O’Donnell immediately and effectively deflects any potential charges that what she’s doing isn’t all that original, jokingly referring to producer Daniel Kellison as “Gelman,” her drummeras “Max Weinberg” and musical director as “Branford Marsalis,” and tossing pencils through the window behind her with a broken-glass sound effect. (O’Donnell’s set was designed by Kathleen Ankers, a longtime David Letterman associate).
One day during the first week, she even hosted a “Stump the Band”-type sequence with a twist: O’Donnell sang the title songs from TV series per audience suggestion (she remembered “That Girl” and forgot “Mr. Belvedere”– if that show’s theme even had lyrics). Her own theme is particularly clever, weaving the names of each day’s guests into the lyrics.
Show opens with a monologue, what O’Donnell referred to as “harmless, daytime talkshow jokes” on familiar subjects. Lineup of guests, while solid, tended to the overexposed — Dennis Franz must have been on every show in New York last week. The one seldom-seen face, “Living Single” co-star John Henton, made a good impression, and O’Donnell’s rapport with Kmart commercial co-star Penny Marshall was much fun.
O’Donnell is a far better interviewer than any of the latenight variety show hosts in recent memory; for one thing, she seems to know who her guests are. First four shows generally avoided any pretaped set pieces or other such shtick.
Of the first four days’ musical guests, Toni Braxton seemed to be lip-synching, or at least singing to a track (producers swear she wasn’t); cast of “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk” almost obliterated John McDaniel’s small band with their tap-dancing; and Gloria Estefan didn’t sing at all. Henton insisted that O’Donnell photograph him with Estefan, which she did.
Starting most impressively, O’Donnell calmed down a bit as the week wore on, though diatribes at sound and cue-card people on Thursday may have stung a bit more than she intended.