When you watch Ellen DeGeneres, the mildly funny observational comic, in her latest HBO concert special, it's hard not to think about just how miscast she was, professionally speaking, as Ellen DeGeneres, the mildly funny lesbian comic and political symbol. It's a point DeGeneres addresses early on, making what she identifies as her "obligatory gay reference," as if determined to get it out of the way.
Then again, the truth is stand-up has never been DeGeneres' principal strength, any more than being turned into a Hollywood symbol suited her -- which isn't to say there aren't diverting moments in "Ellen DeGeneres: Here and Now," a breezy hour of stand-up taped before a New York City audience last month.
As her bravura performance as host of the 2001, Sept. 11-postponed Emmy Awards demonstrated -- when she memorably asked, "What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?" -- DeGeneres is best when interacting with an audience, whether it's celebrities or ordinary folk. In that setting, she appears so fast on her feet and effortlessly glib that she can milk laughs from the most mundane of exchanges.
Neither of her sitcoms (the ABC show "Ellen" was followed by a forgettable and short-lived CBS series, "The Ellen Show") adequately tapped this vein. In fact, the coming-out plot line finally integrated into "Ellen" famously stemmed as much from inertia as anything else: It owed less to a "liberal agenda" than writers having run out of things for her character to say and do.
DeGeneres' brand of stand-up adheres to safe and conventional targets, from the quirks of toilet paper rolls to public restrooms. It's not bad, certainly; it's just that plenty of people cover this terrain considerably better, Jerry Seinfeld and the indefatigable George Carlin among them. When she lightly slaps at reality television by saying that our sophisticated modern palates have graduated from flying nuns and talking horses to "watching people eat bugs and marry strangers for money," the thought pretty much ends there. The same goes for equally obvious topics, ranging from local news and TV commercials to cell phones.
Becoming a symbol isn't always the best thing for a comic. During DeGeneres' previous HBO special, the audience so admired her it seemed almost too eager to laugh, in several places responding more enthusiastically than the material warranted, which again feels true here.
In a sense, what DeGeneres has really become is less a comic (a dying art anyway) than a personality, in much the same way Rosie O'Donnell parlayed her likability and show-business infatuations with the likes of Barbra Streisand and Tom Cruise into a more suitable role behind a talk-show desk. (Both also detoured into successful voice-over roles in animated films, DeGeneres in "Finding Nemo" and O'Donnell in "Tarzan," which do not a big-time acting career make.)
So it's no surprise that Warner Bros. (the studio behind "Rosie") is preparing to launch a daytime talk show featuring DeGeneres this fall -- the elusive lure of ratings success and riches in that highly competitive realm represents the logical, almost inevitable challenge for someone who is well-known, sparingly funny but generally amiable to be around.
At that point, prepare for the exit of Ellen the comic, Ellen the sitcom star and Ellen the political activist as they give way to Ellen the single-named talk personality -- which might just be the tailor-made suit that, finally, fits her like a glove.
`Ellen DeGeneres: Here and Now'
When: 10 p.m. Saturday
Production credits: Executive producers, DeGeneres, Joel Gallen; director, Gallen
Rating: The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).