to everyone and that shows preceding it wouldn't touch. How about Alice? Good Times? What's Happenin? Sanford and Son? There were lots of shows in the 70's and 80's that dealt with being poor or middle class.

I'm not trying to minimize Roseanne's contribution to popular culture, but there were others before it, and I'd be interested to see where she drew her influence in bolstering her case to the network executives.

relatability?

I think it's funny how some measure the relevance or worth of a series by whether they can relate to it or not. Like I said in a comment on the '2 broke girls' piece, one of the funniest shows at the moment to me is one that has absurd plot lines (30 Rock) with unbelievable twists and themes.

Also, I'm not American, I'm from Europe and the house that Roseanne and her family live in was HUGE to me, as many American houses are No way we would've had three bathrooms in our house). It never occurred to me when growing up and watching this series on Dutch tv that this was a 'working class' home. I also thought that Roseanne was hilarious and still is. But not necessarily because I relate to it (I have a working class background), just because the jokes are so damn funny. I respect how Roseanne was not afraid to discuss some difficult topics, but in the end, if Roseanne herself had not been a great comedienne, the show wouldn't have been good. I mean, the setting of having your electricity cut, yes, that might be typical for a financially struggling family, but a joke about having called the electricity company, saying you have kids but the company not wanting them could have also been funny in a different setting. To me, that's just a mother with a great sense of humor. Not necessarily a working class mother with a great sense of humor.

Being a tomboy,my favorite

Being a tomboy,my favorite episode was when Darlene got her period and was freaked out because she thought it meant she'd have to start acting like Becky. My own mother actually had that very real expectation of me,but because I'd seen that show I knew I didn't have to. A close second is the episode when Roseanne leads a walk out at work.

What Comedy Central's Roast Missed

I grew up watching Roseanne, but until this past year and more, I have never felt so saved by the show and laughed so much. It's an extremely intelligent show about everyday people and lives. Some shows when you watch them again as adults, take on an entirely new meaning and thank goodness this one does.
Many people have dismissed the show as being crass, low brow, too blue, etc.
Well, I don't think so. It's not so.
ROSEANNE was the most special blend of humor, dark humor really, socio-political issues - sexuality, gender inequalities, politics, crazy families, you name it.
To this day, there isn't a show that is as warm, genuine, sincere, funny, witty, and mind-opening as ROSEANNE.
The show, and Roseanne, gave us so much. She stripped the taboos, the "this is so awkward" crap. She made you know that everyday and future struggles are normal, that life is up and down and side to side.
What people don't really know is that Roseanne Barr sacrificed lots, albeit got paid lots (she worked for it!), however, from where she came from, and who she became and is still becoming, as we all change with life, she just wanted to shed a huge beacon on topics society tells us to shy away from, as well as self-loathing. She normalized being "normal".
Life is tough, life is nuts, life is terrible, but also, with her wit and yes, her charm, life is also bearable, like-able, and you do make a difference.
She is a pioneer of femininity - MEANING, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED WOMAN - DRESS OR PANTS, WHO CARES! JUST STAND UP AND SPEAK UP FOR ALL WOMANKIND!
I wonder if she knows how much people are thankful for her, her bravery, her steel core, her femininity, her mind.
Thank you, Roseanne Barr, for believing in yourself and enabling others to do the same.