Rosie O’Donnell may be an iconic actress and comedian, but she will also always be remembered for her philanthropy to charitable causes.
On July 16, she will host an incredible night of comedy at the Fonda Theater to benefit Friendly House LA, an organization that provides women seeking recovery from alcohol and other substance use disorders with a safe, structured, and supportive home-like environment that fosters recovery, personal growth, and civic responsibility. “Stand Up for Friendly House LA” will also feature an array of fierce and funny women including performances from Atsuko Okatsuka, Beth Lapides, Gina Yashere, and headliner Kathy Griffin.
Through the years, O’Donnell has served as America’s best friend, an inspiration for all, and a voice for truth. In addition to the upcoming Friendly House LA event, she took some time to talk with Instinct about her career, achieving fame and success, and getting more roles as she ages.
Can you begin by telling us how excited you are to host the Stand Up for Friendly House LA benefit, and what are you looking forward to the most about it?
I’m looking forward to working with all these great female comics. You know, there was a time where organizations wouldn’t do a comedy show with all women, but when I was talking to my friends at Friendly House LA, they have been serving women who need help getting sober and staying sober for 70 years here in Los Angeles. They do tremendous work. I thought, “Well, if we’re going to do a benefit, let’s have all women. Let’s get all women to support other women.”
That’s such an important concept, since we are being treated as second-class citizens here in the United States. They are trying to take control of our bodies, so women need to band together. Republican, conservative, democrat, liberal—There’s a bigger question here. Are women equal to men? Yes or no? Women must vote in their own interests. Supporting women is vital—not just to me but for the nation’s longevity.
I totally agree. So, you have worked with Friendly House LA before? You are very well-known for your philanthropy.
I’ve never done stand-up for them; I have worked with them before. I met the woman who started the whole place, Peggy Albrecht, and I was introduced to the group through Russell Brand years ago. I’ve known of their work, and I’ve contributed to them and visited the women there as well. It’s really a great organization, and I’m happy to be a part of this.
This is the first time they’re trying to fundraise through stand-up, and it’s because my daughter is best friends with a girl in school named Coco. Her mom is on the board of Friendly House, so she asked if I thought we could get some comics together and do a night in LA with all the proceeds going to Friendly House. I said, “Sure, let’s try it.” If it works, there’ll be many more.
In addition to you, this event will have Kathy Griffin, Gina Yashere, Atsuko Okatsuka, and Beth Lapides, so I have no doubt it will be a huge success. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of controversy when it comes to comedians today. Do you believe there is a so-called war on comedy?
I think the comedy world is divided just like the nation is divided. I’m all for freedom of speech, yet Dave Chappelle’s outbursts and focus on trans men seems to be an obsessive-compulsive disorder of his because he can’t stop talking about it. Even when that guy ran on stage and knocked him down, and he did have a weapon by the way, when he got up, he said, “Oh, that was a trans man.” Everyone’s like, “He didn’t say that,” and I’m like, “How come I have the video right here where he did?”
Once you start censoring comics, it’s a slippery slope. Sometimes, comics do provide the courage for a society to be able to look at difficult issues, and they can sort of change how the nation views who they are. Take a look throughout time. Lenny Bruce pushed it, and then George Carlin had his seven words you can’t say on TV. There are so many comics who talk about the silencing of comics. It’s a real thing, but I think it’s more of this oppressive political stalemate that infects every other part of our lives.
You got your start and received your big break after competing in the comedy category of Star Search in 1984. Looking back, did you ever think that moment would lead you to where you are today?
I had this dream since I was a kid that I would grow up and be friends with my idols, and then it happened. So, did I think about it when I was doing Star Search? I’m not sure. I remember being naive and being 22 when I did Star Search. I thought Steven Spielberg was going to call me up at any minute and say, “I saw you, and you must star in E.T. 2!” I thought it would be some wonderfully explosive beginning because just getting on TV was hard for a female comic back in 1984.
It was the biggest thing that ever happened to me, and I went from being an opening act to headlining without necessarily having the material that qualified me for headlining, but that’s what happened. Then I worked for many, many years doing stand-up in clubs all over the country, and then I got a job as a VJ before Penny Marshall saw me and asked if I could play baseball. That was the beginning.
A League of Their Own will always be one of my favorite films. As your debut big screen role, what outlook did it give you on fame?
You know, to be cast as Madonna’s best friend and then come to meet her and share similar things about having dead mothers when we were young and being named after them, we formed a bond right away. For me, the education before I became a movie actor, I couldn’t imagine. She had her hair dyed brown for A League of Their Own, and during it, people would come up and say to her, “I like your hair better blonde.”
She would say “fuck you” right to their face, and I didn’t blame her because of how much the public felt they owned her. How she was in many ways locked in a golden cage by that fame, but she seems to understand it. So, being best friends with the most famous woman in the world was quite a trip (laughs). Still to this day, people ask me every time, “How’s Madonna? What’s going on with Madonna?” I think it’s wonderful that people are also seeing a 30-year friendship continue.
Honestly, my first introduction to you was not A League of Their Own, or even The Rosie O’Donnell Show, which we’ll get to in a minute. It was seeing you as Betty Rubble in The Flintstones with John Goodman. What did you enjoy the most about making that film?
The whole thing was fun. I love John and Rick Moranis, and we were really laughing it up and having a great time on the set. John, at that time, was drinking quite heavily. He’s sober now and doing great; I’m so proud of him, but he would almost kind of rock during the takes. He enjoyed a cocktail during work hours, but we had so much fun. It was as fun to do as it was to watch. It was silly, cartoony, and wonderful, and I got the job because I could do the laugh. That was a wonderful stroke of luck for me.
The Rosie O’Donnell Show is what introduced you to a much larger audience, and it’s going on 26 years since it first aired. What do you remember the most about that time?
I was sort of bolted into the stratosphere of fame at a time when there was no internet. When people’s viewing patterns were not so dispersed, and you couldn’t travel with your phone and watch anything. I was watching the Amber Heard trial before I clicked into your Zoom right here on my phone, live as it happens. So, the world has changed as far as delivery platforms and ways that people consume media, but back in 1996 when my show started, there were only the basic channels, and cable wasn’t even a viable form then.
We had ratings of five or six, and now, daytime TV is lucky to get one. It’s a whole different time, but at that time, I remember feeling unbelievably lucky to have recreated a show I grew up watching with my Nana, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas. No matter what happened, I would never do a Geraldo or Jenny Jones type show, which humiliated people for ratings. I wouldn’t do it, and I promised the stations that I wouldn’t. I was lucky that it took off from the very first episode.
I love that you have been posting clips and interviews from the show on your YouTube channel. Is there one, or at least a couple, that will always stand out in your mind?
Yes, Barbra Streisand. One hundred percent. That was a big one. The Tom Selleck interview because that was the first one like that. When Joni Mitchell came on, I was absolutely overwhelmed. She’s kind of my muse, my internal dialogue. Like, whenever something happens in my life, I click into a Joni Mitchell lyric first. That’s what comes to me, and getting to talk to her, getting to know her, and befriending her was and remains one of the greatest gifts of my life. I love Barbara and Broadway and Bette Midler, but Joni Mitchell was the emotional truth of me. Her statements on things like fame, what it’s like, what it’s not like, and what it’s going to give you are very profound.
While doing some research for this interview, I came across a piece you did with The Hollywood Reporter last year about how you said you would never get plastic surgery and that has helped you assume more roles as you advance in age. Can you talk more about that?
I always thought when I was a young actress that I would have my hay day in my 60s or 70s, sort of like Geraldine Page or Colleen Dewhurst. These Irish, full-bodied women who never had anything done to their face and looked like everyone’s grandma or everyone’s crazy aunt. There was something to be said for that type of character role that comes up for women in their older age. There was Louise Fletcher on Shameless; she played Bill Macy’s mom, and they did, like, a three-story arc on her as the crazy mother. It was pretty astounding.
The women who feel the need to try to cheat destiny, fate, and the lifecycle that we’re all on, I think they come to look very different than normal. It’s hard to relate to them. Also, people have known me in the public eye for 30-35 years. What am I going to say if I get rid of my neck or pull this up here? Don’t be fooled. You have to know your place in show business, and to think you can cheat aging is a fallacy.
One of your more recent roles is playing Carrie in The L Word: Generation Q. Is there anything you can tell us about the upcoming third season?
Carrie will be in it! They haven’t sent me the scripts yet, so I don’t know exactly what direction we’re taking, but Carrie will return to The L Word.
Do you think the show is making as big of an impact as the original series?
You know what’s fascinating? Jennifer Beals told me, it was during the Trump years, that we have to get this show back on. What’s happening in the world, what’s happening to gay people, and what’s happening to minorities, she felt like the show’s voice needed to be heard. I remember watching it 20 years ago, and I was all a titter. “Oh my God, what would this be? How’s this going to go?” I fell in love with Leisha Hailey right there, and she turned out to be just as delicious as Alice on that show. She’s absolutely charming, delightful, beautiful, and so fucking funny with such great timing.
So, I do think it has an effect. I was walking with my neighbor one day, who’s an 88-year-old woman, and this car kept going around and around. They finally stopped, rolled down the window, and they said, “Excuse me, are you Carrie from The L Word?” They didn’t say Rosie O’Donnell. They were young lesbians, and I said I was. They were like, “Oh my God, we fucking love you on that show!” So, I think it still has an effect, and it’s becoming a little more multigenerational.
Also, it’s nice that my character is close to me. Carrie is a bigger than normal L Word sized person (laughs). It’s like a gaggle of beautiful geese that are there. One is more beautiful than the next, and then there’s Carrie, who feels like a fish out of water and doesn’t quite know how to feel good about herself. I know a lot of lesbians, but I don’t know a lot of lesbians like The L Word.
What more do you hope to accomplish with your career and platform?
I hope to keep speaking out for social justice issues. I hope to never stop fighting for a woman’s right to abortion if she’s not ready and for military grade weapons to be removed from our society. We need sensible gun legislation and responsible gun ownership. I hope I always stand up when I feel as though the nation is on the precipice of disaster, which I feel we are right now. November 8 is going to be very important, and women have to bond together and vote in their own best interests. I’m hoping that will happen. That women remember that we are equal to men, and we fought long and hard to get here. They don’t get to take it away because Mitch McConnell is a prick.
Stay up-to-date with O’Donnell by following her on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, or visit her official website. Click HERE for more information on Friendly House LA and to purchase tickets for the upcoming benefit.