It’s very easy to forget that Rosie O’Donnell is an excellent stand-up comic because of the last few years when her job seemed to have been Professional Shit Stirrer. During her two stormy stints on The View, O’Donnell got more attention for her politics and inability to keep her mouth shut (thank god) than for her gags. And while her HBO stand-up special, Rosie O’Donnell: A Heartfelt Stand Up, isn’t the comeback event it could’ve been, it does make a case for her oft-underestimated abilities as a comedian.
Before her coming out and becoming overtly political, O’Donnell’s comedic person was that of a chatty girlfriend that you could reminisce about pop culture nostalgia and minutia. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of TV shows, commercials, pop music, and film. Her early stand-up was often a mix of lightly personal anecdotes, plus cute riffs on what was going on in pop culture – as a result, though entertaining and funny, her work was also light.
But O’Donnell’s established now and practically a legend, so there’s no need to make herself palpable to a wide audience, hence the weightier material on Heartfelt Stand Up. O’Donnell, like Kathy Griffin, Janeane Garofalo, or Julia Sweeney, isn’t a joke teller – her act doesn’t comprise of polished one-liners that have on-target punchlines. Instead, O’Donnell’s a great storyteller. In the concert, she shares personal stories of raising five children, and dealing with issues like adolescence, sexuality, masturbation, and the challenges of raising boys – and she handles these thorny issues with a disarming frankness. Gone is the coffee klatch Rosie O’Donnell, and in her stead, is a foul-mouthed cutup who doesn’t think twice about kvetching about her adult son’s sex life.
Surprisingly, the show is light on politics – if her points of view are shared, they merely serve as context or background, like for example, when she shares a story about how her son Parker joins the citadel, but chafes at using her name because he wants to be accepted on his own merits and not on his mom’s celebrity; the joke being, of course, that O’Donnell’s famously anti-war views and liberal outlook would probably impede him.
There was a time when O’Donnell’s sexuality was up for debate, discussion, and gossip. After coming out and getting married (twice – and divorced twice, though the concert was filmed before her second divorce), O’Donnell’s sexual identity is thankfully folded in seamlessly into her act and her stand-up persona. She talks about her wife freely and without preamble or pomp and circumstance, but she doesn’t ignore gay/straight differences and queer culture, either. It must be freeing for O’Donnell to be able to openly discuss her love life without the caution she exhibited when hosting her massively popular talk show in the mid 1990s.
As great as Heartfelt Stand Up is, it loses steam about three fourths into the program, when the comedian switches gears and turns the stand-up special into a PSA for women’s heart health. The issue of women’s heart health is very important, but O’Donnell delivers the information (as well as a tutorial on how to know if you’re having a heart attack) with a grim tone that feels didactic, before she gracefully ends the show on a high note, where she delivers a mnemonic device on the warning signs of a heart attack (Hot Exhausted Pain Pale Puke – or HEPPP) as a rap, musing that Beyonce, P!nk, and Nicki Minaj should record a song about HEPPP, before indulging in her famous love of musicals by crooning a showtunes-style ditty about heart attacks. Yeah, writing it down, the bit sounds grim or cockeyed, but O’Donnell sells it with her unadorned, unpretentious performance. The serious stuff notwithstanding, Heartfelt Stand Up does show that despite years of television and film, O’Donnell has lost very little of her stand-up instincts.