EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Roseanne Barr sings! And it’s not the national anthem!
Warbling a personalized version of “My Way” at the end of her new HBO comedy special, she proclaims: “And as the baseball fans all watched, butchered that song and grabbed my crotch. Yes, I was loud, but I was proud, and did it my way.”
This time, the audience is with her. In 1990, when she performed a sharply off-key rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a Southern California baseball game and included a couple of crass gestures, she was greeted by jeers and worse.
The ensuing controversy — was she mocking America or just trying to be funny? — derailed her professionally, she said, and made her fearful for her and her family’s safety. It took until now to believe she could or should reinvigorate her career, Barr said.
“I feel like I’m leaving a real period of struggle,” she told The Associated Press as she prepared to mark her first standup special in a decade with HBO’s “Roseanne Barr: Blonde and Bitchin’,” debuting Nov. 4.
Politics, baby-boomer parenting and the times are the targets of Barr’s bold and biting humor, delivered in her carefully deadpan style that suggests a child hiding a serious trespass.
“I joke that I became a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew, so I joined the Jehovah’s Witness protection program,” she said of one bit that carries this message: “Don’t let a politician tell you about God. I mean, how phony is that? Better stop and think a minute before we let it go there.”
On stage, the 54-year-old Barr plays dress-up in an Asian-style silk robe and long blonded locks swept into a ponytail; offstage, she’s in simple sweater and slacks and hair casually held back by glam sunglasses. “Aren’t they cool?” she asks with a satisfied grin.
Barr also has a Nov. 2 guest role on NBC’s “My Name is Earl,” a clever turn as a vindictive trailer park manager whose life is transformed by an apparent encounter with God and then upended by Earl (Jason Lee).
It’s a sitcom she admires for its blue-collar perspective, something she says has been missing on TV since her Emmy-winning series, “Roseanne,” ended its 1988-97 run. That’s a long time “waiting for somebody to pick up the thing I tried to do,” Barr said.
She’s been largely absent from TV since, save a short-lived talk show in 1998, a situation she blames on veritable “blacklisting.”
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Deemed disgraceful by Bush
It doesn’t take much prodding for her to describe the aftermath of her performance at the San Diego game, in which she included baseball-inspired spitting. Barr, who says she was aiming for laughs, instead drew the wrath of many. Even then-President George Bush weighed in, terming it disgraceful.
“There’s been an enormous toll in every way you can imagine, from having to have armed guards around my house because of death threats” to financial losses, she said, including canceled business deals and entertainment projects.
“I look at the Dixie Chicks and go, ‘That’s horrible,’ but it’s nothing compared to what I went through,” Barr said, mentioning the country singers hit by a fierce backlash after one criticized the current President Bush.
The comedian believes she was made a target for more than a single incident.
“I felt for a long time they censored me because of the people that I spoke for. They didn’t want to hear anything about working class people in this country because they don’t want to hear anything about class or minimum wage or what people like Roseanne and Dan Conner are going through,” Barr said, referring to the couple she and John Goodman played on “Roseanne.”
Feeling under siege, she retreated to her home and limited her comedy to small clubs where she felt less exposed. And, in a tiny, efficiently designed office and studio she established in the coastal Los Angeles suburb of El Segundo, Barr concentrated on making music DVDs for children.
She quietly sings a few bars as an example: “It’s not always easy being 5 years old. Sometimes you get sick and tired of doing what you’re told. We can make a difference with every little thing we do. No one likes a bully, so think about every little thing you do.”
Barr moved here to raise her youngest son, 11, and to remove herself from the Hollywood scene she calls a “world of illusion.”
“I’ve got five kids. I come from working people,” said the Salt Lake City native. “I’ve got to go to work every day, get up, wake my kid, make breakfast, wash my own dishes. I have to live my beliefs every day or I just turn into” a jerk.
She keeps her brood close. On a recent afternoon, a son and son-in-law were at the studio working on “Seven Days at Minimum Wage,” a Web log Barr is hosting with the AFL-CIO and ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) as part of a campaign to boost state pay standards.
Barr credits her public re-emergence to a solid, four-year relationship with musician-writer Johnny Argent (following the end of her third marriage), who jokingly refers to himself as her “current boyfriend.”
Barr also got a morale boost from activist-filmmaker Michael Moore when she joined him in 2004 on a college tour aimed at getting out the vote in the presidential election. Performing in front of thousands of receptive students, she felt a “reignited” passion for political humor.
World events played a part as well.
“After 9/11, I was not going to hide out or let fear stop me. That’s kind of what the (HBO) special is about, don’t let fear stop you,” Barr said.
Now, she said, “doors are starting to open, there are conversations about sitcoms.” The challenge, besides balancing her home life with work, is how to connect meaningfully with audiences the way she once did with “Roseanne.”
“I’m interested in the middle way. I think that’s what this country is about,” Barr said. “What thing could I do now and make it middle? I like taking extremes and making it middle.”
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