Show is revamped, but star remains genuine DeGeneres

August 17, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

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.

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