LGBTQ·Posted on Aug 25, 2022How Rosie O'Donnell Brought Queerness To '90s Daytime TVEven though nobody on the show was publicly out of the closet (including the host), the popular talk show was one of the queerest TV programs of the 1990s.by Matthew PohlmanBuzzFeed ContributorFacebookPinterestTwitterMailLink Everything's Coming Up Rosie! Frank Micelotta Archive / Getty Images "My teen is out of control!" "Who is my baby's daddy?" "I'm having an affair with a ghost!" These are just a few of the topics you might see on The Jerry Springer Show, Maury, or The Jenny Jones Show in the mid-'90s. Episodes featuring paternity tests, infidelity, and dysfunctional families tossing chairs at each other were a common staple of afternoon TV. And then came Rosie. The Rosie O'Donnell Show premiered on June 10, 1996 and was an immediate hit. Instead of interviewing jealous lovers hurling expletives at each other, Rosie's show featured celebrity interviews, musical numbers, and segments highlighting children and charitable organizations. Despite being a wholesome TV-G rated alternative to its trashy contemporaries, The Rosie O'Donnell Show had an undeniable queer aesthetic and was hugely popular with LGBTQIA+ audiences. One could argue that Rosie's show was the queerest television program of the '90s (even though nobody on the show was publicly out of the closet). Rosie's Show Was Queer Behind-the-Scenes Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images Rosie began each episode by chatting with band leader John McDaniel, who was openly gay in his personal life but not on camera. As McDaniel mentioned in 2019, “I had been out since I was in elementary school. ... It was weird to be in a situation where we weren’t allowed to talk about it.” Even though Rosie herself would not publicly come out until 2002, she made it a point to hire as many queer people on her staff as possible. As comedienne and staff writer Judy Gold explained to Vulture, “I used to say, if Middle America only knew that this show was put on by a bunch of gay people and their friends, we would change the world. ... We’re entertaining you like you’ve never been entertained before — and we’re all gay, gay, gay, gay, gay!" Rosie Was a Broadway Baby Warner Bros./Telepictures Rosie, like so many queer folk, was a huge fan of Broadway and would frequently feature the companies of musicals on her show. In many ways, Rosie was one of the the first "influencers" of Broadway. Millions of Americans who couldn't afford a trip to NYC were introduced to Rent, The Lion King, Chicago, and dozens of other shows via Rosie. Says writer Zelda Knapp, "Rosie put a spotlight on Broadway talent at a time when I could actually watch it (after school) and gave this little Virginian some long distance access to the world she wanted to join someday. It was so generous, and so clearly born of her own love of musicals, and just felt so benevolent." It's easy to imagine young kids trying on their mother's heels and high-kicking along with Sally Bowles or Roxie Hart thanks to Rosie. Divas! Divas! Divas! Warner Bros./Telepictures LGBTQIA+ individuals love their divas, and so did Rosie. From Liza to Bette to Cher to Whitney, the songstresses of the '90s graced her stage to chat and sing a power ballad or two. Who could forget the legendary 1997 episode when Rosie interviewed her childhood idol Barbra Streisand (and the entire set was reconfigured to feature Barbra's "good side"). When we watched Rosie fawn over her favorite divas, we got to feel like we were getting up close and personal with them ourselves. Rosie Came Out to Ellen...Sort Of Warner Bros,/TelePictures In 1996, rumors were swirling that both Ellen DeGeneres and Ellen Morgan (the character she played on her sitcom Ellen) would soon be coming out of the closet. Ellen decided to have a little fun with that gossip when she was a guest on Rosie's show, declaring that her character was indeed "Lebanese," to which Rosie quickly chimed in, "Maybe I'm Lebanese, too!" The not-so-subtle play on words went over most of America's heads, with many just assuming Rosie was engaging in a comedy bit rather than winking to her queer fanbase. When speaking to Entertainment Weekly about the episode, Rosie remarked, "I think she was very brave to do what she did back then. ... And I think that I was kind of brave in my own way to stand next to her and say, 'Oh yeah, I think I'm a Lebanese, too.'" Rosie's Show Was Summer Camp for Queer People Warner Bros./TelePictures / Getty Images Unlike the monotone and dreary sets of her contemporaries, The Rosie O'Donnell Show was decorated in a fun and whimsical style that more strongly resembled the interior of a Broadway theater than a network talk show. While other programs blared generic muzak over their credits, Rosie's band performed show tunes and the pop hits of the day. Her studio audience chowed down on Hostess Snack Cakes as she flung Koosh Balls into the air. She did yoga with Madonna, assembled crafts with Drew Barrymore, and was serenaded to the tune of "Puppy Love" by a dog-costumed Donny Osmond. The fanciful and eccentric nature of her show made it feel like a summer day camp for queer people looking for some escapist entertainment. Rosie's Audience Was Diverse Everett collection The studio audiences of most '90s talk shows were adults in their 20s-40s eager to watch a spectacle of human suffering before them. They would grab the mic from the host and egg on the guest's childish antics. Not so with Rosie's studio audience. Hers was comprised was people from all ages and walks of life. As the camera panned across her crowd, it wasn't unusual to see an 8-year-old kid from Brooklyn sitting next to a Midwestern grandmother. Children loved Rosie! Conservative church-goers loved Rosie! Queer urbanites loved Rosie! Her audience represented a true slice of '90s American culture, which included LGBTQIA+ individuals. Rosie Championed Progressive Causes Warner Brothers / courtesy Everett Collection It would have been easy for Rosie to fill an entire hour of programming interviewing movie stars pitching their latest blockbusters, but instead, Rosie made time to highlight progressive causes such as adoption, breast cancer awareness, and other issues that are near and dear to many queer people's hearts. She was a fierce advocate of sensible gun legislation and famously challenged Tom Selleck over his support of the NRA; a debate that the nation is still having 23 years later, proving that Rosie was ahead of the curve in many of her beliefs. Rosie's Show Was a Safe Haven for Queer Guests Dia Dipasupil / Getty Images for GLAAD Whether or not they were out of the closet, queer celebrities loved coming on Rosie's show due to the upbeat and friendly vibe she created. Unlike other tabloid and trashy talk shows at the time, Rosie was never going to stun her guests with a "gotcha" question or start grilling them about their love life. As she told People, "I was not a 'get you' kind of interview, I had no desire to make anyone feel uncomfortable...Like Johnny Carson taught us, if there was egg on anyone's face, it's supposed to be on the host, not the guest." When a young Billy Porter guested on the show, his record label encouraged him to be as quiet as possible so as not to disclose his sexuality. Backstage, Rosie could tell that he was upset and went out of her way to comfort him. Porter explains, "She wrapped me in her arms. She gave me some tough love. And she empowered me: 'You are enough. F— them.'" Rosie Was Authentically Rosie Stan Godlewski / Getty Images Despite the pressure of Hollywood actresses to stay unrealistically skinny, Rosie was never on a never-ending quest to lose weight or try every fad diet. She wasn't obsessed with plastic surgery and preferred sweat suits to designer dresses. When a poll sponsored by Scope named Rosie one of America's "least kissable celebrities," she turned lemons into lemonade by partnering with rival mouthwash Listerine to donate a thousand dollars to charity each time she smooched a guest on-air. Queer people are often under pressure to keep up with unrealistic beauty standards, but Rosie was an example of how to love your body exactly how it is. A League of Her Own Rosie O'Donnell/ youtube.com It's hard to believe that it's been over 25 years since The Rosie O'Donnell Show premiered, but its joyful and humanistic tone had an undeniable influence on the talk shows that succeeded it. So, let's raise a glass of Listerine to Rosie who helped show queer and straight audiences alike that daytime TV, just like life, is only as fun as you make it.