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 envisioned as a sketch character before everyone involved realized they had struck another vein of comedy gold altogether.

Stefon (whose last name is mentioned for the first and only time as Zolesky) was originally just the weirdo brother of Hollywood screenwriter Ben Affleck on the 11/11/2008 episode of the show, and his increasingly baroque and outlandish story ideas were ultimately rejected by Disney executives. (He’s going to do a rewrite on WALL-E 2.)

Roseanne, on the other hand, premiered the Charles Grodin-hosted episode in October. 29, 1977. She is not named in the Grodin-approved ad urging employers to “Hire the Incompetent,” but as soon as the camera cuts to Radner in her oversized, oddly geometric wig, 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 their entire lives for this equally big weirdo.

(Bill Murray and Laraine Newman also score in the sketch as, respectively, a supermarket bagger who can’t stop laying the eggs on the bottom and an air traffic controller fired for letting her romantic life with the pilots cause more crashes.)

Originally written by Rosie Shuster, the character was picked 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 recast as “Update’s” city correspondent for decades. later. In each case, it was a matter of embryonic characterization being recognized as a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, with Roseannadanna’s initial brashness and unabashed references to bodily fluids and functions serving to prompt straitlaced anchor Jane Curtin inevitably breaking in to complain, that Roseannadanna’s biological, discursive pieces made her physically ill.

For Radner, Roseanne was just another in a line of belly-laughing characters Saturday Night Live. Alongside the likes of the lanky and half-deaf commentator Emily Litella (also introduced in an unrelated skit written by Shuster and then adopted by Radner and Zweibel), the lonely and hyperactive child Judy Miller, the relentless but beloved “nerd ” Lisa Loopner and others, Radner channeled comedic fearlessness into instant 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 created for good ratings and unfailing recognition applause and laughter.

Watch Roseanne Roseannadanna in a 1978 ‘SNL’ performance

In Roseanne’s case, that meant breaking out a viewer letter, always from a Richard Feder of Fort Lee, NJ (the real name and residence of one of Zweibel’s in-laws), whose complaint about a current event in the news left the door open. open to Roseanne first insulting Feder for the personal details revealed in the letter (“You must be a really attractive guy”) and then going on at length, usually about an unfortunate encounter she recently had with an unsuspecting celebrity. (Bo Derek with 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 trying? Make me sick?” Cue Curtin’s disgusted look and Roseanne’s response from the opening line: “Well, it just goes to show you, it’s always something.”

Radner’s SNL Stardom arose from her gleeful willingness to go huge with the broadest of characters, all the while projecting an understated charisma that drew viewers to the actress with a loving fervor. Some of Radner’s finest moments at these early shows were her coming out herself to assure her mother that she didn’t need to stay up to watch since Radner didn’t have much to do that week or prove the adage that people were willing to listen to a beloved performer read the phone book by simply regaling the delighted live audience with a list of everything she had eaten that day.

Coming from the harsh world of the man-driven National Lampoon Radio Hour and Second City, Radner could hold his own against comedy powerhouses as co-stars John Belushi while forging a bond with audiences that made even the crude gag that was Roseanne Roseannadanna a beloved favorite. But as SNL artists of all eras have learned that 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 first, untitled appearance on the Grodin show. But behind the scenes, the character’s runaway popularity, along with the formulaic nature of her schtick, engendered some resentment.

Watch Roseanne Roseannadanna in a 1979 ‘SNL’ performance

In Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s seminal backstage history of the earliest seasons of the show, Saturday night, the writers claimed that “within the show, Roseanne became one of the most despised characters ever” and that various writers pleaded with Michaels that Roseanne should be “put to sleep, shot or otherwise disposed of.” Even Radner and Zweibel would tire of the laughs that turned into finding new ways for the character to make Curtin sick, with Michaels ultimately triumphing in keeping one of the show’s most in-demand characters front and center.

As it turns out, it was the mousey Litella that became the most repeated SNL character ever, Litella chalked up about 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 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) also left a lasting mark.

After the much-loved actress was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986, Radner went on to write a memoir about her heartbreaking (and, yes, gross) experiences with the disease, which she titled It’s always somethingbefore he died in 1989 at the age of 42.

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