Four years ago, her historic network outing made her a hero -- and a target. Now Ellen DeGeneres puts politics behind her and returns to television with a sweet, small-town sitcom, THE ELLEN SHOW

By Steve Daly
Updated September 07, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Ellen Show

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  • TV Show
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The Ellen Show
CBS, 8-8:30 p.m.
Debuts Monday, September 17, 9:30 p.m.

It took Ellen DeGeneres four seasons to utter the words ”I’m gay” on her ABC sitcom. When she finally did — on an April 1997 installment code-named ”The Puppy Episode” — the moment came couched in an elaborate seriocomic set piece, garnished with dollops of laugh-track gasps, guffaws, and applause: Her character inadvertently came out over a PA system to an entire airport lounge.

But just 10 minutes into the pilot of The Ellen Show, DeGeneres’ new CBS sitcom that’s set in a Mayberry-quaint town called Clark, her once-again-eponymous character matter-of-factly says exactly the same words. And this time, nothing happens. Sure, there are a few moments of awkward, hey-no-biggie reassurances from the folks she’s visiting at her old high school: her former teacher, now the principal (Martin Mull); her onetime high school prom date (Jim Gaffigan, from CBS’ short-lived sitcom Welcome to New York); and an openly lesbian, obviously lonesome gym teacher named Bunny (Diane Delano). But after a few swift, modest punchlines, the subject is pretty much closed. It’s on to the next jokes, which focus on such tame foibles as Ellen’s insecure sister (Emily Rutherfurd) and her spacey mom (Cloris Leachman, in her highest-profile sitcom gig since Phyllis bowed out in 1977). ”It’s ‘Ellen’ lite,” quips DeGeneres. ”But it’s smart, you know? It still fills ya up!”

What a difference four years make. Since that April, DeGeneres has been through a media-relations whirlwind more reminiscent of a political campaign than a TV career. She faced sagging ratings for Ellen as she embarked on a profoundly public courtship with Anne Heche. She fought bitterly with ABC over gay-themed content before Ellen was canceled in April 1998. She hit the comeback trail shortly after with a round of stand-up dates, as captured in the HBO special The Beginning. Then DeGeneres hit her biggest speed bump: a tabloid-chronicled breakup with Heche, wherein all their publicity-friendly openness came back to haunt them in the form of endless I-told-you-so jabs on gossip pages and in late-night monologues.

Meantime, NBC’s Will & Grace caught a perfect zeitgeist tailwind and rode it to ratings and Emmy glory, thereby turning gay-life patois into the trendiest of watercooler chat.

So what’s a polarizing pioneer to do for an encore? The first step was just getting out the front door. ”There was a time it was just me huddled down, like, ‘I can’t take it anymore,’ ” says the 43-year-old comedian, looking radiant and comfy in her Ellen Show dressing room. ”I can’t take any more criticism. I can’t take any more jokes. I can’t take being the punchline every time.” As with her TV characters, there’s a nervous undercurrent to DeGeneres’ patter — a mix of fearful and funny as she talks in a frank stream of consciousness. ”I got myself into this huge political platform that started p—ing everybody off,” she says with a shrug. ”So it was hard to move on and work again. But you reach a point where you decide not to care so much what everybody else thinks. You don’t have any other choice, unless you want to lose your mind and do nothing at all.”

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The Ellen Show

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