The Unfair Reputation of Rosie O’Donnell

During the comedy boom of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Rosie O’Donnell was one of the fastest rising stars in the New York standup scene. At the time, there were half-hour comedy shows on just about every cable network, and O’Donnell appeared on just about every one of them. In fact, she would go on to replace comedian Bobby Collins as host for VH1’s foray into the stand-up business, unimaginatively titled Vh1’s Standup Spotlight.

However in the intervening years O’Donnell’s reputation as a comic has receded to a point that younger readers may even be surprised to hear she ever did standup at all. This may be because, except for the odd standup performance at charity functions, O’Donnell doesn’t perform as much as she used to. In the years since her rise through the standup comedy ranks, she has been a movie star, a talk show host (three times!), run her own magazine, and has become a vocal activist for gay rights (specifically advocating for the right of gay parents to adopt).

Throughout this time, O’Donnell has not been shy about voicing her political beliefs, which above all else may account for her diminished reputation in the comedy world. Which is a shame, really. At her best, O’Donnell’s acerbic style of comedy was biting without being off-putting, which is a difficult trick to pull off. Here is a clip from O’Donnell’s heyday:

While that “attitude” style of comedy has largely gone out of style, there is no denying the bit about O’Donnell’s stepmom is as clear and concise as a joke can get and would do well today. This is a small gripe, however, as the set is overall very funny and the force of O’Donnell’s personality completely wins over the audience. For most young comedians, forming a strong, relatable character for the stage is the most difficult step in their evolution as a comic and as we have seen in previous installments of this column, could arguably be more important than the jokes themselves.

Which brings us to the crux of Rosie O’Donnell’s fall from grace as far as her public perception goes and I believe it can best be summed up by this comment from the YouTube video clip presented above.

“Wow. Nice to watch Rosie again - back when I liked her. She was so funny in her early years. Now she takes everything too seriously. I can’t believe how mean she’s gotten.”

Now, to a certain degree, this anonymous Internet citizen has a point, although misapplied. In that clip, we see a performer who has a sweet side, sure, but we also see someone who lashes out at her stepmom for absolutely no reason. O’Donnell is wise to set up the bit by putting the blame for her histrionic reaction to her stepmother’s request squarely on her own shoulders, but it still isn’t nice. In fact, through most of her brief clip little of what she says is “nice.” Which is fine, comedy isn’t supposed to be nice.

Where the commenter is wrong is that Rosie O’Donnell has never not been mean as a standup comic. However, it was during O’Donnell’s long run as a daytime talk show host that the transition from Rosie O’Donnell as a biting standup comic changed to that of a sweet, friendly Mom who invited friends over during the day to chat about Broadway and Tom Cruise. The transition went over so well that only a year after The Rosie O’Donnell Show’s premiere, Rosie was christened the “Queen of Nice” by Time magazine.

During the show’s run, Rosie helped popularize the Tickle Me Elmo doll, gave out Drake’s confectionary delights to the audience, and gleefully fawned over her guests in a way that makes Jimmy Fallon seem demure and reserved in comparison.

To those whose taste in talk show hosts were weaned on the smart-ass acidity of David Letterman or the cool reserve of Johnny Carson, Rosie’s turn as a daytime talk sensation felt like a betrayal. However, this sweetness was always part of her act, just hidden beneath layers of sarcasm and bravado. Like Jimmy Fallon, Rosie used her good nature and friendly demeanor to provide a warm place for viewers to drop in on after a hard day of work. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In its prime, the show was one of the most talked about shows on television, because even if it was not your cup of tea, it was definitely right up the alley of many moms across the country and they could not get enough of Rosie’s frivolous antics.

As happy-go-lucky as Rosie appeared to be in front of the camera, though, rumors swirled around that behind the camera she could be demanding and blunt with the crew. In 1999, just a month after the horrific Columbine shootings the Rosie audience would get a peak behind the genial façade of talk show host and that audience would be left…uncomfortable. It was during her conversation with Tom Selleck, on the show to promote a movie that the public perception of Rosie O’Donnell started to shift.

To those in the comedy community who may have felt betrayed by Rosie’s turn as a daytime talk show host, that betrayal would be nothing compared to the skewering O’Donnell received after this interview aired. Of course, many of the people who lean right on the political spectrum were incensed by Selleck’s interrogation, but those in the middle and even the left voiced anger that Rosie dipped into this line of questioning and due in part to Selleck’s affability and visible discomfort throughout the interview, O’Donnell definitely comes across looking a bit like a bully.

Partly, it is due to the fact that on the show, politics was rarely if ever touched upon at all. The people who watched this show did not do so hoping for an illuminating discussion about gun rights. Of course, the other reason that Rosie’s interview with Selleck was so controversial is a bit more complicated. While other talk show hosts have certainly engaged in heated discussions with their guests, most of them had the distinct advantage of having penises. To the viewer at home watching Rosie O’Donnell dress down no less a totem of male virility and masculinity than Magnum P. freaking I. it must have been like watching a corgi take down a grizzly bear.

It was at this time that public perception of Rosie O’Donnell started to change. Gone was the “Queen of Nice” and in her place was the overbearing, angry lesbian who is seemingly determined to dominate every conversation. It was this perception of O’Donnell that was cemented in the minds of many viewers during her brief tenure on ABC’s morning talk show, The View. It was after the now infamous argument that O’Donnell got into with The View’s conservative co-host and Survivor contestant Elizabeth Hasselback that prompted O’Donnell to leave the show. However, it wasn’t the argument itself that made Rosie leave, as much as the producer’s decision to cut to split screen during the altercation. O’Donnell felt that by doing so, the producers gave the world an image of, in her words “big fat lesbian Rosie attacks innocent, pure, Christian Elizabeth.”

In fact, Rosie O’Donnell has a point. Even before things came to a head on the show, O’Donnell was frequently portrayed in the media as loud, angry, and disrespectful. While it is understandable that people with a conservative point of view feel this was about her, it is puzzling that many in the middle and even on the left often share this notion. Not only does this image of Rosie O’Donnell persist, it also perpetuates the baseline of sexism that is inherent in our society. Bill Maher was lionized for speaking truth to power to the Bush Administration, but O’Donnell was mostly disregarded as a querulous woman.

When I have written about previous comedians in this series, they have been people whose reputations as comedians, for better or for worse, were generally on the money. Does Carrot Top resort to cheap jokes? Of course. Does Larry the Cable Guy sometimes represent the very worst of Southern culture? Yes. I have taken the quixotic task of asking readers to look past those faults and appreciate the comics for the professional performers they are, however with this article, I have found that the perception of Rosie O’Donnell is nothing like her actual comedy.

Granted, she does not perform as much as she used to, but when I watch a clip of her from the last season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I have to wonder who is the humorless, mean, angry woman that people complain about when Rosie O’Donnell is brought up in a conversation.

There’s a double standard when it comes to women in comedy; especially if, like Rosie O’Donnell, you develop an interest in politics and social concerns later in your career rather than starting your career that way. Janeane Garofalo similarly suffered some backlash when she spoke up about the Bush Administration. Yet, male comics like George Carlin and Bill Maher were celebrated when they stopped doing safe material and become more political in their acts.

Is Rosie O’Donnell opinionated, brusque, and difficult to deal with? Like most good comics, she definitely is. Is she a mean and humorless woman looking to stomp over anyone who disagrees with her? Not if the above clip from Curb is any indication. That is a woman who gleefully throws herself into a scene and more than holds her own sparring with one of the great comedy minds of our era. That is a woman who is at her best when playing her worst. That is a woman who deserves our respect, begrudging or otherwise.

The Unfair Reputation of Rosie O’Donnell