Being a celebrity has not been easy for Ellen DeGeneres. After spending the ‘80s building a career as a stand-up comedian, she broke into sitcom television with two forgettable shows (Open House in 1989 and Laurie Hill in 1992) before landing Ellen, which ran four seasons (1994-1998) and earned an Emmy for Best Writing and multiple Best Actress Emmy nominations for DeGeneres. In 1997, she and her character came out on national TV, but a nervous ABC dropped the show when the 1998 season focused more on her character’s sexuality than the comedy that had made it popular.
The resulting media firestorm and her high profile romance, and subsequent breakup, with actress Anne Heche, soon reduced DeGeneres to tabloid fodder. Her next sitcom, the gentle The Ellen Show (2001), left critics and audiences cold and was cancelled after one season. The past few years have found her on Hollywood Squares, gamely trying to avoid looking like someone sliding into television oblivion.
But this year has been kind to DeGeneres. She’s garnered some of the best reviews of her career for voicing Dory the blue tang in Pixar’s Finding Nemo. Her 35-city “Here and Now” standup tour has won critical acclaim and sold-out shows. That tour and the accompanying HBO special present Ellen at her best. Always a brilliant observational comic, she’s honed her breezy, conversational delivery to perfection. All this bodes well for Ellen’s return to television as host of her own daily talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Her standup style seems suited to a talk show host. “It feels like a natural progression,” she told Charlie McCollum of the San Jose Mercury News. “I’m genuinely curious about people.”
From the first episode, it’s apparent Ellen is working hard to make her show more than just a pleasant afternoon diversion. While The Ellen DeGeneres Show may not break any new ground, it is still rooted in a type of quirky, good-natured fun that is befitting its host. The first week of shows was packed with A-list stars, quirky taped segments, live music, and interactions with everyday people (a second grade yo-yo champion, a seven-year-old lemonade stand entrepreneur). This makes for a lively, fast-paced hour that feels more like a variety show than your standard chat-fest, and DeGeneres pulls out all the stops to make sure her audience is having fun.
Maybe all that work made her tired. During the first two episodes, she was looking weirdly vulnerable when she settled into one of two enormous armchairs that, along with a coffee table, make up her minimalist stage set. She fidgeted with her hair, her shirtsleeve, and the cuffs of her pants as she crossed and uncrossed her legs. She looked uneasy as she explained that her show would be different than others, and frankly, other than the no-desk and DJ instead of the standard house band, there’s not much different between hers and the countless other talk shows out there.
This please-like-me-and-my-show approach extended to her interaction with guests, about whom we learned nothing new, as DeGeneres never asked a substantive question. She fawned over Jennifer Aniston, focusing—just like everyone else—on Brad Pitt and the end of Friends. The next day was worse: it was embarrassing to see DeGeneres with Justin Timberlake, touching and hugging him like any teenaged devotee. Great talk show hosts from Carson to Conan have to look comfortable with even their most famous guests, on a par rather than groveling or cajoling. DeGeneres seems awestruck, more like a fan than the host of her own show.
She looks most comfortable when dealing with those “everyday people.” During the spirited question and answer session that closes out the show, she recalls Carol Burnett, in those moments on her show when host and audience got to “know each other.”
Perhaps her discomfort elsewhere is to be expected from someone whose professional life is so closely associated with her personal one. Despite the fact that her coming out occurred five years ago, DeGeneres remains defined—and somehow limited—by that courageous act. But audiences who judge her based on her sexual orientation are missing the point. Her humor has never been about sexuality of any kind, just as Jerry Seinfeld’s has never been about being Jewish or Bill Cosby’s has been about being black. DeGeneres is funniest when she points out the humor of being ordinary in an extraordinary world.
“It’s hard, because until I’m on the air, I think it’s this big question,” she told the New York Daily News before the talk show’s 8 September debut. “Because people for some reason think, ‘Of course, the show’s going to be about that.’ It’s really got nothing to do with the show. People know I’m gay, there’s no surprises there, I’m not hiding anything. And the stuff people keep focusing on is five years old. It’s like, at some point, I hope, it goes away.”
It probably will go away at some point. By the first week’s end, she settled into a comfort zone that showed off her comic talent. Much like her, the show has a pleasant, cheery feel. Indeed, this is the friendliest talk show since The Rosie O’Donnell Show, though, unlike O’Donnell, who could be confrontational with some guests (remember Tom Selleck), DeGeneres evinces no interest in being edgy or even especially passionate about political or social issues. Genial as she is, invites us to kick up our feet and relax.