Rosie O’Donnell’s Variety Show Flops With Critics And In Ratings

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The verdict seems as if it is definitively — and strongly — in: Rosie O’Donnell’s new variety show “Rosie Live” was DOA (various critics used this obvious pun) and seemingly provided another nail in the coffin for the once-dominant TV variety show format. But it’s worth looking at whether the format is really dead or — like Dracula rising from the grave — it’ll be back again sometime in the future to suck audience share away from other forms…and whether there are particular circumstances in O’Donnell’s debut that worked against her from the very start.

The reviews of her show are as positive as the reviews of Sarah Palin pardoning a turkey while a turkey was being butchered in the background. And, in fact, some writers likened the show to the bird now making its way through many TMV readers’ digestive systems (or to the hours later result…).

For instance, the Los Angeles’ Times review is a classic for those who love to read devastating reviews, dripping with disdain and shock:

Two words: Dancing food. “Rosie Live” ended with dancing food. There’s nothing else to say, really except perhaps, Liza Minnelli. “Rosie Live” opened with a little song and dance from Liza Minnelli, who rose to the stage, as if from the grave, to sing a duet with O’Donnell, in a luminous white suit, complete with fetching Broadway hat. Liza, we love you, we will always love you, but there is no shame in retirement.

And it gets worse:

In between we were treated to Harry Connick Jr. in a Santa hat, Conan O’Brien taking a pie in the face, and Jane Krakowski singing about all the free stuff audience members would get. Some of the items were pretty swell, but I’m here to tell you it wasn’t enough. Rosie made jokes about Spanx, Alec Baldwin appeared in a jacket two sizes too small with weird Einstein hair — neither of which were part of a gag. Clay Aiken strolled over from “Spamalot” to participate in the world’s most painfully long gay joke (“What was the other thing we have in common,” Rosie mused, “oh yeah, we’re both Gaaa … briel Byrne fans.”) and Alanis Morissette sang a song referencing the 12 Steps in front of, I kid you not, an endless loop of geese flying through a sunset.

Flying geese! There are not enough free video cameras or White Castle burgers in the world to make up for that. And what about the viewers at home? Where are our new cellphones and white strips products

Rosie, Rosie, what on earth were you thinking? Were you thinking camp? Were you thinking this will be big and brassy and so-over-the-top even the dancing cupcakes will be irresistible? For those of us who are, and remain, Rosie fans, who think “The View” will never quite recover from her departure, who think her desire to resurrect the variety show was, and is, a great idea, disappointment does not even begin to describe it.

The Live Feed also seemingly was trying to jolt itself out of its state of shock in a piece that also contained a quote giving reaction of a rival TV network executive:

Rosie O’Donnell gave NBC a real turkey.

The network’s attempt to revive the primetime variety show failed to draw an audience Wednesday night, tying for the evening’s lowest-rated program.

A mere 5 million viewers tuned in for the 8 p.m. premiere of “Rosie Live,” with the program earning a 1.2 preliminary adults 18-49 rating. The telecast matched ABC’s recently canceled “Pushing Daisies” as the night’s lowest-rated program on a major broadcast network.

NBC had high hopes for the special and planned to expand the program into a series should viewers re-embrace the decades-old variety format. Other networks, too, were watching closely since several are developing variety shows of their own.

“There’s a notion that the climate is right for the genre to make a comeback,” emailed one executive at a rival network. “I guess we now know what not to do, thanks to Rosie.”

Segments included Kathy Griffin impersonating Nancy Grace, Alec Baldwin hitting Conan O’Brian with a pie, O’Donnell singing “City Lights” with Liza Minnelli and Jane Krakowski doing a product-placement-themed striptease for White Castle burgers and Crest Whitestrips.

Critics were not kind. The NY Times described it as “hokey comedy with an enemies list.” TV Guide called it a “ghastly ego trip.” And the LA Times asked, “Rosie, what on earth were you thinking?”

TV Guide’s Matt Rousch was also raving about the show, but not quite in the way O’Donnell and NBC hoped:

If the TV variety format weren’t already dead, the ghastly ego trip of NBC’s Thanksgiving-eve turkey Rosie Live would surely have killed it. Like the pie Alec Baldwin predictably pushed into Conan O’Brien’s face that fell to the floor without sticking, the entire hour landed with a sickening, sad, ill-conceived thud. It felt like an off night at America’s Got Talent, bookended by wobbly appearances from Liza Minnelli and Gloria Estefan, each forced to perform with the caterwauling host, Rosie O’Donnell.

The low point? There were so many. I ran to the kitchen to see how our sweet-potato casserole was progressing so I could escape Jane Krakowski’s career-low stripper-ish ode to product placement, warbling new lyrics to Gypsy’s “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” that listed all the giveaways the live audience would get, everything from a Vudu player to White Castle hamburgers and Crest Whitestrips (probably not a bad idea after gorging on those stomach bombs). But even that was a treat compared to Clay Aiken, arriving in his Spamalot costume, engaging in who-loves-who-more banter with Rosie, coyly dancing around the gay issue. “We’re both Gayyy-briel Byrne fans,” Rosie sorta joked.

Kathy Griffin bombed in a Nancy Grace-less impersonation. Rosie’s opening monologue, larded with fat and boob jokes, stank of mothballs. Dancing boys wore food costumes and children were trotted out every so often in an attempt to make things appear wholesome. Harry Connick Jr., pitching his new Christmas CD in a Santa hat, didn’t even get to complete a full number without Rosie intruding. And there were a handful of so-so novelty and musical acts, a la Ed Sullivan. But this wasn’t a really big show. It was a really big bomb, an embarrassment and a pathetic eulogy for a form of TV that, like Rosie-the-eternal-fan, I grew up loving and still miss. (The comedy-variety spectacular reached its apex in The Carol Burnett Show, and somehow providence kept her well away from this botched revival.)

O’Donnell also inserted some shared assumptions about her audience and its beliefs which immediately placed the variety hour into the realm of a political show, whether that was her intent or not. This is a trap most classic variety shows avoided and the famous, beloved one that opted for controversial political comments (the Smothers’ Brothers’ show of the 60s) got axed by its wary network. The conservative site Newsbusters had this:

Rosie O’Donnell pledged her NBC variety show on Wednesday night wouldn’t get political — but it did, with gooey praise for Barack Obama at the beginning and then halfway into the show there were lame jokes against Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin.

She began by saying there’s wouldn’t be politics, but had to say “just two words: Barack Obama.” She looked up to God and mouthed “Thank you” while the audience cheered. “I can’t get over it, really,” Rosie claimed. “It’s been 22 days since the election and I just yesterday stopped hugging every black person I see.”

More than 30 minutes into the show, Rosie played some sort of police officer and a woman playing a pig-tailed little girl (carrying a stuffed animal) cracked jokes with her. After making fun that Rosie wasn’t on the diet show Celebrity Fit Club, the pig-tailed one said “I have problems of my own. Bill O’Reilly just Friended me on Facebook.” (Andrea Mackris sex-harassment suit humor, no doubt.)

That joke was harsher than the Palin joke. The girl next wondered if Alanis Morrisette was ready to sing yet, since “this sketch is dying faster than a moose at a Sarah Palin picnic.”

The show was supposed to be some nostalgic version of an old-time variety show, but it wasn’t really for the family-hour set. O’Donnell began by repeatedly touching her breasts and making jokes about how her “Spanx” undergarments were holding her together, like a “onesie for chubby forty-somethings.” She also said “dammit” in the first few minutes.

There was a sense of sadness in some of the reviews by critics who felt O’Donnell and the variety format had greater potential and could have done better. And, indeed: O’Donnell remains an engaging performer — when she has the right material and production package. This time she didn’t.

It’s worth looking at some of the factors that perhaps made O’Donnell’s valiant attempt to revive the genre tank. (DISCLAIMER: I have a vested interest in this form coming back to TV due to my other incarnation…)

1. O’Donnell remains popular as an entertainer but to some she is damaged goods due to her outspokenness on politics.
Most successful variety shows regardless of the format adaptation (Ed Sullivan, Carol Burnett, America’s Got Talent, The Hollywood Palace, Sonny & Cher, Dean Martin) offered entertainment that wasn’t hampered by the host or production company being politically defined in a way that cost it some audience share. She had been a controversial figure so in terms of ratings, there would be a certain number of views who wouldn’t have tuned in no matter how good the show was or how stellar its lineup was. (And they didn’t have a reason on either of these counts..)

2. Barbara Walters was on interviewing Senator Elect Barack Obama on ABC. Could the show have gotten a more respectable rating, at least, on another night? Perhaps. So there could be mitigating circumstances in terms of its low numbers. But will NBC dare air another segment?

3. Too many of her guests were caricatures of themselves before they appeared on her show and either had overstayed their welcome with some segments of America’s viewing public or were Mad Magazine fodder before they even got onstage, plus they weren’t on the show for the express purpose of the talent they could deliver in their specific segments. It was high concept: as if the name of the guest meant the segment didn’t really have to have great material or be staged that well.

4. Because the genre has been pronounced dead, O’Donnell should have known that any effort to launch a variety show would have to be of especially high quality, since the show could come under fire if it was anything less than a solid relaunching of the variety show form. The situation comedy on TV was pronounced largely dead until Bill Cosby revived it. TV police shows were sagging until NYPD breathed new life into the form. Game shows were relegated to daytime hours until Who Wants To Be A Millionaire became a national craze.

If you’re a student of show biz history, there are books that detail the careers of Burnett, Sullivan, and Martin that chronicle the thought and care that went into the preparation of their shows and what they were trying to do on them. DVDs are available of successful past variety shows. The 21st century’s America’s Got Talent had the contest component, but it was also popular as a variation on the variety show form due to it having some topflight performers that kept people tuning in for their segments week after week. Late night comics David Letterman and Jay Leno, like Johnny Carson before them, have kept parts of the vanished variety show genre intact.

But what you don’t read as much about are the many variety shows that hideously flopped over the past 50 years and the performers who either hit a dead end and didn’t do as well on weekly TV series as they did in other venues: Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. Jerry Lewis and a host of other. Every attempt at a variety show didn’t click: a huge number of shows noisily bombed. (Sammy Davis, Jr had written a best selling bio called “Yes I Can” and in his Vegas act Sinatra would declare:”Sam: I saw your show and no you can’t…”)

So the variety show format isn’t dead. It could still be revived– with the right performer who isn’t controversial, with careful thought, and with packaging and production values more akin to a Vegas or cruise style variety show than a celebrity vanity production with a bunch of celebrities instead of high-powered talent of its era.

O’Donnell and her guests have simply set the variety show format’s revival back a few years…or decades…