''The Rosie O'Donnell Show'' is a number 1 daytime show, and its star stays down to Earth

By Ken Tucker
July 26, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Go ahead. Ask Rosie O’Donnell anything — even that question no right-minded talk-show host would dare answer: Whom is she going to vote for? ”Clinton. I said this on my show” — that’s The Rosie O’Donnell Show, the new hour of guests ‘n’ gab that has premiered to the highest ratings of any daytime talk show in this decade — ”and I thought: ‘Uh-oh. I guess there’s a reason Dave and Jay never get into their political affiliations; I’m gonna get letters from Republicans about this.’ Then I realized: ‘What Republicans are watching daytime television? They’re too busy tryin’ to make more money than anybody else.”’

Ask her whether Jay Leno really did call to complain about an on-air joke: ”Yeah, whatta baby. With Jay, the big thing is, everybody’s gotta like him or he gets upset. I just said I didn’t like the way somebody’ll come on The Tonight Show and he’ll say [breaking into an impeccably nasal Leno impersonation], ‘That’s a nice shirt, there, Ken — where’d ya get it, Kmart?’ and start making fun of somebody instead of having a conversation. Johnny [Carson] never woulda done that.”

Try a quick curveball, taking the Kathie Lee Gifford route: Who does O’Donnell think makes the clothes for Kmart, the store she and her pal Penny Marshall plug in commercials? ”Hey, like I said to Regis [Philbin]: ‘Probably children in Honduras; I think Kmart has sweatshops too,”’ she says with a just-kidding laugh.

Now, what’s all that stuff about Rosie O’Donnell bringing sweetness and light to daytime television? For a host who’s remaking the talk-show genre with a policy of being gracious, not exploitative, the 34-year-old O’Donnell also bubbles over with a casual frankness rare in her new business.

It may be a frankness inspired by instant success. In its first week on the air, The Rosie O’Donnell Show ranked No. 1 in 14 major television markets, and these days, stations that were leery of giving the show a plum morning or afternoon berth (like Philadelphia’s WPVI, where, O’Donnell moans, ”they put us on at 2 freakin’ o’clock in the mornin’!”) are now hastily rearranging their programming schedules to give the new talk sensation cushier time periods — all of which more than justifies her reported $4 million-a-year salary.

So ask her what her life is like now that she’s a skyrocketing TV star. ”Too busy, dull, and wonderful. These are now the only things I do: the show, spend time with Parker [her 13-month-old adopted son], watch TV at night, and sometimes play Scrabble with a bunch of friends. That’s it,” insists O’Donnell, who does these few things in her rented apartment on Manhattan’s West Side (she recently bought a house, now being renovated, in Nyack, N.Y.). ”You want some colorful details for your story? Go play with Parker, because he has a much more active life.”

And playing with Parker is a tempting notion — he’s a cheerful blond demon crawler who keeps up a constant stream of intriguing baby babble. But right now an interview with him is impossible, because a camera crew from Jane Pauley’s Dateline NBC is busy filming in Parker’s custom-built, Warner Bros. toy-stuffed nursery, just off of O’Donnell’s office.

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