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Profile : Ellen & Friends : DEGENERES' STAND-UP PERSONA TAKES ON A NEW LIFE OF ITS OWN

March 27, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Comedian Ellen DeGeneres has been deliberately keeping a low profile while in production on her new sitcom "These Friends of Mine," which premieres Tuesday on ABC.

The reason?

She didn't want to saturate the media market. "Even if I like somebody, if I read too much about them, or see too much about them, I'm sick of hearing about them," explains DeGeneres, who was named best female stand-up comedian at the 1991 American Comedy Awards.

DeGeneres realizes, though, some of her fans don't know what's happened to her. "People in the business know I have something going on," says DeGeneres, sitting on the sofa at her publicist's Beverly Hills office on an overcast afternoon. "But to those people who don't know what's going on, it's like, 'We haven't seen Ellen on TV for a year, maybe she is not doing well. Maybe something is wrong.' "

Taping a series that TV audiences have not yet seen has been challenging for DeGeneres. "It's shooting in a vacuum," she says. "You have these (studio) audiences who are bused in--whomever we can get, whomever is on the street at the time. It's hard to get an audience when they don't know what the show is about."

"These Friends of Mine" follows the life and adventures of Ellen Morgan (DeGeneres), who manages a popular bookstore-cafe in San Francisco. Her good friends are the flighty Holly (Holly Fulger of "Anything but Love") and her platonic roommate Adam (Arye Gross). Neal Marlens and Carol Black of "Growing Pains" and "The Wonder Years" are the creators and co-executive producers.

Before "These Friends of Mine," DeGeneres had supporting roles on two TV series. She played the wacky receptionist Margo in the 1990 Fox series "Open House" and nurse Nancy McIntire on Black and Marlens' short-lived 1992 ABC series "Laurie Hill."

"I think in the pilot of 'Laurie Hill' I had maybe two lines," says DeGeneres, who has been described by critics as "the spiritual daughter of Bob Newhart ... a distaff George Carlin and a female Jerry Seinfeld."

"It was real frustrating," she says. "It was a show that I took because it was Black and Marlens. They are so powerful. I thought maybe they would see something in me and start writing for me, but the show was about Dr. Laurie Hill."

Eventually, Black and Marlens did write an episode that revolved around DeGeneres' Nancy. ABC, though, axed the series before it aired. After the cancellation, Black and Marlens gave DeGeneres an offer she couldn't refuse: A sitcom created for her.

"To create a show for me is a huge compliment," DeGeneres, 35, says with a smile. "It's an opportunity for me to succeed." And also one to fail.

"But wherever there's an opportunity, there's going to be risk involved," she explains. "I'm taking a big chance and a lot is resting on me. But it's not like it's just me on stage. There are a lot of other actors who are involved. There are producers involved. There are networks and studios. There are so many people making decisions. It isn't all on my shoulders. The good thing about what I do is that I have my stand-up to go back to."

DeGeneres feels comfortable playing Ellen because she's so close to her own life. "I'm not married. I don't have kids. This is something that is going to be a weekly thing, so I wanted to play something that was really close to what I created for 12 years as a stand-up."

That creation, she says, is someone who goes through life and tries to fit in because it's easier to fit in. "But at the same time, I don't care if I fit in or not. If I want to make a joke at something and the person behind the counter at Bullock's doesn't understand my joke, I look like an idiot. But it's something I choose to do. A lot of people don't get my humor. I am pretty dry and I don't make a face after doing (a joke)."

Growing up in New Orleans, DeGeneres had no idea she would become a comedian. Her idols were naturalists Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. "I was obsessed with animals and I really thought I'd join the Peace Corps or go to Africa and study apes. Then I started getting older and I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was funny, but I never thought it was a career option. It just fell into my lap."

Her life and career changed when a friend asked her to perform at a benefit. "I couldn't think of anything funny," she explains. "So I went on stage and said, 'I am so excited to be here and I have to tell you the funniest thing happened to me today, but I am starving and if I don't eat I am going to pass out.' " DeGeneres proceeded to eat a Whopper, fries and a shake. "When I finished everything, I realized my time was up and I had to go. I never said anything. It was a huge chance."

But it paid off. After her performance, DeGeneres was approached about performing at a coffeehouse at the University of New Orleans. "I just wrote really outrageous stuff, kind of Steve Martin, and then I mixed it in with Woody Allen and Bob Newhart. I was very confused, because half it was Gallagher and half of it was Newhart."

"These Friends of Mine" premieres Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. on ABC; it moves to its regular time slot Wednesday at 9:30 p.m.

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