Roseanne Barr should have spent a few more sleepless nights. Early in her new HBO cable comedy special tonight, "Live From Trump Castle" she tells an Atlantic City audience, "I spent more than one sleepless night trying to figure out what could be worth 40 bucks" (the cost of tickets to her show).
Sorry, she never figured it out. There might be $10 of comedy in this show (at 10 o'clock on the premium channel), but you have to wade through self-indulgent sarcasm, crude taste and mean spirits to find it.
By contrast, over on Showtime at about the same hour tonight (10:05), comedian Richard Jeni's second cable special, "Crazy From the Heat," takes the comic art of exaggeration to extremes and produces some big laughs. And contrasted to Barr's show, he proves the wisdom of letting funny material predominate over personality.
Ironically, in her first 1987 HBO special, Barr laid the groundwork for her hit prime-time series "Roseanne," with a prototype sitcom family skit as part of the show. Yet Barr's stand-up act predominated and it was pretty funny, although with a trademark level of crude and explicit language which many family viewers of her highly rated ABC comedy might find surprising.
Since then, of course, Barr has become big time both professionally and in her private life, as displayed in the tabloids. Thus, in tonight's show, she adopts the guise of a returning glamour queen, complete with an arrival on stage in an antique limo whose doorman is none other than Donald Trump.
Apparently meant to be a parody, the act simply comes off badly. Husband Tom Arnold, for example, gets an opening few minutes and proves not only unfunny but tasteless, with too many gay jokes and fat jokes. Yet he's back later to participate in a cue card bit that ends flatly with a reference to his physical endowment.
Worse, Barr presages a disturbing tone to come when she tells him in a pre-show pep talk, "remember, these people don't matter."
That same sense of disdain for her audience comes through when she launches into highlights of "my classic jokes" (delivered with Arnold on stage doing rim shots on a drum). Her sarcastic manner implies these jokes are now beneath her, somehow. But wait a minute. This is the act that brought her success, so isn't she now insulting the audience who liked the stuff before?
Apparently because of the summer's national anthem fiasco, Barr also sings tonight (and later spits and grabs her crotch), doing several medleys of songs aimed at men and women. Again the idea is to be parodic, but the sequence is simply awful.
Barr's best bit is a clever, lengthy exploration of women's 28-day mood cycle, as compressed into a single day. It is material which stems from common experience and thus transcends this show's focus on Barr as comedy diva.
Yet she relapses quickly, closing with a flatly profane retort to talk show host Arsenio Hall, who has made Barr fat jokes a frequent part of his monologues.
In Jeni's Showtime special tonight, common experiences filtered through an observant eye and ear win the evening -- at least once you are past a pretty lame taped setup opening that features three sycophantic agents.
"I'm a former fat kid from New York plagued by incredible self-doubt," says Jeni of himself.
For instance, he doesn't know whether to stay single or get married, viewing the dilemma about the same as choosing "ointment or suppository?"
His parents had a bad marriage and divorced when he was 11. When they told him "we're splitting up," he was puzzled at the terminology, wondering, "what are you, the Beach Boys?"
His mother said he would have to take over as the father of the family, so he went around turning off lights to save energy. His hugely exaggerated account of every father's recollections of harder times is a hoot, as is a bit on the difficulty his family had getting up in the morning.
Sometimes he's earthy and explicit, as in a bit on X-rated movies -- his definition: "stuff that never happens to you, ever." Yet he fTC never quite crosses the line that makes the material crude or coarse, as Barr does.
Steve McKerrow's Media Monitor column appears Monday through Friday in the Accent section of The Evening Sun.