Being the child of a celebrity has its perks: famous friends, incredible wealth, private schools. But as Jenny Pentland, the now-45-year-old daughter of Roseanne Barr tells it, those “perks” aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
“I grew up in comedy clubs and mental institutions,” Pentland writes, and that’s not an exaggeration.
In her bracingly honest and mordantly funny memoir, aptly titled “This Will Be Funny Later” (Harper, 352 pp., ★★★ out of four, out now), Pentland lays out the good, the bad, the ugly and the downright surreal of a celebrity upbringing and of seeing one’s messy life scrubbed and polished into a PG prime-time sitcom. The TV show “Roseanne” was directly based on Pentland’s family: Becky and Darlene were amalgams of the author and her older sister Jessica, while D.J. was based on little brother Jake.
But while TV Roseanne was a supportive mother in a strong marriage who helped her children out of scrapes with a firm but loving hand, in real life, the family ruptured under fame's immense pressure. Divorce followed Hollywood success, as did dangerous crash diets and stints in mental hospitals and reform schools. “I resented Parallel Jenny’s simple life,” Pentland writes. “I couldn’t watch the show without feeling angry, and then I couldn’t watch it because TV was not allowed in reform school.”
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Barr’s ascension to everyone’s favorite sitcom mom was sudden and surreal. Previously, Pentland's father, Bill Pentland, worked at the post office while her mother took a job as a cocktail waitress at Bennigan’s, where she cracked jokes with diners until trying out her quips at Colorado comedy club open mics. Comedians Louie Anderson and Dennis Miller saw her perform and encouraged her to pursue a comedy career, which eventually led to a “The Tonight Show” appearance, an HBO special and, of course, a sitcom.
The resulting move to California was a profound upheaval for a working-class family that had gotten its start in a trailer. When Bill Pentland worked as a trash collector, he would scavenge for toys for the kids. The overweight, relatively poor Jewish family did not fit in with Hollywood's cookie-cutter glam. “In everyone’s perception, we were basically the Beverly Hillbillies,” Pentland writes.
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Pentland writes that Barr was overwhelmed trying to balance work and life while her father struggled with his new role as a stay-at-home dad. They'd soon be divorced, Barr having begun an affair with "Roseanne" writer and eventual second husband Tom Arnold.
“Our family was falling apart, and the stress of falling apart was making us fall apart even faster,” Pentland writes.
They were also being tormented by paparazzi and tabloids, who were digging through the family’s trash and past lives. Before long, a private investigator mined some gold: Barr, he discovered, had given up a daughter for adoption when she was 17. The PI sold his info to the National Enquirer just as Barr was meeting her oldest child, Brandi Ann Brown, for the first time.
Pentland writes, “The first time I ever saw my sister Brandi’s face was in the prom picture her high school boyfriend shared on the front page of the National Enquirer while I was standing in line at the grocery store after school.”
Crash diets, ‘fat camps’ and reform schools
Adolescence is hard enough on a young girl without the added pressures of fame and fortune, but Pentland’s teenage years take the cake – or they would if the fridge hadn’t been padlocked.
Even before Barr hit the big time, there was pressure on the Pentland girls to lose weight. The family cycled through fad diets – Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, but also sketchier models like the Rice Diet, which had the family subsisting on Minute Rice. At one point, Pentland writes, Barr’s diet “consisted of just one ice-cream cone and one doughnut a day.”
Eventually, a heavy-duty chain was padlocked around the fridge to keep the kids from sneaking snacks (it didn’t work – Pentland only got more creative). Summers, they’d be sent to weight-loss retreats derogatorily called “fat camps.”
The pressure mounted further when “Roseanne” took off. Pentland writes, “Everyone wanted to make us over and teach us which fork to eat with, not because these things are important to happiness but because they were embarrassed that white trash like us had gained entry into their club.”
Both Pentland girls spent the majority of their adolescence in a succession of mental health facilities, reform schools and survival camps while Barr navigated divorce, a doomed marriage with Arnold and an increasingly chaotic work schedule. “Weeks after Jessica disappeared into the privatized adolescent mental health care system, my mom left to film the movie ‘She-Devil’ with Meryl Streep in New York,” Pentland writes.
Still, for all the weirdness and trauma documented in “This Will Be Funny Later,” Pentland’s account of life with her family is also full of warmth and especially humor, with chapter headings like “How to Smoke an Illegal Cigarette in a Lock-Up Facility” and “The Pee Cup Is Half Full.” Despite it all, she grew up, got married, had five sons and moved to Hawaii to help her mother with her macadamia nut farm – and wrote a book. Hopefully, just her first.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jenny Pentland, Roseanne’s daughter, on her weird and wild upbringing