45 Years Ago: Roseanne Roseannadanna Makes ‘SNL’ Debut
As would be the case 31 years later with another classic "Weekend Update" correspondent on Saturday Night Live, Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna originally appeared on the show in a different form. Like Bill Hader’s Stefon, the woman who would become Roseanne was first imagined as a sketch character before everyone involved recognized that they’d struck another vein of comedy gold entirely.
Stefon (whose last name is mentioned for the first and only time as Zolesky) was originally just the oddball brother of Hollywood scriptwriter Ben Affleck on the Nov. 11, 2008, episode of the show, and his increasingly baroque and outre story ideas are ultimately rejected by Disney executives. (He does get to do a rewrite on WALL-E 2.)
Roseanne, on the other hand, premiered on the Charles Grodin-hosted episode on Oct. 29, 1977. She’s not named in the Grodin-endorsed commercial urging employers to “Hire the Incompetent,” but as soon as the camera cuts to Radner in her oversized, oddly geometric wig and the character opens her mouth to explain why she was fired from her fast-food job (customers kept finding hair in their food somehow), the audience bursts into laughter as if they’d been waiting for this similarly outsized weirdo all their lives.
(Bill Murray and Laraine Newman also score in the sketch as, respectively, a supermarket bagger who can’t stop putting the eggs on the bottom and an air traffic controller fired for letting her romantic life with the pilots cause multiple crashes.)
Originally written by Rosie Shuster, the character was snapped up by Radner and Radner’s longtime writing partner Alan Zweibel and repurposed as "Weekend Update"’s consumer affairs reporter, just as Stefon would be refashioned as "Update"’s “city correspondent” decades later. In each case, it was a matter of an embryonic characterization being recognized as a guaranteed crowd pleaser, with Roseannadanna’s initial brashness and unashamed references to bodily fluids and functions serving to make straitlaced anchor Jane Curtin inevitably break in to complain that Roseannadanna’s biological, discursive pieces were making her physically sick.
For Radner, Roseanne was just another in a string of belly-laugh characters on Saturday Night Live. Alongside the likes of the doddering and half-deaf commentator Emily Litella (likewise introduced in an unrelated sketch written by Shuster and then adopted by Radner and Zweibel), lonely and hyperactive child Judy Miller, graceless but lovelorn “nerd” Lisa Loopner and others, Radner channeled comic fearlessness into immediate fan favorites.
Each character had a formula from which Radner and the writers could expand Radner’s repertoire of catchphrases, mannerisms and signature physicality, something that Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels quickly realized made for good ratings and unfailing recognition applause and laughter.
Watch Roseanne Roseannadanna in a 1978 'SNL' Appearance
In Roseanne’s case, that meant breaking out a viewer letter, always from one Richard Feder of Fort Lee, N.J. (the real name and residence of one of Zweibel’s in-laws), whose complaint about a current event in the news left the door wide open for Roseanne to first insult Feder for the personal details revealed in the letter (“You must be a real attractive guy”) and then digress at length, usually about an unfortunate encounter she’s recently had with an unsuspecting celebrity. (Bo Derek sporting exposed nose hair, Kennedy relative Caroline Lee Bouvier with toilet paper on her shoe and so on.) After going into graphic detail, Roseanne would invariably explain how she complained to the famous person, “Hey, [insert celebrity’s name] — what are you tryin’ to do? Make me sick?” Cue Curtin's disgusted looks and Roseanne's exit-line response, “Well it just goes to show you, it's always something.”
Radner’s SNL stardom emerged from her gleeful willingness to go huge with the broadest of characters, all while projecting an unassuming charisma that drew viewers to the actress with an affectionate fervor. Some of Radner’s finest moments on these early shows were as herself, coming out to reassure her mother that she needn’t stay up to watch since Radner didn’t have much to do that week or proving the adage about people being willing to listen to a beloved performer read the phone book by simply regaling the delighted live audience with a list of everything she’d eaten that day.
Coming from the rough-and-tumble world of male-driven National Lampoon Radio Hour and Second City, Radner could hold her own against comedy powerhouses like castmate John Belushi while forging a bond with the audience that turned even the gross-out gag that was Roseanne Roseannadanna into a beloved favorite. But, as SNL performers of all eras have learned, familiarity can also breed contempt, whether in front of the camera or backstage. Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna never lost her audience appeal, despite ultimately appearing 16 times after her initial, unnamed appearance on the Grodin show. But behind the scenes, the runaway popularity of the character along with the formulaic nature of her schtick did engender some resentment.
Watch Roseanne Roseannadanna in a 1979 'SNL' Appearance
In Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s seminal backstage history of the earliest seasons of the show, Saturday Night, the authors claimed that “within the show, Roseanne became one of the most despised characters ever” and that various writers begged Michaels that Roseanne should be “put to sleep, shot or otherwise disposed of.” Even Radner and Zweibel would tire of the grind that became finding new ways for the character to make Curtin nauseous, with Michaels ultimately prevailing in keeping one of the show’s most in-demand characters front and center.
As it turns out, it was the mousy Litella who became the most repeated SNL character ever, Litella chalking up some 25 total all-time appearances to Roseanne’s mere 17. (Up that number to 18 if you stretch to include when Emma Stone suited up to pay tribute to her favorite childhood character on the SNL 40th-anniversary show.) For Radner, her time in the wig and booming New York accent (reportedly inspired by contemporary New York news anchor Rose Ann Scamardella) left a lasting mark as well.
After the much-loved actress was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986, Radner went on to write a memoir about her wrenching (and, yes, gross) experiences with the disease that she titled It's Always Something, before dying in 1989 at the age of 42.