One of the many pieces of advice on offer on the instructional website WikiHow concerns a matter of perennial usefulness: How to Apologize. “A good apology,” the site notes, before going on to share tips like “give up the idea of being ‘right,’” “avoid justifying your actions,” and “use excuses cautiously,” will “communicate three things: regret, responsibility, and remedy. Apologizing for a mistake might seem difficult, but it will help you repair and improve your relationships with others.”
Roseanne Barr, in the extensive reading she has credited with informing her particular and paranoid view of the world, perhaps missed WikiHow’s helpful tips. Appearing, to great fanfare, on Hannity on Thursday evening—her first televised interview after being fired from ABC following her racist tweet about the Muslim Brotherhood, the Planet of the Apes, and a prominent African American woman—Barr, variously, used excuses (the tweet came, she insisted again, because of Ambien/Memorial Day beer-drinking/several unnamed physical ailments affecting her at the time); tried to justify her actions (she didn’t know Valerie Jarrett was black, Barr insisted, repeating the declaration she had screamed in a YouTube rant that had gotten much attention earlier in the week and going on to insist to Sean Hannity, bafflingly, that she was not being “racist” because she had thought Jarrett, the woman she had compared to an ape, was “Middle Eastern”); and generally reveled in the idea of being ‘right’ (the tweet, Barr repeatedly informed Hannity, martyrdom in her voice, “cost me everything”).
And then: Barr capped off her bizarre and insincere and confused and self-aggrandizing and decidedly not WikiHow-approved apology with … a joke. About the woman she was ostensibly apologizing to. About that woman’s haircut. “Plus, I’d tell her,” the comedian said of the politician, after professing her regret about the tweet she’d made at Jarrett’s expense, “she’s got to get a new haircut. I mean, seriously. She needs a new haircut.”
Which would be baffling if it weren’t so deeply true to form. Roseanne is a comedian above all, and her jokes, more than anything else, have a way of revealing, if not the truth, then her particular truth: the world, as she insists on seeing it. After the initial episodes of the rebooted Roseanne aired this spring, The New Yorker published a review of the show from its inimitable TV critic, Emily Nussbaum. The essay was a review of the early episodes of the new show that was also a review of a single joke contained within it. A joke that went, as Nussbaum retold it, like this:
In the third episode of Roseanne, on ABC, Roseanne Conner and her husband, Dan, wake up on their iconic sofa, in Lanford, Illinois. “It’s eleven o’clock,” Roseanne says. “We slept from Wheel to Kimmel.” Dan replies, “We missed all the shows about black and Asian families.” Roseanne squawks, “They’re just like us!” Then, sardonically, “There, now you’re all caught up.”
These lines, Nussbaum notes, are clearly aimed at Roseanne’s (now former) fellow ABC comedies, black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat. And together, she writes, they establish a few things. “One is that the Conners don’t live in the same America as the Johnsons, from ‘black-ish,’ or the Huangs, from ‘Fresh Off the Boat.’ There will never be a crossover episode—no fun clash, say, between an aging Jessica Huang and Roseanne, on a Conner trip to Florida. Instead, the Conners are themselves bored, alienated ABC viewers, unable even to remember titles, just that these are the ‘black and Asian’ shows.”
Barr, on Thursday, choosing to punctuate her “apology” to Valerie Jarrett with a joke about Valerie Jarrett, was doing precisely the same thing that her show’s line did: She was suggesting, insidiously, division over all. She was attempting to minimize Jarrett, to belittle her once more—by trying to exert, even as she allegedly sought Jarrett’s forgiveness, an easy, impish kind of power over her. I’m sorry that you misunderstood me, and also you should get a new haircut.
And, in that, Roseanne was once again doing the thing that, in the past, she was celebrated for: She used a joke to reveal a truth. This time, though, the truth being laid undeniably bare concerned the very celebrity who spent an hour on the Fox News Channel on Thursday blithely insisting that, effectively, she’s the least racist person there is. She failed to apologize, across every dimension. She talked glibly about “teachable moments” and empathy and love, and then made a cheap joke that was the 2018 equivalent of Roseanne, before that 1990 baseball game, shrieking the national anthem and then grabbing her crotch: It was silly and selfish and offensive, all at the same time. It made you wonder why this person, among all the many people, is the one up there, still, taking Americans’ time and attention and energy as she sings, so deeply off-key, about the land of the free.