The “Roseanne” writers room ― defunct as of Tuesday, when ABC swiftly canceled the series in response to one of Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets ― knew to anticipate blowback when they wrote the titular character’s controversial crack about “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat.”
In the April 3 episode, after Dan sarcastically bemoans sleeping through “all the shows about black and Asian families,” his wife quips: “They’re just like us. There, now you’re all caught up.” The viewer backlash to what seemed like Roseanne Conner’s dismissive attitude about programming centered on minorities was immediate.
But according to Ryan Kemp, a writers’ assistant on the recently concluded 10th season of “Roseanne,” the joke was meant to signal tolerance ― a message, he said, the sitcom’s new writing team attempted to advocate throughout its popular return.
“The more I think about it, the more I think [the ‘Roseanne’ cancellation] is actually in line with what the show promised,” Kemp said during our 50-minute phone call on Tuesday, a few hours after ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey issued a strongly worded statement that at once terminated Barr’s series and condemned her tweet insulting former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett.
“This is what we were preaching — or not preaching, but this is what we were going for ― tolerance and understanding and trying to bring an end to the division. This goes right in line with what the show was about. It basically proves that ABC is putting their money where their mouth is.”
Kemp, who previously worked on “Scrubs” and “2 Broke Girls,” wasn’t intending to return for what would have been the show’s 11th season, but he watched with sympathy as his former colleagues lost their jobs in one fell swoop, and as the rich legacy of “Roseanne” ― a show that chronicled working-class travails with a candor rarely seen on network television ― was forever stained by its namesake.
In contrast to Barr’s online persona, Kemp reported that she was pleasant and considerate on the set and in the writers room ― a far cry from the behavior she presented on Twitter, where Barr peddled reactionary conspiracy theories and made insensitive remarks. His is just one perspective on what occurred behind the scenes, but he praised the “camaraderie” and good intentions of the creative nexus spearheaded by Whitney Cummings and “Roseanne” veteran Bruce Helford, even when it came to jokes they knew were questionable.
Ultimately, Kemp takes the same stance as Wanda Sykes, Sara Gilbert and many others associated with the program: Barr, who apologized late Tuesday night and blamed the incident on Ambien, should have known better.
Nonetheless, here’s his take on what it was like to work on “Roseanne.”
How did you find out the show was canceled?
One of my buddies who’s a fellow writer texted me. He was up for a writing position on the show. He texted me, “Have you heard about Roseanne’s most recent tirade?” I’m like, “Oh no. What now?” So I got online, and I saw what she said. I saw that Wanda Sykes quit, and I just kept reading the news. And all of a sudden I saw online that they’d canceled it.
What did your role on the show entail?
I was a writers’ assistant, so basically I would sit in the writers room and take down all the notes. I would keep all the scripts organized and edited, and make sure everything went fluidly in the room. We’d go down and watch all the rehearsals on set, and take notes on what worked and what didn’t. [...] They let us pitch also, and I got to work with some great writers and an extraordinary cast. It’s one of the pinnacles of my career.
How did “Roseanne” differ from other writers rooms?
Everyone told me she was going to be difficult to work with and that she was very rigid about the way she wanted things. But she seemed very grateful. I never knew her in the first run, but other people said this was a 180 for her.
She seemed down-to-earth and concerned with the show and the messages and the people working on the show. She wasn’t out there trying to cause waves. I know she has a big personality, and she would make little jokes here and there, but not at anyone’s expense. When it comes to opinions regarding politics, we tried to keep it out of the workplace — but, you know, it’s “Roseanne.”
Did you know from the start that Roseanne Conner would be a Trump supporter?
Yeah, but here’s the thing: We didn’t want to make a show about a Trump supporter. We wanted to make a show about what’s happening in America and why there’s such division. You can’t be like, “Hey, we think [Trump voters are] wrong, so we’re going to shut them out and hopefully they’ll go away.” It doesn’t work like that. We have to understand where people come from and why people feel this way. These are the conversations we’re having at home with our families, and we wanted to bring that tolerance, because you can’t have tolerance without understanding.
That’s what we wanted to provide. I loved that. America needs help right now, and that’s all we were trying to do.
Do you remember the discussions about Trump’s name never being mentioned in the series?
We didn’t want to hit it on the head. We didn’t want it to be sappy. [...] Yes, [Barr] claims she’s a Trump supporter. And she is, I guess, on Twitter. We never really talked about it onstage. But at the same time, she didn’t hate black people or gay people onstage. She wasn’t anti-woman. I think a lot of people hear “Trump supporter” and think “Nazi.” She’s not.
Listen. Everything changed this morning, and I’m still trying to develop how I feel. I’m currently glad they canceled the show. We can’t let people think it’s OK to say stuff like that or to feel that way or think that way.
How would you characterize the ambiance of the writers room week to week?
It was fantastic. One of the best experiences I’ve ever had in a writers room. We wanted to have the discussions. We didn’t want to just put things in a box and say, “This is what it is,” and label stuff as right or wrong. We wanted to have the discussions people are having at home, and how to understand how something like this could happen — how we could elect [Trump] as a president. It was a very open forum. It was very tolerant. We did some great work and explored some interesting things. I’ve worked on a lot of shows: “Scrubs” and “Outsourced” and “Undateable” and “2 Broke Girls” and tons of pilots in between. [“Roseanne”] was really, truly, a great experience.
This revival arrived with a lot of baggage.
It definitely felt like we were taking on a responsibility. It didn’t feel like, “Hey, let’s make a bunch of money and make a bunch of jokes about whatever.”
I want to get a sense of the creative process. In terms of plotting out the episode about the Conners’ Muslim neighbors, for example, who is leading the discussions about how it will unfold?
There were a lot of executive producers on the show: Bruce Helford, Whitney Cummings, Sara Gilbert, Tom Werner. Everybody was weighing in, and all of the writers. One of the things Bruce did great with his room was treat all the writers equally and value all of their opinions and thoughts. And Darlene Hunt and Betsy Borns. Just all around, we really got to listen and talk and explore the ideas going on in the world, whether it was fears and other prejudices, where they come from, why and what’s being done about them, and where we are now compared to where we were 20 years ago in the first run of “Roseanne.”
Does the process of outlining an episode begin with a specific topic? For example, did the one with the Muslim neighbors begin as, “OK, let’s do a story about immigration and Islamophobia?”
Yes, absolutely. You have to know what it’s about, and then you come up with the story.
Did the finale start with the idea of the Conners receiving FEMA money?
That stems from the idea that working-class, blue-collar people in America don’t have the means if something happens in an emergency. [...] We read a lot of articles, and we used our own stories and experiences. We examined a lot of examples. One of the great books that a lot of the writers read was Hillbilly Elegy. It was basically what’s happened to industrial America in the Rust Belt.
Did ABC executives sit in on writers-room sessions?
Oh yeah, they would come and give us their notes and ideas. ABC executives were very much in touch. I was never in those meetings.
Did scripts significantly change based on those meetings?
They changed so many different times in so many different ways. It’s tough to recall specifics. But I think we were all on the same page with the general idea, which is that we can’t make it too broad or too specific. We don’t want to say anything offensive, but at the same time we have to try to portray those fears that we have. [...] There were several times we felt like we were pushing the envelope too much, but at the same time, everything comes from a place. And we’re trying to get to that point: Where does this come from? In order to explore that, we maybe had to do some things that weren’t as comfortable.
I remember there were some times when other co-workers would come up to me and say, “I can’t believe this is what we’re doing. It sounds like we’re making our main character a terrible person, a bigot.”
There’s the way things ought to be, and there’s the way things actually are. We’re not in a utopia where things are always exactly the way they’re supposed to be. In order to get to that spot, we have to address it from this standpoint.
How often was Roseanne Barr in the writers room?
In preproduction, she was up just about every day. She would have been up more, except we had to install an electric chair for her because she has bad knees. We actually used that to address the throughline of the opioid epidemic, which was absolutely real. She mostly had to ride around in a car, and we had to install the chair because the offices we were in didn’t have an elevator. The show actually bought an electric chair for her so she could be in the writers room more often.
We started in June, and we didn’t start shooting until August. We had June, July and most of August to write. She was up there almost every day, at least a few times a week. Not all day. Just to stop in and take note of where we’re going. She would listen and contribute a little bit, but mostly she was just there to say, “This is where we’re going? OK, all right.” She wasn’t disagreeable, she wasn’t obnoxious. I felt like we were all on the same boat on this; we all just wanted to work together in a group effort. There was a big camaraderie.
How often did she pitch or insist on any particular storylines or jokes?
There were a few times in the room where she’d say, “I like that joke,” and we’d highlight it or bold it, like, “Roseanne likes this one.” But there were so many different incarnations of every script and story that it’s hard to recall which ones those were.
Also, I was not there for the meetings behind closed doors. A lot of the executive producers would go off and talk for a few minutes, or they’d be in the corner talking. And I would stand by with a notepad just in case I needed to take something down. But there were a lot of discussions and decisions and jokes written that weren’t in the regular forum room. An EP would go and have a chat with Roseanne for five minutes here or Sara Gilbert for five minutes there. But that’s nothing out of the ordinary. So this is a long way of saying I don’t know which things she said she liked or what needed to stay.
Was there any talk about President Trump calling to congratulate Roseanne on the ratings?
We were actually all done before it aired. The writers room ended, and we shot the last episode the second or third week of December. Aside from email, I haven’t really had much contact with any of them since.
One joke that received a lot of criticism was Roseanne’s crack about the black and Asian families on TV being “just like us,” which felt like a comment on “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” two other ABC sitcoms. Can you walk me through the writing of that joke?
Oh, that’s absolutely about that. It was about the ABC schedule. That’s what the joke was based on. So that’s really all the thought we put into it. I think some people were like, “Is that going to come off as racist?” But it refers solely to the ABC lineup; it doesn’t have anything to do with anything else.
The idea we wanted to promote is “they’re just like us.” Everybody there is very open-minded, and we all basically have the idea that we’re all in this together. There’s differences, but we’re America and that’s what it stands for. That’s how we should treat each other, as equals. That’s the throughline of the show.
It sounds like writers already anticipated some blowback about that joke.
Absolutely, and that’s what we want to do. It has to be entertaining, it has to make people think and it has to make people question. You don’t have to do that in TV, obviously, but why not? We’re trying to make the world a better place, and certainly America. We have to all understand, and it’s not always easy.
How much would you say Roseanne’s personal life influenced the show?
Less now than in the original, but like I said, I wasn’t there for the original. This was more of an investment of everybody, including Whitney, Bruce, Roseanne and the ABC executives. I think everyone was equally invested. It was supposed to be an eight-episode run, and then we were like, well, let’s do another one because of the scheduling. So we did the ninth one, and it was just great. We realized we had a hit. In the context of this show, I think it’s been lacking in the television landscape.
How involved were Whitney Cummings and Wanda Sykes?
Whitney was there through the whole season, and Wanda was there two or three times a week. She was involved. She sat in the writers room, she came to the rehearsals, she came to the shows. She was great. And Norm MacDonald and Morgan Murphy and all these big names. Nobody was too big, nobody was pretentious. It was a real group effort, with a sense of duty.
Cancellation is the name of the game in television, but having worked in the industry for more than a decade, what are your thoughts about your colleagues being out of work because of something one person tweeted?
Man, yeah. That’s something I’m struggling with.
The more I think about it, the more I think [the cancellation] is actually in line with what the show promised. This is what we were preaching — or, not preaching, but this is what we were going for ― tolerance and understanding and trying to bring an end to the division. This goes right in line with what the show was about. It basically proves that ABC is putting their money where their mouth is.
It’s the right decision. And it does suck. A lot of people are losing their jobs. But ABC keeps track of the talented people that work for it, so I’m sure they’ll be able to find more work. I hope so. I think ABC should really assist in that — they have plenty of shows and plenty of opportunities.
But you can’t say stuff like that, and I think for the people who don’t understand why you can’t say stuff like that this is an opportunity to let them know why. It’s not that difficult to understand. I feel like Roseanne on the show would make the same decision if it was a story about one of her kids. I don’t think ironic is the word, but I think it’s serendipitous that it happened this way.
Roseanne herself aside, would you say most of the writers room leaned liberal?
Yeah. It’s LA. But it’s really like, “Let’s explore all the angles and all the sides to this.”
You remember the episode in Season 7 where [Roseanne Conner] got mad at DJ for not wanting to kiss a girl because she was black. That’s like [Roseanne Barr], from what I saw. What she’s like on Twitter, and what she’s like when she’s got a spotlight or a microphone, is different from what she’s like onstage. She was grateful to everybody, and grateful for the opportunity to come back because not a lot of people can make that kind of comeback.
How often did you reference certain plot points from the original show?
All the time. And we referenced it not for the sake of referencing it, but because these are the journeys and arcs we go on through our lives. Everything comes from a place, and the way she is now is because of the way she was then.
We wanted to make sure DJ was married to that woman. It wasn’t, unfortunately, the same actor because of availability issues, but it was the same character.
Was there ever a moment when the writers wanted to depart from Roseanne’s personal politics and she vocalized thoughts on the Trump administration, health care or any other timely policies?
No, not that I was privy to. That’s not to say that nothing happened, but not from where I stood.
I think it’s a bummer because I do think the show kind of forged a place to help teach tolerance. Not to tell people what to think, but what to think about. I felt it had a really good way of doing that. But at the same time, I don’t want to support her. I don’t want to give her a stage to gain attention if she’s like that. Like anybody else, I think she just needs education. [...] She wasn’t like that at work. Every once in a while, you’d hear, like, “Thanks, Obama,” or whatever. Just jokes. But nothing offensive, as far as I heard. I didn’t hear anything about her being insensitive. She seems like somebody who knows better. She’s smarter than this. She’s not that insensitive. She was very respectful of all the black people, gay people, whatever. She just treated everyone like people.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.