Inside Ellen's new show: all chat, no politics -- The once-controversial comedian caps off her comeback year with a gabfest TV execs say is destined to be a hit

By Nicholas Fonseca
Updated September 12, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
The Ellen Degeneres Show: Warner Bros.

Back in the height of the media maelstrom — back when the word ”Ellen” was immediately followed by ”Anne” — the talented stand-up comedian told The Advocate that she would probably host a talk show at some point ”and maybe that’s when more political things will happen.”

Two years later, DeGeneres stretches back on the gargantuan brown couch in her office on the NBC Studios lot in Burbank, and, well, let’s hear from her: ”There’s a species of caterpillar that looks like bird droppings, all so that birds won’t eat it. How amazing is it that nature knows what it looks like from a distance, and turns itself into something that looks like a bird dropping?” She pauses. ”Oh, sorry. I don’t think I’m being particularly funny today.”

Obviously, the 45-year-old comedian has backed off those old assertions, perhaps sensing that her new round of success is reminiscent of her gentle, silly, and apolitical beginnings. Her 35-city spring tour, Here and Now, was a triumphant sellout, and it was capped by an accompanying HBO special that garnered great reviews and encouraging ratings. Her hilarious voice-over performance was the undisputed highlight of Pixar’s animated summer smash ”Finding Nemo.” Somewhere in there, she even managed to sit down long enough to write her first book in eight years: a collection of comic essays titled ”The Funny Thing Is…,” which will be published next month.

Indeed, the funny thing is that the Sept. 8 debut of her syndicated daytime talk show (aptly titled, um, ”The Ellen DeGeneres Show”) is stoking enthusiasm from media buyers and industry insiders alike. ”It should be the breakout hit of all the new talk shows coming out this year,” says Ray Dundas, senior VP of national broadcast at Initiative, which buys advertising time for clients. ”Ellen is a comedian who has the benefit of name recognition, and audiences don’t hold ill will toward her.” DeGeneres is thrilled by the advance buzz. ”I’ve never been so passionate about something,” she says, exuding a renewed sense of self-confidence. ”I will probably do this for the rest of my career.”

That’s an incredibly bold statement, because for a long time it looked like DeGeneres wasn’t going to have a career. For the four of you who never heard (or don’t remember) the media-saturated story: The ABC sitcom that brought her mainstream success spectacularly flamed out in 1998, a year after its landmark coming-out episode. Her romance with press-happy paramour Anne Heche, a union that some considered a shrill display of egos run amok, dissolved two years later when Heche left her for a cameraman. Her first attempt at a major TV return, CBS’ squeaky-clean ”The Ellen Show,” debuted to critical kudos — and audience apathy.

The show may not have held viewer interest, but it did launch one of the strangest, most circuitous comebacks in recent memory. Mere weeks after the Sept. 11 tragedy in 2001, DeGeneres tackled the least desired gig in Hollywood: She hosted a twice-delayed, unusually somber prime-time Emmy ceremony. Her performance — witty, respectful, and wise — won plaudits from viewers and Hollywood. ”That was the turning point,” says Jim Paratore, president of Telepictures, which is producing her new show. ”Ellen came out there and made people proud. People began to step back and remember how talented she was. And talent, over time, wins out in this business.”

Not that DeGeneres had much faith in that old saw. During that time, she was lending her pipes to ”Nemo”’s chatty fish, Dory — a project she was convinced would (excuse the pun) flounder, ending Pixar’s winning streak. ”Everybody is bound to have a flop at some point,” she says. ”Nothing was going on and I hadn’t reached a confident place yet. I hate to sound fatalistic, but that’s where I was. So, I took it. And here it is. It’s huge.” It sure is: Pixar’s CG blockbuster recently surpassed Disney’s ”The Lion King” to become the highest-grossing animated film of all time. There’s even talk of an Oscar nod. Director Andrew Stanton — a longtime fan who wrote the role expressly for DeGeneres — credits her with helping ”Nemo” find success: ”Everybody has that friend who’s funny merely for existing. That’s Ellen. You’re not waiting for a punchline with her. You’re just waiting for her to speak so you can start laughing.”

Don’t think she doesn’t know it, either. Beneath the familiar, aw-shucks demeanor is a razor-sharp comedian who’s retained that rare ability to follow her best instincts. DeGeneres realizes that her rambling chatter is key to her appeal; thus, her recent stint on lowbrow TV game show ”Hollywood Squares.” ”I knew that even the people who watched ‘Hollywood Squares’ were holding out judgment,” she explains. ”There was work that I had to take in order to put myself out there and say, ‘I’m a funny person.”’

That’s obvious from the minute she begins talking about her new series. Her decision to go lighter with this latest project was due, in part, to a come-to-Jesus talk with the show’s producers when she struck the talk-show deal in April 2002. Paratore summarizes his pitch: ”The audience doesn’t want to hear Oprah preach spirituality. They didn’t want to hear Rosie preach gun control. And they don’t want to hear you preach lifestyle.” DeGeneres seems unfazed by the directive: ”Some people will say, ‘Oh, now she’s trying to swing the other way and hide,’ but I’m doing a talk show. It’s not my job to get into an argument with somebody about religion or politics or sexuality or anything. It is my job to make people laugh.”

To that end, she promises a loosely structured show with a relaxed mix of A-list celebs and everyday folks. (Her celebrity crush, Justin Timberlake, will drop by for a full hour Sept. 9, and there’s a mischievous glint in her eye when she coos, ”He’s extremely sexy. I could talk about him all afternoon.”) She’s also hired a DJ in place of a passe house band, but DeGeneres seems most excited about the audience Q&A sessions, which sound a lot like the on-tour chats for which she’s renowned.

When she’s asked — usually against her wishes — to define her anticipated hosting style, she offers up names like Johnny Carson and Oprah Winfrey. She’s entitled to lay claim to that lineage as much as anyone else: Her show films mere steps from ”The Tonight Show” stages, and Oprah is a part of the design scheme in her office. On the wall above her desk hangs a framed photograph of the two of them — a shot from ”Ellen”’s coming-out episode. She gushes, ”Oprah is amazing. And I thought it was pretty impressive that now, here I am doing a talk show.” Still, she insists she won’t ape the distinctive approaches of the genre’s acknowledged masters: ”That’s a mistake for anybody to ever try to be like anybody else. It means you don’t have your own voice.”

Not that anyone would ever fault DeGeneres for that. Speaking of which, does she feel a tinge of regret that she might have to censor her life to appease daytime viewers? ”It’s a shame,” admits DeGeneres, who, perhaps wisely, never reveals much about her current girlfriend, photographer (and sometime actress) Alexandra Hedison. ”Maybe down the line, conversations will veer toward the point where you can’t believe you’re seeing them on TV. But I have to be too sensitive about it right now, because I’ve seen the results of not being sensitive enough. [But] I’ll definitely talk about what I did the night before or what happened at the house.”

Placating audiences may be the least of her worries. After all, daytime TV is littered with the corpses of dead talk shows hosted by successful female sitcom stars: Cybill Shepherd, Candice Bergen, Queen Latifah, and former ABC stablemate Roseanne all made valiant — and ultimately doomed — efforts. ”I love a challenge,” says DeGeneres. ”Honestly? [Those other people] didn’t enter my mind.” In addition to trying to buck that streak, she’ll be facing a slew of fierce new competitors. Chief among them is Sharon Osbourne, whose new gabfest (also produced by Telepictures) aimed at teens has been plagued by rumors of on-set discord. (Thankfully, DeGeneres has been spared bad buzz. Ever pragmatic, she says she’s merely waiting her turn: ”Our test shows were flawless. In fact, they were so good that I just know something’s gonna go wrong when we start.”) In January, ”American Idol” hair model Ryan Seacrest enters the fray. Meanwhile, NBC News vet Jane Pauley, who’s already selling her show as a classy, Oprah-style hour, arrives next fall. There’s a chance that Pauley’s show — produced and distributed by NBC Enterprises — could bump Ellen from her many plum time slots on NBC stations if her show doesn’t display some ratings strength in its first year.

It’s still too early to wager any bets on these potential bouts, and self-proclaimed perfectionist DeGeneres claims she’s been too busy plugging away at her chatfest to notice the clamor. When she’s not spending time on the set, there’s plenty to keep her occupied at her newly purchased Contemporary Craftsman-style home in the canyons above Hollywood. She admits that it’s been a struggle to maintain the bucolically blessed, three-acre spread, which has been plagued by oodles of humorous, only-in-Ellen’s-world twists. Right now, for instance, she and Hedison are locked in battle with land-eating gophers, along with a stubborn heron who keeps gulping fish from their three on-site ponds. ”There’s actually a plastic crocodile on the lawn,” she laughs. ”It really is the tackiest thing you’ve ever seen.”

No matter, though. DeGeneres calls the house ”our own personal paradise,” and after spending her entire life shuffling (or perhaps running?) from home to home, she plans to stay put. ”Everybody who’s lived in the house has been a writer. I’m inspired when I’m there,” she says. ”I’ve moved a lot, and I hope I don’t ever move again. Everybody keeps saying that they’re going to write that down and remind me when I say that I want to move in a year.” Her wide, warm blue eyes are smiling as she fidgets with her necklace. ”I hope this is it.”