ABC’s smash hit Roseanne revival flamed out earlier this year, after the conspiratorial and racially charged pro-Trump tweets of its star, Roseanne Barr, all but forced the network to oust her. During the ensuing hubbub, comedian Tom Arnold practically made it his full-time job to appear on radio, TV and the internet, denouncing his ex-wife. The former couple became tabloid staples in the early 1990s, when their marriage and divorce was accompanied by outlandish public appearances and scandalous private behavior — on both of their parts. Since then, the two have occasionally been at peace, but have mostly waged a war in the media, calling each other “pathetic,” “mentally ill” and worse.
Meanwhile, Arnold has rebranded himself as part of the anti-Trump resistance, most prominently in his new Viceland series The Hunt for the Trump Tapes. The show has Arnold tapping his resources as a rich, well-connected celebrity to track down long-rumored audio and video footage of President Trump behaving badly: being grossly sexist on Howard Stern’s radio show; uttering racist slurs on The Apprentice; cavorting with prostitutes in Russia; and so on. The project is a direct rebuke to Barr, who’s been championing Trump as a disruptor.
The return of Arnold and Barr to the spotlight is a reminder of their long, oft-bizarre presence in American popular culture. Sometimes moving in parallel, and sometimes intersecting, these two rose from the world of 1980s standup comedy to achieve mainstream success, followed by high-profile embarrassment and then years of scrambling through the outer-reaches of reality TV, fighting to be taken seriously again.
Theirs is both a uniquely American success story and a cautionary tale. Here’s how it goes…
1985: Roseanne kills on Carson
During the early 1980s stand-up boom, Roseanne emerged as a unique voice, with her deadpan, nasal, distinctly Midwestern way of telling jokes. By the time she made her first The Tonight Show appearance, Barr had honed an act that was highly relatable to millions of Americans, making lightly sarcastic comments about life as a plus-sized, working-class suburbanite: the antithesis of the perfect sitcom wife and mother. Uncommonly relaxed in front of an audience, she immediately impressed Johnny Carson, whose seal of approval at the time all but assured she’d have a long and profitable career.
1987: Roseanne’s first HBO special, ‘The Roseanne Barr Show’
Tom Arnold and Roseanne Barr became close friends on the stand-up circuit, and when his life was in shambles (due in large part to substance abuse), she invited him to become her collaborator and trusted pal as she navigated Hollywood. Their most public early pairing came when Arnold played Roseanne’s husband during sketches sprinkled between Barr’s regular nightclub act, recorded for HBO’s On Location series of comedy specials. Barr’s actual husband, Bill Pentland, also appeared in The Roseanne Barr Show, in framing scenes meant to show the “real” Roseanne. The special established much of what would become the comedienne’s on- and off-stage schtick: Mining blue-collar life for comedy, bouncing between husbands and keeping audiences guessing about what she’s really like.
1989: Arnold joins the ‘Roseanne’ cast as well as its writing staff
Barr’s stand-up material — in which she referred to herself as a “domestic goddess,” and poked fun at her family — was tailor-made for a sitcom, especially at a time when Married… with Children and The Simpsons were winning over viewers exhausted by the sanitized domesticity of The Cosby Show and Family Ties. Yet from the moment Roseanne debuted in 1988 to monster ratings, the star warred with her producers over their attempts to soften her character. As such, Barr brought Arnold on board to protect her interests — although, as the clip below shows, adding him to the supporting cast as a friend of Roseanne Conner’s husband Dan inadvertently achieved the ABC bosses’ goal of beefing up the male characters’ airtime, at the expense of the women.
1990: Roseanne gets divorced, Roseanne gets remarried
Barr became a star by telling jokes drawn from her mundane family life, but by the time Roseanne debuted, her world was very different, which was something Arnold understood, as someone in showbiz himself. The tabloids started whispering about their relationship as far back as 1988, though they insisted in a 1989 Vanity Fair article that they didn’t have sex for the first time until after Barr was separated from Pentland. In 1990, Arnold went to rehab and Barr got divorced, clearing the way for her to become “Roseanne Arnold.” The first year of their marriage was eventful, with Arnold chasing away a lot of Barr’s management, and becoming her main advisor as she embarked on a curious journey that saw her overhauling her stand-up act and controversially caterwauling “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a San Diego Padres game.
1991: The second HBO special, ‘Live from Trump Castle’
Roseanne’s early comedy was unapologetically vulgar, and though she hit it big once she toned down her act, she bristled at some of the compromises she’d made. After she became a more divisive public figure, she and Arnold took advantage of that notoriety to remake her stage show into something at once cruder and more conceptual. For her second HBO special, performing at Trump Castle (!) in Atlantic City, Roseanne wears a glamorous gown, and works with a piano player (with Arnold appearing occasionally on stage to do rimshots). She makes fun of her old jokes, satirizes celebrities with “causes,” references her recent troubles, bellows show tunes and generally changes her persona from “everywoman” to “Roseanne.”
Afterward, Roseanne and Arnold appeared on a live call-in show, hosted by Matt Lauer, where they talked about their sex life, their public image and everything the tabloids were getting wrong about them. (A few months later, the couple would settle a lawsuit against The National Enquirer and The Star for an undisclosed amount.) It’s a fascinating look at the couple in the giddy “us against the world” phase of their romance — as well as being retroactively interesting for the choice of host, a few decades away from his own huge scandal.
1991: ‘Tom Arnold: The Naked Truth’
Still hungry for respect as an entertainer, Arnold leveraged his wife’s relationship with HBO to produce and star in a series of annual specials (three in all), in which he interviewed ordinary people and experts about some of the biggest problems facing society — from environmental issues to romantic woes. The shows were poorly reviewed, but helped establish what would become Arnold’s comic persona: insecure and inquisitive, always looking for answers.
1992: ‘The Jackie Thomas Show’
Continuing their meta-commentary on their own lives, the Arnolds created a sitcom to run after Roseanne, with Arnold playing an obnoxious TV star. Reviews were mixed (prompting Roseanne to blast USA Today critic Matt Rousch, casting aspersions on his sexuality and calling him “heterophobic”), and while the ratings were respectable, they weren’t high enough for ABC to renew the show. The couple angrily denounced ABC, and threatened to move Roseanne to another network. Instead, Roseanne’s show stayed put and the couple created a new sitcom, Tom, for CBS, which was cancelled after only 11 episodes.
1992: ‘The Rosey and Buddy Show’
Before the Arnolds’ relationship with ABC went south, they were regulars on the network, appearing together in cheesy TV movies like Backfield in Motion and The Woman Who Loved Elvis. Their strangest ABC project was the half-hour animated special The Rosey and Buddy Show: a sort of spinoff/torching of the short-lived 1990 Saturday morning cartoon Little Rosey. Set in “Cartoonland,” the show sees the couple irritating thinly veiled versions of classic animated characters, and butting heads with network executives who keep wanting to change everything that Rosey (voiced by Roseanne) and Buddy (voiced by Tom) are trying to do.
1993: Life in Iowa
Toward the end of their marriage, the Arnolds were defiantly squabbling with network executives, other celebrities, the George Bush administration, the tabloids and the American legal system (the latter of which they accused of being run by pedophiles in a 1993 Playboy interview, in an early glimpse of what would become one of Barr’s obsessions). So they moved to Arnold’s home state of Iowa, opened a diner selling “loose meat sandwiches,” and started building a mansion. The unfinished house later became a tourist attraction: a monument to a Hollywood romance that burned hot, then burned out.
1994: Arnold apologizes on Leno
Though the couple was on the brink of divorce by early 1994, Arnold, who was about to have his greatest non-Roseanne-related success playing the comic relief in the blockbuster Arnold Schwarzenegger movie True Lies, tried to hold the relationship together, as a business concern if nothing else. While the newspapers were full of stories about screaming matches on the set of Roseanne, Arnold appeared on The Tonight Show to put their relationship in the best possible light, denying accusations of physical abuse and affairs and insisting that they’d both just been working too hard. The gambit didn’t work. Roseanne filed for divorce in April, and Arnold turned some of his experiences with now ex-wife into a few funny lines in True Lies about a woman getting rid of all of his characters’ stuff — from the remote control to the ice trays.
1994: ‘Roseanne and Tom: Behind the Scenes’
Because no 1990s scandal passed without a trashy TV movie being made about it, on Halloween night in 1994, NBC aired a quickie exploitation picture, with veteran character actress Patrika Darbo playing Roseanne, and Stephen Lee as Tom. In this version of the story, Barr is the misunderstood heroine, mistreated by a freeloading philanderer.
1994: Roseanne hosts the VMAs
As the first woman to be a solo host for MTV’s Video Music Awards, Barr turned her opening monologue into a fiery take on what had been going on her life: the plastic surgery, the shocking memoir confessing to multiple personalities and her divorce from Arnold. About her now ex, she cracks that she’s not upset that they split, “I’m only upset that I’m not a widow.”
1996: Arnold takes a shot at Roseanne on the Golden Globes
Two years later, on another awards show, Arnold tried to get some measure of revenge against Barr, but botched it. After making a joke about Roseanne’s plastic surgery, Arnold fumbled over the name of the category he was supposed to be announcing, to which his on-stage partner Teri Hatcher interjected, “Maybe I should talk.” He answered, “Probably not what you’re best at.” The crowd booed, and Arnold did nothing to change his image.
1998: ‘Roseanne’ cast reunion
When Roseanne ended in 1997, Barr looked for fresh ways to monetize her wit and public profile. Like a lot of 1990s entertainers, she took a shot at becoming a talk show host, doing her own spin on Oprah for two years. Early in the series’ run, she gathered her sitcom’s cast for an hour of warm reflections. Noticeably absent: Arnold, already in the process of being written out of Roseanne’s history.
1998: Bickering on ‘The Howard Stern Show’
Both comedians were friendly with Stern, whose show thrived on uncomfortable honesty. When Barr was a guest in the studio in 1998, Arnold called in, for what became a roughly 20-minute airing of grievances. At the heart of the dispute: Roseanne’s claims that Tom leeched off her, selling stories to the tabloids and taking a big chunk of the sitcom’s profits.
2003: ‘The Real Roseanne Show’
In 2003, Barr was supposed to make a Martha Stewart-style cooking/lifestyle show called Domestic Goddess for ABC Family, while ABC proper intended to air a 13-part reality series that would take viewers behind the scenes, showing Roseanne at work and at home. Domestic Goddess was scrapped at the pilot stage, and The Real Roseanne Show only broadcast two episodes before it was cancelled too. Again, Arnold was completely absent, aside from some sideways references (like when someone mentions serial killer Ted Bundy, then jokes, “You were married to him, right?”). But The Real Roseanne does prominently feature Pentland, whom a decade earlier she’d trashed in her second memoir, My Lives.
2010: ‘That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It’
While Barr was appearing on various TV shows as herself, Arnold settled into a career as a character actor, specializing in motor-mouthed creeps. He also kept doing interviews and stand-up sets, dining out on anecdotes about his checkered past and his most famous relationship. One of the highlights of Arnold’s 2010 Showtime special is a long story about how he and Roseanne tried to make what they thought would be some easy money by losing weight with Jenny Craig, only to be undone by poor impulse-control — perhaps a metaphor for their marriage.
2012: Comedy Central’s ‘Roast of Roseanne’
Fabulously wealthy but not exactly in high demand, Barr spent much of the first decade of the 21st century blogging about politics (she was a staunch critic of President Obama… from the left), running for president, appearing in another short-lived reality series and generally coming across as an opinionated flake. All of this was grist for the mill when a succession of comics ripped into her — profanely but mostly respectfully — for Comedy Central’s popular “roast” series.
The big news from Roast of Roseanne though was that Arnold showed up, appearing in the same room as his ex-wife for the first time in 17 years. In keeping with the style he’d refined over two decades, Arnold’s “jokes” were essentially blunt complaints, coupled with confessions of his own failings. He ended by thanking Barr for giving him his big break, while she saluted his courage for being there, which he reportedly only agreed to do if she promised not to say anything too mean about him. The detente wouldn’t last.
2013: Twitter fight!
Both Arnold and Barr latched on early to social media, which allowed them to reach hundreds of thousands of fans, filter-less, with pithy observations and peevish rants. Occasionally, they’ve interacted — most notably in 2013, when Arnold’s casual comment about cleaning out his garage and dumping some wedding videos led Roseanne to accuse him of trashing priceless footage of her children. Eventually, as their followers started weighing in with their own opinions and insults, the exes de-escalated and expressed genuine sympathy and affection for each other’s kids. But the message of the exchange was clear: These two may maintain a bond, but they’re never exactly going to be friends again.
2018: Bonded by conspiracy
This brings us up to now, and what happened when ABC revived Roseanne. Some former fans who hadn’t been keeping up with Barr’s antics, and were surprised to find that the formerly outspoken feminist/libertine/anti-authoritarian had switched her support from the Green Party to her old acquaintance Donald Trump, and that she intended her most famous TV character to reflect her views. Arnold, meanwhile, has been passionately anti-Trump, and has insisted that because of all the shady people he’s befriended over the years, he knows the president’s dirty secrets.
What’s fascinating about these two is that, even now, they’re a lot alike. Both buy into conspiracy theories: Be it Arnold’s belief in the existence of damning “Trump tapes” or Barr’s reported “QAnon”-inspired faith that the president’s secretly working to rid the world of child molesters. Both have also been coasting for more than two decades on the fortune and reputation they built during the heyday of Roseanne. They initially became friends because they knew each other’s troubles. Now they’re enemies — perhaps for the same reason.