This is not Ellen (1994-98), the sitcom in which the character Ellen Morgan came out in a fourth-season two-parter (lesbianism was so tricky to explain back then, apparently, that it required a full hour); nor is it The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the performer’s current, hugely popular daytime talk show. This is The Ellen Show, which ran for a mere 13 episodes in 2001-02. Think of it as a stepping-stone for a star looking for her footing as a TV personality and eventually dancing her way into America’s heart. Now on a DVD including five episodes that never aired (and no other extras), The Ellen Show is an opportunity to enjoy a DeGeneres who’s charmingly at ease with herself as a comic performer, and surrounded by other funny people. It’s not quite a classic, but it’s a damn good show.
The premise was simple, if now a tad dated: DeGeneres played Ellen Richmond, whose L.A. dot-com folds while she’s visiting her Midwestern hometown. Now unemployed, she decides to stay and live with her mother, brilliantly played by Cloris Leachman as an addled old lady (a character Leachman would reprise, in a way, for the underrated 2004 film Spanglish). Ellen gets a job as a guidance counselor at a high school, where her fellow teachers include the snowman-white comic Jim Gaffigan (a David Letterman fave) and Kerri Kenney (later to win cult adoration as Deputy Trudy Wiegel on the profound Reno 911!).
The Ellen Show was co-created by Carol Leifer, who’d been a key writer for Seinfeld, and Mitchell Hurwitz, who went on to birth EW’s semiofficial favorite sitcom of all time, Arrested Development. Andy Ackerman (The New Adventures of Old Christine) directed the pilot, and Andrew D. Weyman (Roseanne) the other 17 episodes. Not a bad pedigree, right? The show was full of clever verbal touches: When Gaffigan tells Ellen that a girl he liked ”wouldn’t give me the time of day,” he adds quietly, ”But in her defense, the only question I ever asked her was ‘Do you know what time it is?”’
Where DeGeneres’ previous sitcom never regained its comedic balance once her character announced that she was gay (remember all that business with Joely Fisher’s character not taking the news well?), The Ellen Show chose a different awkward route — rather than give her a girlfriend, it gave her no friends. The closest Ellen comes to a chum is Gaffigan, whose character has a chaste crush on her even after he hears the news about her sexuality. ”Gay, are ya?” he says wistfully. ”Congratulations.” Several plots involve Ellen trying to find companionship, but it’s always couched as her looking for a pal to hang out with, rather than romance. Oh, well. It was a rare misstep in an otherwise adroit sitcom, well deserving of rediscovery on DVD.