I have no sympathy for Roseanne. She broke one of today’s few hard-and-fast rules. While many celebrities engage in off-and-on dog whistling, legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes that naked appeals to undisguised bigotry are the one thing completely off the table. If a racist appeal contains even the slightest ambiguity, we’re willing to accept it, and plug our ears to more nuanced debates. But Roseanne couldn’t follow even that minimal standard.
Yet her firing brings something to light that I cannot lightly disregard. Today’s massive Hollywood shakeout boils down to a cultural reconsideration of what we consider acceptable behavior in a public figure. Roseanne’s coarse behavior, which granted her TV’s top Nielson ratings in 1989, gave her the nostalgia tip to a second Number-One position in 2018. But ultimately, despite getting a diverse panoply of producers and writers, they couldn’t separate the show from the star.
Comedians are, too often, not pleasant people. The stories surrounding implosions by comedians like Gilbert Gottfried, Dane Cook, Michael Richards, and others, have achieved a sort of folktale luster. Lenny Bruce helped transform our post-WWII attitudes about acceptable language, but he also descended into drug-addled psychosis, and his final shows were little more than screams of vulgarity. George Carlin nearly did the same, but returned from the brink.
Listening to Wait Wait Don't Tell Me on NPR one Saturday, I puzzled over the panelists’ ability to spontaneously come up with funny lines about news stories they were hearing for the first time. Their skill at inventing something funny seemed unreal. I occasionally riff a good line, but when I do, likely as not, by the time it comes to me the conversation has already moved on. How to they not only invent lines, but sell them in time?
Easy, I realized. They do this all the time. They wrap their brains around the process of saying something funny, to the point where they realign their thinking. A carpenter doesn’t need to contemplate how to frame a house, or a stock trader doesn’t need to weigh multiple reports, they just know their jobs. In the same way, a comedian just knows how to say something funny. That’s what comedians practice every day. That’s what they train their brains to do.
And if, as Olga Khazan says, humor has a necessarily transgressive component, comedians train themselves to transgress. They adapt their brains to see the world unlike other people, even if that means offending the masses. To the comedian, only seeing something nobody has seen before, and translating it into words, really matters. Comedians, in short, reprogram their brains to violate consensus social standards… and get paid for it.
The sitcom writers’ room brings some of that transgressive thinking under control. Having six or eight peers to workshop ideas and kill ones that don’t land or that cross some invisible line, ensures the most completely offensive material dies privately. (At least hypothetically.) Individual stand-up comedians do something similar by road-testing their material. But social media rewards instant thoughts, meaning nothing separates the trained transgressor from the moment.
In short, comedians are awful human beings; they train and study awfulness for years to achieve the heights of their business. But the performance environment places a filter on that awfulness. Without somebody to workshop their ideas, the words dribbling from their mouths can appear feral, or worse. And that’s what happened to Roseanne. No wonder other awful people, from comedians to the President, have ghostwriters do their tweets.