The TV Show ‘Roseanne’ Was Based On My Family. The Off-Screen Reality Was Very Different.

"They were lightweight, PG versions of us with no complicated backstories. Must be nice."
Photo of the author at 12 years old
Photo of the author at 12 years old
Photo Courtesy of Jenny Pentland

My life is a sitcom. I mean, I know everyone’s life is, but mine is literally. The TV show “Roseanne” was based on my family. All nine years of the original show were content-mined from actual events in the lives of the five of us. My dad, Bill, was the inspiration for Dan. My mom played Roseanne Conner, a prime-time-friendly version of herself.

Becky and Darlene were amalgams of my sister, Jessica, and myself. D.J. was based on my little brother, Jake. Jackie was based on my mom’s sister Geraldine.

The set was decorated much like our childhood home, minus the thick thatch of ‘70s carpet that would have stopped the camera dollies in their tracks. The overall look of it, though, half hand-me-downs and half thrift store finds, was dead-on. The pantry was full of the processed junk of the ‘80s. The fridge was covered in kids’ drawings layered over National Lampoon cartoons and was full of Velveeta cheese and other non-vegetable products. There were dishes in the sink and laundry piling up on top of the washer.

As the seasons went on and what was actually happening in our lives was increasingly rated R, a lot of things were left out, and by the end of the series it looked like a parallel-reality version of what would have happened to us had the show never existed.

Roseanne and Dan stayed married. Becky never asked for a coffin as a bed or bought meth. No paparazzi hid in the bushes of the Lanford Lunch Box awaiting Roseanne’s shift to be over so they could pounce on her and her boyfriend.

No illegitimate children were found via private detective. Roseanne and Jackie never had a falling out. D.J. never crashed the Jeep he got for his bar mitzvah and Darlene was never in a mental hospital.

My mom, who was the show’s creator and a head writer, attempted to close that divide in the last season by doing something bold and controversial. She had Roseanne win the lottery, which allowed her to talk about how people behave around money and success. Then, once everyone had gotten used to the new direction of Roseanne’s life, she pulled the rug out from under the audience and revealed that Roseanne Conner had invented this new reality from whole cloth, that she had, in fact, been writing the previous 21 episodes in order to cope with Dan’s death. It was a confession of sorts that her happy marriage to Dan had no Disney ending and that her writing had taken liberties with
her real life, which was far more tragic.

I loved that storyline. I loved that ending. It was perfect, although there is no way the show’s fan base could understand the importance of it.

Harper Collins

But I saw those episodes only much later. Only a few episodes of the show had aired before my own story took me further and further from the world of the Conners. I found myself in various institutions and placement programs separate from my family.

I resented Parallel Jenny’s simple life. I couldn’t watch the show without feeling angry, and then I couldn’t watch it because TV was not allowed in reform school. I didn’t see anything beyond the second season until I was 24 and a married housewife with a kid of my own, stuck at home and able to catch the reruns airing seemingly nonstop on Nickelodeon. It still made me sad sometimes to think about what I had missed, but I had a life I wanted now, and my pain was dull enough that I could enjoy the truly excellent joke writing. I made an effort to catch up.

I could relate to Dan and Roseanne now more than I could to Darlene, and that freaked me out. I would have a conversation with my husband, Jeff, and then I would hear it almost verbatim from the other room, but in my mom’s voice. Imagine what that does to a Jewish daughter’s fear of turning into her mother.

I noted the similarities of the early seasons and my childhood, and I also noted the differences, which forced me to look back at the past that I had been ecstatic to leave behind.

Neither Becky nor Darlene had to manage a public life because of their mother’s fame. There were no crash diets as they didn’t struggle with their weight. They lived at home through their teen years, and when they sneaked boys into their house, the boys got to stay and become a part of the family. They suffered no PTSD or mental illness in the form of anxiety disorders. Neither of them had been indoctrinated into a cult, OD’d, or spent a year or more in a private mental health facility. They were lightweight, PG versions of us with no complicated
backstories. Must be nice.

So I decided to tell my side of the story as a sort of cathartic, self-imposed therapy. Emotionally, it was a nightmare to pull stuff out of the nice little box I had it packed up in and look at it.

But during the process, I was able to put myself in my parents’ shoes, from the perspective of a parent who loves their child and doesn’t always know what to do. I stopped worrying about who was to blame and started dealing with the pain of what actually happened. My relationship with my mom is a complicated mother-daughter relationship, but there is value to the complications in relationships.

Ultimately I was left with gratitude for my parents’ love. And that’s the message I hope readers will take away from my book: Life is complicated, but love is the most important thing.

Jenny Pentland is a writer, mother and hobby farmer. The daughter of Roseanne Barr, she, along with her sister, inspired the characters of Becky and Darlene on her mother’s long-running television series, “Roseanne.” This is an adapted excerpt from her memoir, “This Will Be Funny Later,” available Jan. 18.

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