The recent saga involving Roseanne, her abhorrent tweets, the cancellation of her show, and the public reaction, both for and against, has once again revealed a few absolutes we must remember when it comes to contemporary America and racism:
- People with racist, anti-semitic, and other repugnant beliefs can do their best to suppress those views, but those views are always waiting under the surface for an opportunity to reveal themselves.
- There are certain words, expressions and characterizations that simply constitute the third rail of public discourse, which you can never touch, no matter what your intent or actual beliefs.
- If you are a partisan devotee of politics, no matter which side you belong to, you believe that almost everything that happens in the world has some underlying political basis as its root.
- Very few people outside of the entertainment industry really understand just how and why decisions in the entertainment industry are made, especially if they are obsessed with politics (in which case see to rule number 3).
Number 1 is self-evident. Back in the early 1980s, while I was in local comedy clubs in Denver learning my craft, I crossed paths with Roseanne. She was also starting her career in comedy. She was funny on stage, had a strong identifiable character and point-of-view, and you knew she was going to be big. But off-stage, she was as nasty and horrible a person as I’ve ever come across in the comedy world. Looking back at the venom she has spewed during her career, I am surprised she hasn’t had outbursts like last week’s more often.
Offensive, sexually inappropriate, or just horrific things, unfortunately, get said out loud by celebrities, and after many mea culpas, financial penalties, suspensions, and other acts of restitution, they are eventually forgotten. But there are certain words or inferences that can’t be. Comparing a black person to a primate has been one of those third rails for decades. 50 years ago, Howard Cosell was not only one of the pioneers of sports journalism, he was also a staunch civil-rights activist who was one of the first public figures to support Muhammed Ali, John Carlos and Tommy Smith, Arthur Ashe, Curt Flood and others. He also occasionally referred to athletes, both black at white, as well as his own grandchildren, and as “little monkeys”, not in a racist manner, but from the image he had of how monkeys jumped from tree to tree.
It was a term he used a number of times on television, until regrettably in 1983, he used it in reference to a black player on Monday Night Football, causing the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to denounce his comment as racist and demand an apology. Cosell refused, and because of his long support for civil-rights and black athletes and the fact that he had used that expression to describe white athletes, he wasn’t fired. But his career and his character were severely tarnished and remain so to this day. Muhammad Ali himself suffered from equally strong criticism from the black community when, while promoting a fight, referred to Joe Frazier as a gorilla.
Roseanne claimed that her tweet was a joke gone wrong, but as a comedian, it’s essential to know your audience, choose your words carefully, and most importantly, be funny- especially if you are venturing into an area that could be offensive to some. Not only did Roseanne ignore those rules, but she understood exactly the connotation she was making when she incorporated the imagery of Planet of the Apes with her tweet about Valerie Jarrett.
Almost as soon as Roseanne’s tweet hit the internet and outrage flourished, there were cries from the right that Roseanne’s show was canceled because Hollywood is liberal, or that this was about Donald Trump. Predictably, the “whataboutisms” began to fly. Yes, Bill Maher had suggested that Trump was the offspring of an orangutan due to the color of his hair, and had even been sued about that by Trump himself. But Trump isn’t black, so as offended as he might have been, they couldn’t declare it racist. We heard more about Michelle Wolf’s jokes at this year’s White House Correspondence Dinner, or Kathy Griffin’s holding up a fake severed Trump head. But neither of those comments were racist. And by the way, Griffin was fired from CNN and Maher was fired from his ABC show in 2002 for his comments, so it’s not like liberal comedians are exempt from penalty for offending conservatives. You can come back from being offensive, just not from being a racist.
Which brings us to number 4: how Hollywood really works. The partisan line quickly emerged after ABC announced it would cancel the number one show on their network. According to the right, her firing just proves that the network was merely looking for an excuse to get rid of Roseanne and her pro-Trump views (despite how much money they were making off of her) and that was it.
I hate to disappoint the conspiracy theorists (after all, who among us outside of William of Ockham doesn’t love a great conspiracy) but the simple truth is being the number one show on Bravo Network is a big thing… for Bravo. Being the number one show on ABC is much like being the tallest dwarf in the land of the giants. ABC is just a part of the Walt Disney Company, and in actuality, an amazingly small part. When it comes to Disney’s bottom line, the money from Roseanne constitutes more of a rounding error than a factor. As Preston Beckman, a former network executive at NBC and FOX and now the chairman of the Beckman Group so succinctly said to POLITICO regarding Roseanne, “She’s a pimple on the tushy of The Walt Disney Company and they lanced it.”
Without getting into an economic dissertation that would drive away any reader who isn’t a CPA at PricewaterhouseCoopers, let’s just agree that The Walt Disney Company is big. Really big. Gross revenues last year of over $55 billion big. When you remove theme parks, feature films, merchandising, cruise lines, Cable Networks, on-line streaming services, ESPN, ABC owned television stations, HULU, production entities, news divisions, syndication, radio and on and on until you get down to just the basic ABC prime time network, and then realize that Roseanne accounted for just five hours of the network’s 1,092 hours of prime time programming each year, you start to get an idea of just how important Roseanne or any show is to the mighty behemoth that is Disney. At the end of the day when you factor in the cost of producing those ten shows, like the $21 million that Roseanne herself was making, the profit to Disney is the equivalent of the pizza money you discover in the cushions of your couch.
What ABC and Roseanne did have, however, was a public perception that far exceeded its revenue impact. Just look at all the attention the show gathered in the spring for its focus on middle America, conservatives, and Trump. All good and free publicity until a star of Roseanne’s magnitude posts racist tweets. In today’s world, these incidents can quickly mobilize into a debilitating boycott campaign (as seen by the recent boycott launched by David Hogg against Laura Ingraham).
Disney didn’t have to answer their phones that morning to know that the companies who had already committed to spending millions to advertise on Roseanne next season were on hold, waiting to cancel those commitments. What today’s hyper-active media creates, it also destroys. After Roseanne’s tweets, it could be a financial maelstrom for those companies (or, in fact, any other companies to be associated with the show). That would have included not just ABC, but all of Disney, including theme parks, merchandise and feature movies.
Disney and its CEO Bob Iger said the right things: that it was all about what was important. About what is acceptable behavior and what is not, at Disney, at work, and in society in general. Yes, it was definitely about racism and providing a teaching moment, but rest assured, there is little doubt that Disney was also counting the $1.34 billion spent by fans of Wakanda and Black Panther.