Ken Tucker
June 28, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Rosie O'Donnell Show

TV Show
Current Status
In Season
Rosie O'Donnell
Talk Shows

We gave it an A-

The advance word on The Rosie O’Donnell Show was a little ominous. To anyone who would listen, the actress-stand-up comic-Kmart shill insisted that her daytime talk show would be nice. Nearly every interview noted that O’Donnell was looking to do a Merv Griffin Show for the ’90s, a sunny answer to David Letterman’s nightly inquisition of his guests. ”You never saw anybody on Merv Griffin appearing nervous,” O’Donnell told the Los Angeles Times. ”It appeared everyone was his friend, and nobody felt in dangerous territory.”

Now, it’s one thing to plunk yourself down in daytime and conscientiously reject the freak-show exploitiveness of the Jerry Springer Show and Sally Jessy Raphael; it’s another thing to emulate Merv, the roly-poly pasha who never met a celebrity he didn’t ooh and ahh over. But as it turns out, the Merv comparison became irrelevant the very first week Rosie O’Donnell went on the air. Rosie, unlike Merv, is no burbling booster, and the difference between Rosie and Dave is that O’Donnell actually likes things — her guests, other television shows, and living inside her own skin.

O’Donnell’s initial episodes have been so good, so packed with fun and energy and ideas, that the only reservation I can muster is that I’m worried she’ll burn out too quickly. The show is based in O’Donnell’s native New York, where she’s tapped the talents of two Letterman escapees: Daniel Kellison, her executive producer, was a segment producer for Dave; and Randy Cohen, a former Late Night scribe, is Rosie’s head writer. O’Donnell has a dinky desk, with three dinky chairs for the guests. She sits at the desk to do her opening monologue, but halfway through most of the shows I’ve seen, she’s on her feet and out in the audience, interacting with the rabble with the sort of curiosity that cannot be faked. So far, my favorite stunt has been O’Donnell’s version of Johnny Carson’s old ”Stump the Band” bit: Rosie challenges anyone in the crowd to come up with a TV theme song to which she doesn’t know the words. She’s hilariously good at this; I mean, this is a woman who knows all the words to the That Girl theme. (O’Donnell also had the inspired whim to ask the Florida-retiree parents of Fran ”The Nanny” Drescher to review their local restaurants, resulting in marvelous, ad-lib fun.)

The sometime stand-up uses the skills she’s honed as a comedian and movie actor to achieve a nearly perfect talk-show-host persona. O’Donnell’s definitely in charge — snapping her jokes like so much chewing gum; guiding an interview so the guest is compelled to play along. But she’s also loose enough, and confident enough in her ability to improvise, to let a conversation take a wayward turn — as when she and soap star Susan Lucci started riffing on the Long Island Expressway, near which they both grew up.

The Rosie O’Donnell Show is wisely structured in a familiar way — opening remarks, interviews, cooking segments, music performances, etc. Yet, simply by allowing Rosie to be Rosie, the show serves as a refreshing contrast to other such efforts, like Live With Regis & Kathie Lee (which will regain its composure only when Philbin starts swatting Gifford with a rolled-up New York Post every time she starts to get weepy about some Kathiecentric slight) and failed daytimers Mike & Maty and Home.

Yes, our Rosie is indeed lavish with praise for her guests in the Merv manner, but when she extols a celebrity, it’s done with a distinctly O’Donnell delivery: rapid-fire, sincere, and parodic, all at the same time. Introducing Penny Marshall, her partner in Kmart kommercialism, O’Donnell said, lightning quick, no pauses: ”She’s comin’ out you’ll love her she’s great!” Earlier, in the midst of a string of jokes culled from newspaper items, the studio audience was laughing so hard, the noise was stepping on her punchlines. O’Donnell brayed, ”Stay with me, people — fly — stay with me!”

You go, Rosie; I’m flying as fast as I can. The Rosie O’Donnell Show: A-

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