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SHE WAS different right from the beginning. She was, in truth, rather bovine (she even seemed to chew her cud between jokes). And her thin, nasal voice sounded like a tin pie plate being scraped in the next room.

Roseanne Barr didn't like the word "housewife." She liked "domestic goddess" better. And while she was on the subject, she did some of the best comedic man-bashing ever.

Phyllis Diller's jokes about Fang, for instance, bore no resemblance to any real husband. Neither did Joan Rivers' jokes about Edgar (a fictional husband who shared the same first name as her real one). Barr's jokes were so full of contemptuous ennui that they could come only from some variation on the real thing.

You knew from those first "Tonight Show" appearances that Roseanne Barr was going to hit big -- really, really big (as Ed Sullivan might have said).

We had never seen a female comic quite like her before. The late Totie Fields came close, but, no matter what, Totie Fields always insisted that she be thought of as "a lady." Until Roseanne Barr, that was the unwritten law of "comediennes" -- say and do whatever you want, but be a lady.

Roseanne Barr is no lady. Not even close. She's the angry muumuu from the trailer park, the weekly revenge of the reality principle.

She may be the star of the most popular sitcom on television, but lady -- in the Nancy Reagan sense -- isn't a role she's likely to fit into her repertoire. Two years of weird, smarmy headlines at the checkout stand of your local superette have proved that: Roseanne Barr having foul-mouthed tantrums on the set of "Roseanne" (the original executive producer was replaced), separating from her husband, hiring toughs to beat up bedeviling photographers, mooning the audience at a World Series game with her new boyfriend, canceling her planned wedding so that her boyfriend could go into detox.

She has become the avenging Joan of Arc of the tabloids. She seems to spend every other week standing in the pyre.

One obvious reason for her tabloid life is the same one that accounts for fat as one of the tabloids' cardinal subjects: a lot more of us look like Roseanne Barr and John Goodman on "Roseanne" than look like Ted Danson and Kirstie Alley on "Cheers."

In fact, the tabloids seem to conceive of the "enquiring minds" in their readership as overweight, middle-aged women with lousy marriages, no money and inchoate desires. And they seem to have appointed Roseanne Barr the mad queen of muumuu nation.

Sensitivity isn't exactly the tabloids' long suit.

What's very sad about this is that if I had to imagine a plausible celebrity shelf life for Roseanne Barr in the '90s, my guess would be two years, tops. She may, in fact, be current television's specimen case of celebrity toxic shock syndrome.

If ever there was a woman in way over her head, it's Roseanne Barr. By now, there has been Roseanne the TV show, Roseanne the book and Roseanne the movie. But she is -- and remains -- a first-rate comic and that's about all. It's certain -- to me, anyway -- that she can't be overexposed Cosby-style without professional suicide. She's neither a good enough actress for it nor a hardened enough celebrity.

One prevalent theory is that John Goodman -- a real actor -- carries her TV show. Whether or not that's true, you can bet that somewhere in the dark files of ABC there is a contingency plan for that moment when Roseanne Barr loses it completely, barges into an ABC affiliates meeting moon-first and starts decking station managers right and left.

However unlikely it might seem, the brute and terrible fact is that "Roseanne" can probably get along without her.

Goodman is, by general consensus, the most lovable character actor extant. If Roseanne Barr, for whatever reason, became untenable, ABC could pull a "Valerie" and, with very little stretching, remake the show around him. They could invent some horrifically real excuse for her not being there (and reap mountains of media praise for their brave invention).

Obviously, you couldn't have a Cosby Show without Cosby or a "Dear John" without Judd Hirsch. But they could still get a pliable blue-collar sitcom out of just John Goodman and the kids.

Behind all this you can't help but remember that this was a woman who, in her youth, spent a large chunk of time in an institution after being committed by her parents. That they now admit it was a mistake only makes matters worse.

Whenever she is interviewed at some length on TV -- by Barbara Walters, for instance -- you can sense custody lurking somewhere in the shadows. Past or future is by no means clear.

Whenever Goodman is interviewed on TV (which he has been a lot recently), he goes out of his way to praise her but he also seems to have the kind of stricken inarticulateness of a man waiting to hear some very bad news.

I seem to be alone in this, but I find something cruel and terrifying about this whole circus. Watching Roseanne Barr scream and brawl her way through the tabloids and the paparazzi is like watching some vulnerable caged animal pelted by rocks and sticks by young kids.

It's worse than that, though. Every bit of higher exploitation which has rained on her head, every attempt to grab a piece of her by Barbara Walters and ABC's "PrimeTime Live," seems to me like another shove in the direction of custody -- or the abyss (whichever comes first).

With almost every word she says, you can tell she's not ready for all this.

It's distinctly possible that I'm exaggerating here.

After seeing the last couple on-air interviews with John Goodman, though, I don't think so. He was supposed to be doing some promotional dances for Steven Spielberg's "Always," but every time her name came up, you could see discomfort turn into veiled terror in his eyes.

He mumbled his way through it encouragingly, but looked like a man who can hear the stirring of jungle drums in the distance -- a man who might frown and say, "I don't like the sound of those drums."

But then, to paraphrase the old Charlie Manna joke, "She's not our regular drummer."

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