So comedian Roseanne Barr has rebooted her popular sitcom series from the 1990s. As a comedian who courted a lot of controversy in her heyday as a sitcom star, the premiere of her reboot has followed that same pattern. The controversy for this reboot is in regards to the Roseanne Conner character and Roseanne Barr herself being outspoken supporters of the always incendiary President Trump.
The politics of both Roseannes has come as a surprise for longtime viewers of the ’90s sitcom, considering that it had more of a left leaning slant at the time. It directly challenged the patriarchal “father knows best” mentality that was a staple among sitcoms by framing the housewife as the glue that holds the family together. Roseanne was a show that prided itself in tackling working-class issues from a Woody Guthrie-esque point of view yet also wasn’t afraid of tackling issues related to racism, women’s rights, and LGBT+ rights. Outside of the show, Roseanne Barr once upon a time ran for president under the Green Party. So what happened here?
And who is Al Capp and what’s Roseanne gotta do with him?
Al Capp was a 20th Century newspaper cartoonist and creator of the comic strip Lil’ Abner. In his heyday, particularly during the immediate post-WWII years, Al Capp was the most famous cartoonist in the world. And back in these days, having a popular comic strip got a person more than a Mashable or Bored Panda article. The popularity of Lil’ Abner made Al Capp a multimillionaire and a fixture on radio, television, and print publications.
The popularity of Lil’ Abner was owed in big part of its sharp satirical edge and the politically outspoken nature of it and by extension its very gregarious creator. The protagonists of the comic strip, Lil’ Abner Yokum, his family, Daisy Mae, and all the colorful denizens of Dogpatch, are a precursor to The Beverly Hillbillies, but with the New Deal-style politics of Roseanne. Just as the Conners were used as stand-ins for the average working-class family in Roseanne, the folks of Dogpatch were often used as stand-ins for the American public. Capp is decidedly less sympathetic in his portrayal the average joe than Roseanne since his stand-ins are ignorant and gullible slack-jawed yokels, but he always sided with them over the greedy businessmen and shysters that exploit and manipulate them in order to make a buck. Al Capp was a New Deal Democrat all throughout the Roosevelt and Truman years and remained a steadfast Democrat as the American landscape shifted more conservative in the ’50s.
But in the 1960s, as a reinvigorated left-wing activist base emerged and became influential, Al Capp’s politics started shifting to the right. Instead of going after greedy businessmen, the targets of Lil’ Abner’s ire were student protesters (which he called “Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything”, or “SWINE”) and counterculture celebrities like Joan Baez. The cartoonist who once took the piss out of powerful corporate CEOs by showing them leap out of windows to their deaths after their profits declined was now rubbing elbows with the likes of William F. Buckley, Richard Nixon, and Spiro Agnew.
I really hope the only parallels between Roseanne Barr and Al Capp are their major shifts in politics over a period in time. The other thing Al Capp is best known for is likely the biggest reason he’s nary known or acknowledged since his time. As a conservative pundit, Capp used to tour college campuses across the country in response to the rising liberal activism across colleges. While touring these colleges, Capp’s reputation took a major hit when it was discovered that he had sexually harassed numerous coeds (not to mention that he once exposed himself to Goldie Hawn and attempted to rape Grace Kelly). As stories of Capp’s sexual misconduct became widely known, newspapers across the country dropped Lil’ Abner and Al Capp became a pariah to the public for the rest of his life. Even nowadays, the legacy of Lil’ Abner are rarely acknowledged outside of comic historian circles despite its massive popularity in the ’40s and ’50s and Al Capp has been a relegated as little more than a footnote in history.
Could the same happen to this guy too? Perhaps.
It has recently been reported that John Kricfalusi, most famous for being the creator of Ren & Stimpy, has been accused by two women, Robyn Byrd and Katie Rice, of sexual harassment and statutory rape when they were teenagers. Up until now, Kricfalusi has enjoyed the reputation of being a controversial, but brilliant and revolutionary cartoonist who was pivotal in changing the landscape of TV animation in the early ’90s. Ren & Stimpy, along with Doug and Rugrats, established the Nicktoons, which would turn the fledgling network Nickelodeon into a powerhouse and help elevate the standards of quality of children’s cartoons beyond the rote half-hour commercials they had been reduced to in the ’80s. In addition, Ren & Stimpy’s popularity with adults also helped establish the viability of animation aimed at adults, especially as studio politics were putting the nails in the coffin of Ralph Bakshi’s career making theatrical features. Kricfalusi’s legacy as an influential creator positioned him as a precious, heavily guarded asset within the animation industry despite his long history of burning one professional bridge after another and his predilection for preying on teenage girls having apparently been an open secret in the animation world for years.
Before these accusations came to light, John Kricfalusi was infamous for voicing his…very strong opinions about other cartoons that came out around the same time as his own and after. To be more direct, his absolute veneration for Golden Age Warner Bros. animation and the Hanna-Barbera TV shows of the ’50s and ’60s made him a curmudgeon regarding other types of cartoons. He has disparaged The Simpsons, Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, The Critic, Family Guy, and many other cartoons.
It probably comes as no surprise that Al Capp was a major snob when it came to his artistic tastes as well. His art style was based on a thorough foundation of life drawing, perspective, and the other principles of art established by the Renaissance artists. He let it be known how little regard he had for the modern art movement emerging at the time. He never looked past the surface of abstract expressionist, minimalist, or pop art paintings, so he dismissed the artists as charlatans making a racket out of artwork his kid could do (I’d love to see him and Clement Greenberg locked in a room together…).
He was particularly mystified by the growing popularity of a little comic strip that could called Peanuts. This comic about neurotic little kids talking like a bunch of grown up psychiatrists and a dog that acts like a weird human made no sense to him. Schulz’ “simple” drawing style that only grew more flat as it continued was a bizarre contrast to the lush artwork of his own comic, or the work of his buddies Walt Kelly and Milton Caniff. And no doubt it was a blow to Capp’s ego that Peanuts’ growing popularity started to overshadow Lil’ Abner in the ’60s. Capp’s response was to make a fairly mean-spirited parody of Peanuts in 1968.
I don’t really have a bigger point to make about any of these figures or any insight as to why they are the way they are. I suspect that with Roseanne and Al Capp, a negative response to a shifting social landscape sent them down the rabbit hole on the other side of the spectrum (I don’t know John K’s politics, although he had a fixation with ’50s era masculinity). In Kricfalusi’s case, he may not have ever changed. His ascent up the hierarchy within animation production may have further exacerbated bad habits (work habits and sexual habits) he always had. And maybe Capp and Roseanne never changed either. I’ve heard Adam Carolla complain in response to critics calling him right-wing, that his support for legalizing marijuana and prostitution was not at all considered right-wing in the ’90s. And perhaps Al Capp’s and Roseanne’s views of the world stayed stagnant as it continued to pass them by, so going from liberal to conservative made perfect sense to them. Or not. I don’t know.
P.S. Isn’t F Is for Family all about a middle-aged curmudgeon who has a hard time adjusting a changing social landscape (I haven’t seen it)?
UPDATE 5/29/18: And just like that, ABC has canceled the Roseanne reboot over a racist tweet Roseanne Barr made. Who could have seen that coming?