Rosie O’Donnell on bringing gay guests and topics to her show, being herself and being happy at 50

When The Rosie Show debuts on OWN and several other affiliate channels tonight, you probably won’t know what to expect. Rosie O’Donnell has been many things for viewers in her career. From a stand up comedian to film actress, to magazine publisher to the host of her daytime talk show to a co-host on The View, we’ve seen many sides of Rosie.

In fact, we’ve watched her career evolve pre-and-post coming out (which has had a directly impacted the topics she discusses and her own opinions), and witnessed her take on the role of mother to several children between the ages of toddler and teen. Somehow she’s had time to also produce a variety show, start up a cruise company, host a radio show and now, finally, she’s making her return to television.

Rosie says the television climate is a lot different from the debut of her first talk show in 1996. Not only were daytime talk shows more focused on the negative, but they were sideshow-esque and seen as fluff. That’s not what Rosie wanted to do with Rosie.

“It’s changed completely. It’s done a 360. It’s not the same landscape in any capacity. When I started in 1996, I went to the NATPE conference and had to convince people that I was not going to do a Jerry Springer-type show. I had to literally sit down with station owners and advertisers and tell them, no, I was going to do Merv Griffin,” Rosie said. “And the philosophy at the time was ‘That will never work,’ because what was number-one in daytime in ’96 or what was drawing all of the media attention at least — a Jenny Jones viewer had been — a guest, rather, had been murdered, and Geraldo Rivera had his nose broken. That’s when I entered into the foray, so I was dubbed the Queen of Nice. Comparatively I was, because what we were seeing was violence on a daily basis. So with the exception of Oprah there was no other show on TV that was putting forth messages of positivity back in 1996. So it was a whole different game.”

Rosie also notes that the Internet was not nearly as accessible as it is now and it makes a difference, which is why OWN is encouraging viewer participation for The Rosie Show (as well as the rest of its original programming).

“I think it’s a whole different world, it’s a whole different game. And to be back in the game with an Oprah Winfrey jersey on is inspiring for me, to be on her team, to be playing for her side, to know what she’s about and that she’s not simply a corporation with a bottom line of financial gain,” Rosie said. “She’s a woman who has spent her life trying to enlighten, encourage and teach, and I agree with who she is as a public figure and what she has done with her power and ability, and it’s an honor to be in the game on her side.”

Oprah has shown Rosie a lot of support, wooing her away from signing with NBC and heavily marketing The Rosie Show in all avenues. And if Oprah believes in you, then you know you’re doing something right.

Another support system that Rosie continues to have is the LGBT community. On her first talk show, Rosie wasn’t yet out so gay and lesbian issues weren’t prevalent. It wasn’t until 2002 that she came out during a stand-up show and began using her voice for advocacy. She married Kelli Carpenter in 2004, two years before she was hired as a co-host of The View. Being hired to sit at the table with staunch conservative Elisabeth Hasselbeck was just asking for provocative conversations, and they were had. Rosie utilized her time to get across much of what the gay and liberal communities was hoping for, and she did it loudly. She spoke out about homophobia and the Bush administration, which eventually led to a war of words with Hasselbeck. Rosie left the show in 2007.

When asked if she would be including LGBT topics and guests on The Rosie Show, Rosie said it wasn’t a major priority for her because it’s just an innate part of life, and therefore will be an innate part of her show, much like it was with Oprah’s.

“I don’t know specifically. Just like any other minority group, I don’t specifically think ‘Well, I’m going to have gay topics as well as African American issues and’ — you know, it’s my life. And like every other artist and comedian, I talk about my life, so things that pertain to my life are probably going to appear more pertinent than to a host who maybe was not gay. I don’t know. I mean, we definitely have had — you know, it’s an entertainment show, so are we going to have gay guests? Yeah, and we’re going to have a gay host,” Rosie said. “And nowadays it doesn’t seem so relevant. In ’96 when my show started, not one interviewer even asked if I was gay. Not one. And this was before Ellen came out, this was before Will and Grace was on. It’s a whole different world than it was in ’96 when I started, and it’s really inspiring to me as well to see like Neil Patrick Harris win the Emmy Award and host the Oscars and the Tonys, and be so brilliant, and have a husband and a baby, and it’s not a big deal in a way that I could not have imagined when I began my career. So will we have gay people on? Yes. Will we talk about things that include LGBT issues? Yes. Is it going to be a primary focus? No. It’s going to be just one part of who I am, and one part of the show.”

Some of Rosie’s first guests will include Wanda Sykes and the cast of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which might be the kinds of guests she’s talking about. In fact, it’s hard to imagine she’d have any guests that aren’t LGBT-friendly, unless she’s doing some kind of interrogative expose. Other guests she has lined up so far include Salma Hayek, Lisa Kudrow, Gloria Estefan, Roseanne Barr, Sharon and Kelly Osborne, Ricki Lake and Gloria Steinem.

As far as the actual format of the show, what we can we expect? Rosie says she’ll start the show with some stand-up monologues based on her life, which she likens to Craig Ferguson‘s style on his late night show. Also music will be a huge part of the show, as Rosie’s stage band is led by Katreese (who Rosie notes “wrote the Justin Timberlake song “Dick in a Box.”) She’s going to take questions from the audience (“like Carol Burnett did) and wants guests to be conversational, not there to sell something.

“One thing I really didn’t like about my old show and about the trend that’s happening on talk shows today is the guests get like five minutes, six minutes, and you can’t really get a conversation going in that amount of time,” Rosie said. “So we’re going to have a real lengthy sit-down, insightful interview, not always with a celebrity who has something to promote. Like Russell Brand is my first guest. He doesn’t have a movie coming out. He has nothing to sell. He’s just coming to hang and talk, and that’s really going to be, I think, the difference between our show and maybe some of the others that are on now. Then we’re going to have a human-interest segment or a rolled-in piece, and we’re going to play a game at the end of every show …. which has turned out to be, I think, more fun than anyone imagined. And when they did the focus groups, people loved the game part. And like most of the games I did on my old show, I cheat so that everybody wins, but it’s still fun. And that’s going to be the show. We’re going to hopefully give you an hour of uplifting, entertaining laughter, family-oriented, multi-generational, kick back, relax and get ready for your evening.”

As for her personal life and kids being part of the show, Rosie says they’ll be included, just not at her home.

“Well, what I’ve said to them is whenever my kids are here in the studio or in the office, they’re — you can film them, and whatever happens, happens,” Rosie said. “But we’re not going to do anything in my home. And that’s sort of a decision I made years ago when I had a kid, when I first started on television, to not ever allow television crews into my home, because there has to be a safe zone where the kids feel as though what happens there stays there. … But on the whole, my children will be a part of it whenever they’re here with me at work, but not in our house. And that’s a decision that I made because they do have to give up a lot of their time with me when we’re in public, and I don’t want to have to ask them to give it up when we’re in private.”

What comes across strongly when talking to Rosie is that her kids are her first priority. Nothing is more important to her than spending time with them, finding them the perfect places to live in Chicago and keeping them content. But when she’s able to carve out some time for herself, she says that she feels like she’s finally hit her stride. It only took 50 years.

“[When I had my first show] I was 33years old with a baby who was not yet walking, and that kid is now six-foot-one, 220 pounds, and away at school, and I was fascinated by celebrity and pop culture, and the concept that I could know people like Tom Cruise or Barbra Streisand seemed unreal to me,” Rosie said. “Now, I had done movies with some famous people, but just to sort of casually know and befriend people who I do not work with and can be sort of part of that whole thing was intoxicating. But now, at 50, I’ve lived in show business for more than half my life, and I have a different take on it, on what’s important and what I value and what I think needs to be shown to the American public, and also what the American public seems hungry for. With the advent of the Internet, there’s such accessibility to celebrities, and I think that we’re oversaturated with pop culture and with image, and we really want some more of the gritty underbelly, as opposed to polished veneer, and that’s what we’re going for on this show — just real conversation in the style more of Dick Cavett than a Charlie Rose, but with humor, more than just a buh-duh-bump-shhh, we’re out; here’s the clip, and we’re done. I did that once, and I’m ready for something else.”

So are we. Bring it on, Rosie!

The Rosie Show debuts on OWN at 7 p.m. EST tonight.

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