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Having fun again

New daytime host Ellen DeGeneres combines comedy with an ability to reflect on serious topics.

November 16, 2003|Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn | Special to The Times

Ellen DeGENERES is bummed out. It's nearly 1 o'clock on Oct. 28, and she's in her office on the NBC lot, where she tapes her daytime talker "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," looking out over a polluted, tangerine haze blanketing the mountain skyline over Burbank, resulting from the smoke of wildfires raging from San Diego to San Bernardino counties.

"It's hard to do a show today. It's hard to walk out there," she says. In the six weeks since she premiered her lighthearted show, this is the first time she gets serious. "I'm supposed to help people escape from their problems," she says, "but I think it's important to discuss it."

On the air, sullen faced, tears in her throat, DeGeneres talks about the thousands of homes destroyed, the hundreds of thousands of acres gone, of the lives lost or devastatingly altered. Her voice is filled with empathy. It wasn't long ago that, at Christmastime in Ojai, she and her mother fled their home with animals and photo albums in tow as a fire raced toward their backyard.

"What you try to learn from this is," she tells the audience, "is to live simply, and to try to stay in the moment. Gandhi said: 'Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever,' and that's a really delicate balance because ... a lot of people would just not do anything because you would just want to live in the moment and go, 'Well, I'm just not going to work then, I'm just gonna live in the moment.' I don't think that Gandhi was picturing you in your underwear eating Cheetos watching 'E! True Hollywood Story.' "

It's obvious that, in her own funny way, DeGeneres can connect with people and make them laugh, even in times of unbearable sadness; it is what won over viewers of an unusually somber Emmy Awards show, which she hosted in 2001, just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"What would bug a guy from the Taliban more," she said then, "than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?"

"It's a very delicate balance," said Mary Connelly, executive producer of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." "But as Ellen proved ... you can be reflective about a serious topic and still be funny, and there are not a lot of people who can do that."

At least not like Ellen does it. Underneath the rambling, everyday woman banter and eagerness to please is a skilled comedian with an ability to rely on her instincts. Knowing the strength of her comedy is grounded in silly, good-natured, apolitical banter, she has single-handedly set out to make daytime fun again. Critics are applauding the effort and viewers are taking notice.

In Los Angeles, "Ellen DeGeneres" ranks second in the 3 p.m. time period behind juggernaut Oprah Winfrey, who is being scorched by her witty competitor, delivering the lowest performance for "The Oprah Winfrey Show" since October 1998.

But DeGeneres' appeal goes beyond daytime, says Debby Beece, president of programming for Oxygen, which airs the show at 11 p.m. "She's very broad, she's getting great guests, and she has a real humanist kind of humor that's neither male or female," Beece says. "It's just really fun and sweet. It's very emotional, but at the same time it's not nasty and personal -- it's about this roll of toilet paper, or it's about asking the tough questions with a wink and a smile."

Conversational style

Matthew FELLING, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, puts it another way. "Ellen DeGeneres has evolved into the Bob Newhart for the soccer mom," he says. "And her laid-back style with all the pauses and ramblings tries something novel for talk television, which is she lets the guests speak. It feels less like she's performing and more like she's conversing. I mean, Rosie O'Donnell always made the show about her, but Ellen carries herself like she's a prop herself and is staying out of the show's way."

And, he adds, "Having this hemming and hawing everyman style, she succeeds in doing what I thought was impossible -- she's taken her sexuality off the table."

Enter Stage 11, the happiest place on Earth, northwest of Anaheim. This is where everyday people and A-list celebrities are treated to equal gushing, where dancing the funky chicken is not only OK but encouraged, where blaring applause signs are off-limits, where pingpong is a passion, where a cardboard version of Ellen can be as amusing as the real thing ("Unless people have met me in person, they really don't see the difference," DeGeneres says). It's where production assistant Houston Rose gets to enjoy his 15 minutes doing on-air handiwork, where "puppy handler" Jeff Cosgrave will one day find his true love (or at least a girlfriend), and the supervising producer's dad can write in with his recommendations for the show, including that Ellen "show a little more leg."

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