Watching Roseanne on HBO, big question becomes, why is the studio audience laughing?


Let's be fair. In her very first utterance, Roseanne Arnold at least warns viewers of her cable special that she is not, ahem, a happy person. In fact, she employs a common, effective crudity that cannot comfortably be repeated here.

Then for a long, long 60 minutes, the star of television's most popular sitcom goes on to detail why she is every bit as disgruntled with the world as she suggests upfront. ("HBO Comedy Hour: Roseanne Arnold" premieres at 10:30 tonight.)

Many comics are clowns with bleeding hearts, the cliche asserts, but at least they usually make us laugh.

Roseanne's too-familiar rant barely produces an occasional smile and then only when she is suggesting that Barbie dolls would be more realistic if they had a "single abused trailer Barbie," a "butch Barbie" or a "homeless Barbie and her dream refrigerator" model.

"Roseanne," the successful ABC Tuesday series, has always seemed paradoxical in that its star made her mark in comedy clubs and on cable with an act that shocked with a level of vulgar language and misanthropy.

Her act is a lot closer in tone to Andrew "Dice" Clay than to Bill Cosby, another stage comedian who adapted to a family sitcom. The worst word you hear in a Cosby stage performance might be "hell" or "damn," while Roseanne's favorite phrase is an old Anglo-Saxon term she could never say on ABC, even in these times of lowered broadcast standards.

And the tabloid treatment that has come with success, detailing a difficult past, has clearly done nothing to mellow the attitude.

At one point, she expresses wonderment that she gets paid for performing -- at which viewers might find themselves realizing uncomfortably that they've paid, too, through HBO premium fees.

Indeed, some might even become envious of professional therapists who are handsomely reimbursed for listening to such recapitulations of wordly affronts.

Hmmmm. And don't those members of the audience at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis (where the stand-up appearance was taped) seem in need of therapy, too? They laugh all the time at nothing particularly funny.

Roseanne even alludes at several points to such clinical things as the anti-depressant drug Prozac and "the nut house," and asks how many in her audience are "O-C-Ds" -- meaning sufferers from obsessive compulsive disorders.

We hear more about her dysfunctional family and her bitterness over her first marriage and custody battle for her kids. An audience member's request that she sing the "Star Spangled Banner" leads to a bitter recall of the 1990 incident in San Diego. (Remember? The comic even drew criticism from President Bush for her rendition of the anthem at a Padres baseball game, followed by a humorously intended crotch-grabbing gesture.)

Well, the first couple in the White House gets Roseanne's scorn in return, tonight, as does almost everybody she talks about.

To borrow a phrase from a Steve Martin TV comedy special title, Roseanne's comedy is definitely not pretty. Not funny, either.

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