I’m not very good with emoticons. Does that symbol above appear to convey, “Eyes wide open in stunned perplexity”? Because that’s what I was going for. That’s the image that would best convey my response to the disturbing, unfunny, bizarre-but-not-in-an-entertaining-way spectacle that was Rosie Live.
Much as with Knight Rider, another NBC attempt to faithfully re-create an outmoded format from the Big Three network era, Rosie Live made me wonder: Is NBC now being programmed by a team of drunk monkeys wearing a Ben Silverman costume? More charitably: what is Silverman trying to do? The straight-up ’70s variety show, like the talking-car drama, is something you can slavishly reproduce, if you want to, if you run a network and they have to give you the money for it. But why?
Rosie Live failed first on simple execution. The patter with guests was forced and the improv moments even worse (at least, I hope that the zillion Rosie’s cleavage jokes were not planned). The staging was off, with lurid, deathly lighting that gave the show a creepier vibe than Alec Baldwin’s using Rosie’s boobs as a microphone had already. And if you’re going to haul Jane Krakowski onstage to sing a mortifying medley of product placements, you ought to at least be able to understand the lyrics. (At least the technical problems here might have been solved by taping the show instead of adding the challenge of putting on a live program.)
The guest turns ranged from dull to mind-boggling, like Alanis Morissette wearing what appeared to be Celine Dion’s hair and wardrobe, singing a ballad while staring upward with unsettling intensity and standing in front of a karaoke video screen of flying geese. The show combined old-fashioned corniness with a weird self-referentiality (we’re doing a variety show, see, and therefore there must be a stage door and a pie-in-the-face joke!). And there were, God help us, dancing cupcakes, in a closing number with all the stage sophistication of Dora the Explorer Live.
Another problem was concept. Like Knight Rider, Rosie Live bought so wholly into the idea of reviving an old format that it actively resisted rethinking it. So you had the careening guest appearance of an old-time stage star (in this case, Liza Minnelli). You had the smorgasbord of entertainment, ranging from R&B to Kathy Griffin (doing a head-scratching Nancy Grace impersonation) to tap dancing to an acrobatic performance that featured Segways and looked like it should star Gob Bluth. You had the skits, like Rosie as a cop talking to a sarcastic little girl—a blatant nod to the Carol Burnett show, where the girl would have been played by Vicki Lawrence and the sketch would have been funny. (Indeed, the show did an amazing job of completely draining the humor from normally funny people like Baldwin, Griffin and Conan O’Brien.)
Watching this special, you could see why variety shows worked as well as they did, when they did, in the pre-cable era. If there were, oh, two or three networks on TV, I could see the appeal of this show. If I watch for half an hour, there just might be something I’ll like! Today, it came off as a more amateurish America’s Got Talent, and finished last in the ratings for its efforts.
The final problem—and I say this as a big fan of Rosie on her daytime show and at least a medium-sized fan of her on The View—is Rosie. Or really, Rosie’s sensibility. There is something about Rosie that does not mesh with the broad primetime TV audience—and no, I don’t mean that thing, much as she tried to milk it in the segment bonding with Clay Aiken as a fellow “Gay…briel Byrne fan.” I also don’t mean her politics, although she opened the show promising not to be political, then immediately gushed over Barack Obama, then threw in some swipes at Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin (with the occasional swipe at antagonist Donald Trump for good measure).
No, Rosie is just too Broadway for America. And Broadway people in the entertainment business—people like Rosie who literally appear on Broadway, or simply old-fashioned showbiz types who love a big gala stage show—often fail to understand that Broadway is no longer mainstream American entertainment. Have Rosie or any of her producers checked the ratings for the Tony awards lately? If so, they might have realized that the cumulative audience for Spamalot shout-outs, tap-dancing kids, Liza Minnelli, artsy-circus acts, Harry Connick Jr., Long Island jokes, pie-in-the-face gags and vaudeville bits is, shall we say, limited. Though I’m sure there were a couple octogenarians in Great Neck who loved it.
Does this mean the much vaunted revival of the TV variety show is dead? Maybe not, but it won’t come back in this campy form. If Rosie Live wasn’t a nail in the coffin of ’70s-style variety TV, it was at least a big pie in its face.