Show is revamped, but star remains genuine DeGeneres

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles -- "Hi. Nice to meet you," says Ellen DeGeneres to a reporter visiting her in Los Angeles. "But I've got to leave."

She walks out of the public relations office. The stunned reporter did, after all, have to fly 3,000 miles and sit through a Michael J. Fox in-flight movie. All that for no interview, no nothing.


Then, Ms. DeGeneres looks back and cracks open a six-pack of a smile. Ellen DeGeneres is not leaving.

She has just arrived.


Ms. DeGeneres is becoming a household face -- if not name. After more than a decade on the stand-up comedy circuit, she starred in last season's highest-rated new television series. "Ellen," previously "These Friends of Mine," airs at 9:30 Tuesday nights after "Roseanne" on ABC.

Ms. DeGeneres, 36, was recently host of VH1's first music awards, and will be co-host of the Prime-time Emmy Awards Sept. 11. She has been on all the L-shows -- Leno, Letterman and "Later With Bob Costas," and later, "Later With Greg Kinnear." Or, maybe you have just seen her on these juice commercials, where you don't know the name, where she gives you these looks.

The New Orleans native and former shoe saleswoman for J. C. Penney even turned down performing at the White House this summer because of her brimming schedule. Fame, it seems, comes in lump sums.

But in so-called real life, Ms. DeGeneres can't be this good. She can't be this wholesome, as Esquire magazine recently wondered. And, of course, she isn't.

Ms. DeGeneres beats up men.

Ellen DeGeneres is learning to jab by boxing twice a week with a trainer who holds up padded hands, as the comic seriously pounds away in a fitness spree. Given her gentle, foot-in-mouth, self-deprecating humor, it's hard to picture Ms. DeGeneres getting all sweaty and combative.

"I can't imagine it either, thank God," says "Ellen" co-star Arye Gross. The actor plays Adam Greene -- a single, urban guy bluffing his way through the tricky '90s.

Mr. Gross, like others, caught Ms. DeGeneres on some "cable-type thing" years ago. In 1984, she won the title "The Funniest Person in America" in a Showtime cable contest. After watching one of her performances, Mr. Gross called up friends: DO YOU KNOW WHO THIS WOMAN IS? And how do you pronounce that last name? Degenerate?


He remembers Ms. DeGeneres (pronounced de-GENEROUS) doing a bit about being panhandled and the idea of having "extra" money or just having a $10 and essentially telling a panhandler they aren't worth that much.

Familiar moments

She doesn't use cue cards -- or a sledgehammer -- when telling her jokes. Her observations don't create spasms of laughter, either.

"One day, I was coming home from kindergarten. Well, they told me it was kindergarten. Later, I found out that I'd been working in a factory for two years."

Ms. DeGeneres just passes along familiar moments, adding her twists and timing.

"People get into elevators and push the button several times. Like that's helping. Like the elevator thinks it had better hurry because there are six people waiting."


"Her comedy totally comes from her heart," Mr. Gross says. "With Ellen, what you see is what you get."

What he gets each morning on the set of "Ellen" is his pal ribbing him on his choice of breakfast food. "Ellen makes fun of me when I eat oatmeal for breakfast. 'Having that mush again?' she says."

Arye Gross made the cut, so to speak. Cast members, such as Holly Fulger, aren't returning for the new fall TV season. ABC ordered changes in the show, including the name and cast changes.

"These Friends of Mine" had excelled in the ratings, but critics chewed on it.

They said Ms. DeGeneres is promising, but the show needed help around her. The writers didn't appear to be writing for any character other than Ellen Morgan -- Ms. DeGeneres' character. (She agrees.) Also, some viewers wondered who are these other people, and did we just drop in on them in the middle of something?

In short, Ms. DeGeneres appeared to be carrying the show.


"It may be too much of a burden. Great sitcoms rely on ensemble casts," says Betsy Frank, a senior vice president at New York-based Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising. The company buys prime-time advertising for its clients.

Ms. Frank, who writes the company's assessment of new TV seasons, catches the ear and attention of television executives.

Great time slot

"Ellen" has strong things going for it: a great time slot and an urbanite humor launched by Jerry Seinfeld, which continues to attract viewers nationwide, Ms. Frank says.

"Ellen is a terrific performer. She is very engaging," Ms. Frank says. "Women like women who put themselves down. She's someone who men like to watch and who is not threatening to women.

"Maybe that's why she is the female Seinfeld."


That's been the sticky label for Ellen DeGeneres -- "the female Seinfeld." His brand of hip, "observational" humor has played well in the biggest room of all -- the living room.

The comics do have some things in common. Both are single, both use quirky and clean material, and both have sitcoms. Mr. Seinfeld already wrote his comedy book; Ms. DeGeneres is writing one for next year -- "little observations, daily affirmations, my opinions on things," she says.

It could be said Mr. Seinfeld is the least interesting character on "Seinfeld," which has a rich supporting cast. It could be said that Ms. DeGeneres seems more personable on TV than Mr. Seinfeld does.

But who's to say if Ellen DeGeneres is personable in so-called real life?

The receptionist at PMK Public Relations in Los Angeles starts another sentence before another call interrupts her: "Richard Gere on No. 3," she says.

Tom Cruise was in the office the other day, and Holly Hunter calls in with that wonderful Southern accent of hers. Visitors can't help but wonder if they will see somebody famous.


PMK represents or "reps" many artists, including Mr. Cruise, Ms. Hunter and a television actress named Ellen DeGeneres. She is in PMK's conference room with a baggy, brown purse at her feet and Evian water at her service. She's not wearing a stitch of makeup. Her tired eyes are husky blue, her blue jeans are threadbare at the knees, and she's wearing some beige sweater-thing. She has great teeth, a personal feature that can never be overrated.

She is strikingly cute. Even her driver's license picture isn't bad. And to think some guy who eats oatmeal (mush!) for breakfast gets to work with her!

Doesn't act cool

"I think people feel very comfortable around me because I don't ** act like I'm cool and you're really lucky to be listening to my jokes," Ms. DeGeneres says.

She is not acting cool, but she is cool. For instance, she doesn't fidget. She sits still when she talks, and it becomes apparent this woman is never publicly nervous. She never worries about not being funny.

"How could I fail? Frankly, I'm amazing," she says, in a fake, show business voice.


Ms. DeGeneres probably was born funny, will die funny and even gets sick funny. They stopped production of "Ellen" last season when she was hospitalized for a ruptured ovarian cyst. How funny can that be? She turned the experience into a bit for Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show."

"No matter what it is, if a joke is at someone else's expense, I won't do it," she says.

Don't expect any O. J. Simpson jokes out of her, although privately she finds some of them funny. Her public humor is blatantly inoffensive. It doesn't bubble from some inner caldron of hostility.

"I think there is so much anger in the world, so much hatred, so much judging of other people. And the way I escape it is finding a lot of humor in human behavior and weird stuff I make up, like being adopted by Iroquois Indians.

L "My job is to entertain. So, why go out there and be angry?"

Her humor is also apolitical. The closest she comes to making any "statement" is maybe sneaking on her TV show a subtle pitch for animal rights -- her pet cause. In her spare time, "I stay home and punch my dogs really hard."


Ms. DeGeneres has given up doing stand-up comedy -- a relationship that petered out. She has traded a dozen year's worth of in-your-face audiences at comedy clubs for an arms-length studio audience at a TV studio.

"This year we will have an audience that really wants to see us," she says. "Last season, we had an audience that was just glad to be indoors. Like, 'You want some water, yes? OK, come this way.' We just lured them in and shut the doors."

bTC 8, Just who does she think her audience is?

Her audience

Folks between the ages of 20 and 40. White and black. Men and women.

"They are really smart, hip people," Ms. DeGeneres says.


"There are a lot of bright people out there, and there are also a lot of stupid people out there. You can either come to their level and have a huge audience or you can stay true to who you are and put out intelligent humor. And eventually, they will find you."

Mr. Gross says she does stay true. She's not a tyrant on the set, but Ms. DeGeneres has vetoed a few subjects for scripts because she considered them in "bad taste," Mr. Gross says. "It's not a matter of being 'politically correct.' It's a question of it not feeling right in her heart."

Showered by all this attention, Ms. DeGeneres has begun to guard her privacy. She did let slip the salacious fact she has two pet dogs. "Now that I have told that, I'll have to get three dogs," she says.

She has acquired snobby tastes and interests. She has boasted on talk shows about buying a new GEO Prizm. Nothing but the best broadcast entertainment for Ms. DeGeneres. She watches "Nick at Nite" and her favorite comedians: Lucy, Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore (and her bell bottoms). And she admires Steve Martin, Woody Allen (especially his book "Without Feathers") and Bob Newhart.

But her role model is Tom Hanks. Not interested in having a talk show, Ms. DeGeneres wants to do dramatic movies one day. Mention Mr. Hanks' movie, "Forrest Gump," and she reels with respect for the actor. "I would love to follow in those footsteps."

Things are sinking in for Ellen DeGeneres. She used to call the set and be stunned when someone would answer "Ellen." "No, it's me, Ellen," she'd say. No, the show is "Ellen." Her name is on this puppy "and I have to make sure the puppy is groomed and has had a flea bath."


Maybe Ms. DeGeneres has discovered something others also stumble on in their vanishing 30s. If it sounds like wisdom and it feels like wisdom, it must be wisdom:

"I wasted so much time. I've been so into my career for the last 14 years. I've just been driven," she says. "I'm really trying to slow everything down and really look out the window and enjoy the ride."

Maybe all that's missing on the ride is a session with the famous photographer Annie Leibovitz. For instance, remember Ms. Leibovitz's photograph of a naked, devoted John Lennon curled up on Yoko?

"That would be good," Ellen DeGeneres says, "a photograph of John Lennon cradling me naked."