The comedy scene

Rosie O’Donnell talks life after heart attack

 
Ilya S. Savenok / Getty Images

Rosie O’Donnell is known as the Queen of Nice, and in many ways, the shoe has always fit: The Emmy Award-winning comedienne has devoted much of her time and money toward philanthropic causes including children’s charities and gay rights. But don’t mistake Rosie’s generosity for spinelessness. She’s got quite the caustic streak in her if you rub her the wrong way, as political and religious hypocrisy generally tends to do (just ask her former co-hosts on the TV talk show The View). These days, however, the outspoken O’Donnell, who returns to her stand-up roots for five shows from Friday through Sunday at the Palm Beach Improv, doesn’t care too much about controversy. In fact, she might be even nicer than before. Why? The woman was on top of the world career-wise after finding success as an actress, talk show host, magazine editor, author of two memoirs and prolific celebrity blogger. Then she had a heart attack, in August 2012.

O’Donnell talked to The Miami Herald about how her near-death experience has changed her life.

You’re ridiculously famous — does that change how you approach doing a stand-up show?

Yeah, totally. Because stand-up is sort of an art form of anonymity. You go up there, and no one knows you, and you relate common experiences that sort of unite a roomful of strangers. And when you’re known, people have a narrative of what they think of you, what they think you’re about, what they think you mean or what your point of view is, and it really changes how you have to deliver it. So in a way I’m glad I was kind of away from it for over a decade, and now I’ve come back with a fresh approach and take the fact that people have an existing opinion or understanding of me before I go on and incorporate that into the material. Because if you ignore that … I remember going to see Roseanne Barr when I was starting out in comedy, and she was already very successful on her TV show, and she was at the Improv. And she did a joke about going to Loehmann’s and how she really couldn’t do her checkbook, but she could tell you what 40 percent off $16.99 was. And I remember thinking to myself, “She doesn’t go to Loehmann’s anymore — she’s a millionaire.” So her act hadn’t caught up with where she was now. So it takes awhile, I think, to take where you are into account.

So you’d say your shows today are a lot different from when you started out?

Yes. Much more stories and long tales of experiences that have happened and much less punchlines. It’s more conversational than presentational. And I think also being 51 years old versus 22 is a huge difference in your ability to understand yourself and your audience. And what you will and won’t do definitely changes as you get older.

How different or similar will your shows be?

Well, they’re similar in that I’m doing an HBO special in April, largely based upon my heart attack that I had a year ago in August. And the reason I’m doing all these tour dates is just to prepare for that special. I wanted to find a way to educate women about all the stats of heart disease, that it’s the no. 1 killer of women and that they’re 10 times more likely to die of a heart attack than they are of breast cancer, yet breast cancer seems to be the thing that women worry about the most. So how do I take my experience of almost dying and use it to help women not do what I did, which was wait 50 hours to go to the doctor and not call 9-1-1. You know, I made some very big mistakes that could have cost me my life, so I want to take that and use it onstage. And as a result of that, there’s a basic structure to the act that’s similar, but every night is different because the flow is different. If you went every night, you’d be like, “Well, this is redundant” [laughs]. But for me, it’s just sort of shaping it and molding into the form I want it to be before I put it in the kiln and get it on tape for HBO.

After the heart attack, you vowed to live a healthier lifestyle and change your diet and all that. How’s that going?

I don’t know that I “vowed,” but the doctor let me know that if I didn’t do it, I would have another one. The stint does not fix anything — it simply made the blockage stop, but all the stuff that made you get the blockage will still occur, and another one will happen unless you change these things. And when I started my recovery, which was in September of last year, I was taking 14 pills a day. And now I take four. And I lost 35 pounds. And the excess weight is a huge drain on your heart — you know, the heart’s a muscle. The lack of exercise is a disservice to your health. So there have been many, many things that I had to change. And I did really because I don’t want to die. And it’s sad that it took that for me to take care of myself.

I imagine you feel better now than you did before?

Well, yes, because when you come to death’s door, I think it eliminates the ability to have willful blindness. You know, I’m willfully blind in terms of, “Oh yeah, I’m 222 pounds, and ha-ha, Room 222, Karen Valentine, funny joke – ha-ha.” But it’s not a funny joke when your arteries are so clogged that the blood can’t go through and it prevents you from living. You can turn a blind eye to your health until your heart gives up and says, “I’m gonna fight back. I’m attacking you now, so stop attacking me.” Then you become someone who realizes that you have to work in your own best interest, which is hard for some of us to learn.

How has that experience changed your outlook?

What’s interesting is that the doctor said, you know, you really have to be careful because after a major heart attack, a lot of people have depression. And I’ve struggled with depression my whole life, so I was kind of ready for that. But I found that the opposite happened – I had an awakening and a gratitude that I did not have before. I did not get depressed after the heart attack, and the doctors were really, really worried and were watching me for that. I haven’t had depression at all after the attack, and not that I’m saying it’s a remedy, but for me, it let me know that, wow, I really could have been done. And I am on “extended play,” like when you get the extra lap at the video game of the Grand Prix race car driver. That’s what I feel like — I’m on the extra lap. I’m happy that I got that chance. I feel like I cheated death, and I kind of slid by, and I don’t know why. The nurse even said to my wife, who was asking her, “How’s she doing compared to people who have what she had?” And I was half-awake, half-not. And the nurse said, “Excellent.” And my wife said, “How do you know?” And the nurse said, “Because everyone else is dead.”

MICHAEL HAMERSLY

Show info: 7 and 9:45 p.m. Saturday, and 7 p.m. Sunday, Palm Beach Improv; 561-833-1812, www.palmbeachimprov.com; $30

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