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Ellen aired from March 1994 until July 1998 on ABC.
This Seinfeld-esque comedy premiered under the title These Friends of Mine, which was discriptive of its content.Ellen ( Ellen DeGeneres) was a blond, insecure, somewhat hyper thirtysomething single who managed a Los Angeles bookstore/coffee shop called Buy the Book. Dates and friends , new and old, wanted and unwanted, pretty much filled her life. Her original circle included Adam ( Arye Gross), her sloppy, sarcastic roommate, a struggling photographer who was also playing the field ( though not with Ellen); longtime friend Holly ( Holly Fulger); and smart-mouthed Anita ( Maggie Wheeler).They rated each other's dates, talked about their sexual misadventures ( casual sex was big here), and how to dump people they didn't like.
When the series returned in the fall of 1994, Ellen had done some dumping of her own. The title was changed to Ellen, and Holly and Anita were history. Joe ( David Anthony Higgins), a chubby co-worker at the bookstore ( which Ellen now owned ), was promoted to full-time " friend," and Paige ( Joely Fisher), a rather pushy childhood friend who usually got her way, joined the gang. Joe became the coffee-brewing " java king," while Paige was a movie development executive. Lois and Harold ( Alice Hirson, Steven Gilborn) were Ellen's occasionally seen parents.
In the 1995-1996 season Buy the Book was destroyed in an earthquake. After rebuilding, Ellen decided to sell out to a large chain, while continuing to manage it for them.Her new roommate was her cousin Spence ( Jeremy Piven), a deposed doctor from New York ( he had been fired for punching a patient) who was looking for a new life; and a new friend was naive , giggly Audrey ( Clea Lewis), an annoying vision in pink. On the dating front Paige and Spence were soon involved in a volitile romance, but the big news was Ellen herself.Stories began hinting that her pursuit of the perfect man might not be her real desire, and the real-life media began a drumbeat of speculation as to whether Ellen might in fact become the first openly gay leading character on broadcast series television.This co-incided with series star Ellen DeGeneres' own announcement that she was in fact gay.On April 30, 1997, The series finally had its " coming out" episode in which Ellen overcame years of denial and fell for her boyfriend's producer ( Laura Dern)-who promptly left her. Ellen's friends stuck by her , however, and clueless Audrey even proved a surprisingly knowledgeable guide to the gay scene. Also lending support on this episode was Ellen's therapist , none other than Oprah Winfrey.
The final season saw Ellen leaving her job at Buy the Book to try new occupations and pay the mortgage on her newly aquired dream home. The final episode was a mock history of Ellen's show business career from vaudeville in the 20's through the birth of television to the present day. Over the credits a chorus sang, " Who's got a lesbian smile? Ellen!"
A Review from USA TODAY
TV PREVIEW/BY MATT ROUSH
'Friends 'would be welcome any time
Even if you haven't wearied of the frantic antics of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer, surely your dance card isn't too full to add new TV friends.
These Friends of Mine is so derivative it hurts, in its minimalist small talk and obsessive quirks: arguing whether Underdog is a " person" or a " thing," calling a first date a " major inter-gender ordeal."
But at its best this new adult sitcom has something even the greatest Seinfelds lack: charm.
Ellen DeGeneres, gently deadpan with droopy-pretty features, won me over during one of those maddening universal moments : put on hold by the Department of Motor Vehicles Humming to vintage Muzak, she quickly crescendos to a roaring duet with her male roommate ( Arye Gross) to Build Me Up Buttercup.
Still cuter is Ellen's repartee with best friend Holly, played by the same adorable Holly Fulger who was Jaimie Lee Curtis' dishy pal on Anything But Love. Nice to have her back, even in red hair.
At times, it's too cute.
Holly goes on a date and doesn't notice broccoli on her face ( " How do you not notice the 'face'thing?" goes the arch refrain.) And there's gossip that her date barks during sex. Everyone calls sex " intercourse." Must they?
As suits a comedy of modern manners, much business centers on the phone : a wayward message on an answering machine , and in Wednesday's episode ( its regular slot) a call-waiting mishap. Haven't we seen this on Seinfeld? Yes.
But low-key Ellen has a fresh attitude, even as this very '90's brand of ephemeral sitcom heads toward the stale bin. She's a star, her friends aren't strangers and this is the warmest, smartest ABC comedy since I don't know when.
An Article from USA TODAY
Published on March 29, 1994
Life with Ellen DeGeneres and her 'Friends'
By Jefferson Graham
Ellen DeGeneres' new ABC sitcom is about a woman and her three single pals, two female and one male.
Also consider that DeGeneres is a standup comedian getting her first shot at starring in a sitcom, and the urge is strong to dub These Friends of Mine the " Female Seinfeld."
But she says there's more to it than that.
" I've always been compared to Jerry," says DeGeneres, 36. " When I did stand-up comedy , they did, even though we're nothing alike. We both do observational humor, that's where the similarity lies. But had I made it before him, they'd probably be calling him the Male Ellen DeGeneres.
The comedian grew up in New Orleans, where she shucked oysters, tended bar, painted houses and sold vacuum cleaners before turning to comedy.
Her first big break was winning a Showtime contest that sought the " Funniest Person in America."
" I was serving coffee and Xeroxing at a law firm in New Orleans ," she says. " And all of a sudden, I was the Funniest Person in America. It was nice to win, but imagine having to wear that title around your neck for a year."
DeGeneres nabbed a role on Fox's Open House, which led to a tiny part on last season's Laurie Hill, produced by Neal Marlens and Carol Black, creators of The Wonder Years.
Marlens and Black had a deal with Disney and ABC to do another show and when Hill ended , they pursued DeGeneres for it.But after the first six episodes were completed, Marlens and Black quit citing " personal" reasons.
DeGeneres won't go into the reasons , but suffice it to say there was tension with network and studio brass and the second batch of shows changed direction. Originally Friends was about Ellen and her pals , but in the second wave of shows , we will see more of Ellen at work in a bookstore. Also the character of Ellen's friend , Anita, seen on the first few shows , was later axed.
Despite the backstage problems, it is a virtual lock that These Friends of Mine will be an instant top 20 hit. The show airs in the coveted post-Home Improvement time slot, which helped Grace Under Fire become the highest rated new show of the season.
DeGeneres ' biggest fear about stardom: that her high school senior picture will be discovered. " The picture is so bad," she says. " It's scary."
So many comedians have had shows built around them recently, but DeGeneres says hers is different: her act hasn't been adapted-instead its captured her "persona."
But what exactly is the show about? Like Seinfeld, is it about " nothing?"
DeGeneres takes a whack at the description: " These Friends of Mine is about my obscure take on life," she says. " It's a show about being single and trying to figure out things in life the hard way."
A Review from Entertainment Weekly
'THESE FRIENDS OF MINE' JOINS THE RANKS OF SITCOMS CONSTRUCTED FROM THE SAME MATERIAL THAT MADE 'SEINFELD' A SMASH-NOTHING. AND THAT'S THE PROBLEM
By Ken Tucker
Clearly, the most enviable creatures on earth right now are single-or, if married, childless-people in sitcoms. These privileged, youngish adults have jobs but don't seem to work very hard; they have tons of friends, with whom they hang out and exchange endlessly witty repartee. And if you're lucky enough to be part of the circle of chums that makes up these friends of mine (ABC, March 29, 9:30-10 p.m.), you can while away the hours coming up with clever terms for dating-this show favors ''intergender ordeal''-or having a cute argument over whether the cartoon character Underdog is a person or a canine. These Friends of Mine is an unnervingly self-conscious new sitcom starring the talented stand-up comedian Ellen DeGeneres as Ellen Morgan, a single gal who manages a bookstore-cafe and spends her copious free time with her three amigos-Holly (Anything but Love's Holly Fulger), Adam (Arye Gross of Soul Man), and Anita (Maggie Wheeler). In the series premiere, the biggest problems faced by this crew are Ellen's disappointment over the unattractive picture on her new driver's license, and Holly's embarrassment over the fact that her new boyfriend barks like a dog during intercourse. (I'll wait here while you read the last half of that last sentence again. Yes, barks. Inevitably, numerous Arsenio Hall ''woof, woof!'' jokes are made, and I don't know about you, but Arsenio, dogs, and intercourse are three concepts I never want to have running together in my head at the same time.) It's silly to criticize a sitcom for being trivial, of course. But there's a knowing wink behind every joke in These Friends that just wasn't there in, say, your average I Love Lucy or Dick Van Dyke Show episode. Part of the problem here is that the people who made These Friends, including creator- writers Carol Black and Neal Marlens (The Wonder Years), want you not merely to laugh at but to identify-nay, mind-meld-with these characters. They want you to poke your own friend in the ribs and say, ''Isn't that exactly what | we always say?'' or ''Don't you know people who always do that?'' God bless Lucille Ball-at least she never asked me to think of her as my doppelganger. I'm tempted to say that These Friends of Mine is about nothing-because it is, wearyingly so-but you know where that would lead: We'd have to pin some of the blame for These Friends' ponderous joshing on the increasingly mimicked original about-nothing show, Seinfeld. And that show, as brilliant as it has been, is undergoing its own little identity crisis this, its fourth, season. The series has become something of a victim of its own success, as the subtle self-awareness that creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David built into their show has gradually become just another attitude option for lesser sitcom writers on other series. Seinfeld itself is not immune to this; recent episodes not written by David have verged on self-parody. The ongoing Seinfeld rip-off that's fascinating whenever it's not actually annoying is the one Paul Reiser is doing weekly on Mad About You. From the hangdog expression he wears like a mask to the choppy sentences that have the rhythm, but not the content, of real jokes, Reiser is appropriating the Seinfeld attitude with casual brazenness. One imagines he must get down on his knees every few days and thank The Great Casting Agent for giving him Helen Hunt, who provides Mad with its sole element of originality. As Paul's wife, Jamie, Hunt has developed a vivid, varied character at just the moment when Seinfeld's Julia Louis-Dreyfus has become more of a caricature. But back to our original target: Maybe DeGeneres will yet turn These Friends of Mine into something worthy of her. Watching her stand-up act, I've always thought of her as an exceptionally smart, unusually honest camp counselor, and what's most dispiriting about the pilot show is the way she has dimmed her usually bright-eyed, big-smiling countenance to approximate the patented Seinfeld deadpan. Still, this is only the first episode. Apparently, Black and Marlens' involvement will be decreasing in future episodes, and DeGeneres actually does have her own, fresh comic persona to develop and deepen. Not that we want a deep sitcom, of course; that would be verging on Seinfeld territory. C
An Article from The New York Times
A Closer Look at 'Ellen'
By LAWRIE MIFFLIN
Published: September 18, 1996
When ''Ellen'' makes its third-season debut tonight, the ABC sitcom is likely to get much closer scrutiny than usual. Viewers will be looking for some indication of whether the show's lead character, Ellen Morgan, played by Ellen DeGeneres, is going to become a lesbian.
Since word got out last Friday that Ms. DeGeneres and her colleagues were considering having the character come out of the closet later this season, ABC and Disney, whose Touchstone Television unit produces the show, have been assiduously avoiding comment.
Such a change would certainly generate attention. But would it be attention of the inquisitive kind, which might help the show's ratings, or of the critical kind, which could sink it?
Many people in the industry think it would be the latter. And if ''Ellen'' takes this path, they say, ABC will have to move it from its 8 P.M. slot.
''Some advertisers will shy away if it takes that turn, even if it goes to 9,'' said Bill Croasdale, head of national broadcasting for Western International Media, a major buyer. ''But others will wait in the wings for some to pull out, and hope to buy into it on a bargain-basement basis.''
Donald Wildmon, head of the American Family Association, a self-styled conservative watchdog group, has issued a statement saying that if ''Ellen'' goes ahead with a lesbian lead character, advertisers that stay with the show will ''reveal their true allegiances to themes which gnaw at traditional family values.''
On Sunday, Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, was asked by Tony Snow of the ''Fox News Sunday'' morning interview program for his reaction to the speculation that ''Ellen'' would feature a lesbian star. ''I find it hard to believe,'' Mr. Robertson replied, ''because she's so popular. She's such an attractive actress.''
Whatever the story line, if the show gets good ratings, advertisers will return, Mr. Croasdale said, citing the example of ''N.Y.P.D. Blue.'' When it first appeared, with some nudity and lots of coarse language, advertisers shied away. But after seeing the show's laudatory reviews and strong ratings, many returned.
''Ellen,'' on the other hand, has an erratic ratings history. In the last few weeks it has been losing a reruns race against ''The Nanny,'' on CBS. LAWRIE MIFFLIN
An Article from Entertainment Weekly
Published on October 4, 1996
Is America ready for its first lesbian TV lead? Sitcom star Ellen Degeneres drops some not-so-subtle prime-time hints that her TV persona may finally realize she's gay
By A.J. Jacobs
That Ellen DeGeneres she can be such a tease. Way back in July, during ABC's preseason schmooze-the-press party at Los Angeles' House of Blues, the sitcom star dropped some tantalizing hints about the future of her perpetually single character. ''It's not just 'Ellen buys a table' this year,'' she told Entertainment Weekly. ''Ellen starts reexamining her life. She goes on a personal journey. She finds out who she is which I think was lacking from the show all along...the public may have to stretch a little.''
Reexamining? Personal journey? This about a skirt-eschewing, makeup-free character who has zero chemistry with guys, and from an actress who has been the source of endless speculation from the tabloids. Beep, beep, beep went the gay-dar.
Then came the red alert: Through a leak to the media conveniently timed to coincide with the sagging sitcom's Sept. 18 season premiere America learned that Ellen's goofball main character may come out as a lesbian this year. (The writers have even reportedly scripted some preparatory scenes, including one with DeGeneres' Ellen Morgan telling her divorcing parents, ''What if I said something shocking to you. Like my whole life has been a lie, and I'm really...left-handed.'') No doubt about it: It would be landmark TV a queer Cosby, a lesbian Lucy. Cut to the season debut and possibly the gayest half hour of prime time since PBS' documentary on Stonewall. Wearing her trademark pants a little baggier than usual, Ellen peppered the show with subtle-as-a-sledgehammer jokes about her sexuality, even singing in the opening scene: ''I feel witty and pretty and...hey!''
The teasefest accelerated last week. In an appearance on Good Morning America, she said the whole thing ''got totally blown out of proportion.... We're adding another character a guy, and his name is Les Bian.'' That same evening, chatting with David Letterman (who seemed more of a cheerleader for lesbians on TV than DeGeneres herself), she pulled a similar routine: ''The character does find out she's Lebanese.''
This game of will-she-or-won't-she has put Disney (owners of ABC and the show's producers) in an awkward position. What's a family-friendly entertainment conglomerate to do? If they forge ahead with the lesbian plotline, Mouse execs risk advertiser pullouts, boycotts from the religious right, affiliate complaints, and an unknown impact on the ratings. As of press time, Disney and ABC were still waiting to see how the idea of a gay lead character plays in the public and media. ''They're a little freaked out,'' understates one source close to the situation.
The hint dropping, however, may have taken them past the point of no return. Now that it's open a crack, the closet door is going to be mighty hard to shut. As any comedy writer knows, a setup demands a payoff and quickly. Even the tentative plan as of early September to out Ellen during February sweeps (assuming Disney and ABC agree to go in that direction) now seems ridiculously drawn out. In the words of Ellen fans in cyberspace, ''Come on out and play!'' ''Just relax and do it!'' And perhaps most astutely, ''What's the big deal? Laverne came out of the closet every week in the opening sequence of Laverne & Shirley.''
But enough about Ellen, for the moment. EW has a real, bona fide scoop! According to highly placed network sources (who understandably prefer to remain anonymous), we have discovered that one prominent TV character is definitely, absolutely, without a doubt scheduled to come out this year: Lucky, the cocker spaniel on Married...With Children.
Leave it to Fox's politically incorrect staple to poke fun at one of this year's most cutting-edge TV trends. For whether or not Ellen Morgan becomes an official lesbian, prime time is awash in gay supporting roles. ''It's become a stock character like what blacks were on television 15 years ago,'' says Rob Epstein, codirector of The Celluloid Closet, a documentary about Hollywood's history with on-screen homosexuality. ''It seems mandatory to have a gay sidekick.''
Well, maybe not mandatory: In one bizarre exception NBC's Suddenly Susan Brooke Shields' character works at a hip San Francisco magazine without one gay employee (guess it's an alternative magazine). The rest of the fall season, however, is chockablock with gay characters a whopping 22, not counting Lucky. For starters, flip on such new shows as ABC's Spin City, with its gadfly Carter; Fox's just-canceled Lush Life, with Nelson, the flamboyant bartender; and ABC's Relativity, with Rhonda, the lead guy's suddenly single lesbian sister. Or look at prime time's returning crop, with Debbie, Paul's lesbian sister on NBC's Mad About You; Ross, the gay violin teacher who adopted a baby on Fox's Party of Five; and, of course, the old standby, Matt on Melrose Place, who may even, gasp, have a long-term relationship this year. ''Any exposure is good,'' says Maxine Lapiduss, an out executive producer of The Jeff Foxworthy Show who helped write Martin Mull's homosexual character on Roseanne. ''I just hope we're not flavors of the week.''
Even if they are, the situation is a lot sweeter than it was back in the '80s. Think back to 1981, when Tony Randall played a meticulous artist on NBC's Love, Sidney. Unlike the TV movie on which it was based, the sitcom never mentioned his character was gay he was simply a permanent bachelor. Or take 1989's thirtysomething episode in which two gay men had a chat in bed. ABC reportedly lost $1.5 million in ads, a situation far less likely to happen now. ''You can't boycott every show,'' reasons John Cameron Mitchell, a gay actor who plays a razor-tongued homosexual stylist on Fox's Party Girl.
As the pink tide rises, the stereotypes recede. Not all of TV's homosexual men are prancing queens (see the Joe Sixpack character on last year's otherwise forgettable The Pursuit of Happiness); not all lesbians wear flannel and Birkenstocks. In fact, writers may have even gotten a bit too conscientious in avoiding stereotypes. Out comic Lea DeLaria, who had a cameo in last season's lesbian wedding on Friends, complains: ''They needed at least 30 or 40 more fat dykes in tuxedos. All those thin, perfectly coiffed girls in Laura Ashley prints what kind of a lesbian wedding is that? And no one played softball afterwards?''
Softball or no, the Friends wedding scored in the Nielsens as did Roseanne's '94 lip lock with Mariel Hemingway and Matt's cutaway kiss on Melrose Place two months later. Which helps explain why bottom-line-minded programmers, despite more conservative advertisers, don't throw a hissy over gay plotlines. ''It's not as big a taboo as it used to be,'' says Bob Greenblatt, executive VP of programming at Fox. ''That isn't to say the mass audience is clamoring for gay characters. It's just more accepted.'' And writers are more than willing to comply. After all, the industry is heavy with gay writers who, even when scripting heterosexual characters, infuse shows with a gay sensibility see the irony and fussy sarcasm of the ''straight'' Frasier. ''I can't think of a single sitcom that doesn't have a gay writer,'' says DeLaria.
Yet as the Ellen brouhaha proves, a gay lead still spooks the networks. But maybe not for long. ''Every other minority group seems to be getting its own show,'' says former Ellen exec producer Warren Bell, now heading up ABC's Life's Work. ''The networks are rushing Hispanic sitcoms onto the air, so I can't see why there wouldn't be a gay-themed sitcom.'' Adds out actor Mitchell Anderson, Party of Five's Ross, ''If you're a human being and you're gay, you are the center of your own [personal]sitcom. So it's just natural.''
Ellen almost broke the barrier years ago. When the sitcom then called These Friends of Mine was first conceived in 1992, the producers considered making Ellen Morgan a lesbian, but they quickly nixed the idea, and DeGeneres concurred. ''We thought (a) we wanted to make this show about a very funny woman we didn't want to make her sexuality an issue,'' says one ex-staffer. ''And (b) we thought this would be an impossible row to hoe [with the network].''
Still, when the show aired, the issue kept popping up. ''We speculated about it for years,'' says another insider. ''We recognized it would really make the show stand out from all the other six-friends-in-an-apartment shows.'' But, former staffers say, DeGeneres still wasn't ready and was nervous about anything that even hinted of lesbianism. In one episode of the 1994-95 season, Ellen schemes about how to become better friends with a woman she's met. DeGeneres, uncomfortable with some scenes she thought suggestive, had them tweaked.
As reluctant as she was about having her character become a lesbian, DeGeneres was just as skittish about Ellen going out with guys. In the beginning, her character smooched everyone from her bland friend Adam to a pizza delivery guy. But by 1995, the actress was complaining to EW that the writers ''were focusing on me dating all the time. And I said, 'There are lots of women who don't date this much.''' As she gained power, the star squashed the dating plots, and by last season, her character was pretty much asexual, a situation that can frustrate material-starved writers. ''Can you imagine Seinfeld without sex?'' asks one. ''There just aren't that many driver's license stories.''
It sure made for strange TV and underlines why Ellen's coming out could really juice up the show creatively. ''She's one of the funniest women on the planet,'' says lesbian comic Suzanne Westenhoefer. ''But the show's been mediocre at best. [Ellen's coming out] would be Christmas for gay people.'' Apparently DeGeneres now agrees. Sometime before this season's start, she must have decided the closet was crimping her style.
If Ellen does make the historic switch of teams (one reported scenario has her falling for a lesbian writer who speaks at the bookstore), she'd be the perfect character to make homosexuality acceptable. So likable, so adorable, so nonthreatening, Ellen would be ''like finding out your sister is gay. She's still your sister, so you still think she's great,'' says Party Girl's Mitchell. Just as important, the show is a sitcom instead of a drama. ''Humor relaxes people,'' says gay stand-up comic and writer Bob Smith. And she'd be a lesbian instead of a gay man, which, like it or not, makes her more palatable to the Howard Stern set.
Whether it will ever be palatable to Disney is another story. As soon as word leaked of Ellen's possible revelation, the religious right began its inevitable gnashing of teeth. Donald Wildmon, head of the uberconservative American Family Association, issued a statement condemning advertisers who would stay with a lesbian Ellen: ''[They will] reveal their true allegiances to themes which gnaw at traditional family values.'' Adds fundamentalist Rev. Fred Phelps, ''It's a sign we're on the cusp of doom, of Sodom and Gomorrah.''
That's pretty ugly music to Disney's ears, which has already incurred the wrath of conservatives for its liberal gay-partnership benefits. ''If the firestorm of religious right protest continues, I imagine the idea won't be around very long,'' says former Ellen executive producer Bell. ''If it's one of those flaps that gives the show attention and then goes away, I think [Disney] has bigger fish to fry.''
Fire and brimstone aside, the company's execs have other worries. How would an uncloseted Ellen affect the series' reruns on Lifetime, a network partly owned by Disney, which reportedly paid $600,000 an episode for syndication rights? ''I can't imagine watching it and saying, 'Here's the great episode where Ellen goes out on a blind [straight] date and, oh, by the way, she's a lesbian,''' says one former Ellen staffer. And then there's Madison Avenue which appears to be mimicking Disney's wait-and-see stance. Although some advertisers including Microsoft and Intel have said they'd stick by the show no matter what, most seem to find the fence a more comfortable place. ''They'd like to look at the episodes,'' says ad buyer Paul Schulman. ''I think Ellen and a girlfriend hanging around the house in funny situations would be fine, but I don't think they'd want Ellen in bed with another woman. Anything sexual would be a real problem.'' Still, as NYPD Blue's success proved, after a controversial start, those advertisers who flee would quickly be replaced, as long as the ratings stayed strong.
But therein lies the strangest twist of all. Despite the media orgy about Ellen's possible coming out, the season opener came in second in its time slot with an unimpressive 12.7 million viewers, down a full 27 percent from last year's debut (the show fared especially badly outside urban markets). If the producers thought the hype would spike viewership (which has sunk from 1993-94's seasonal high of fifth place to last year's mediocre 44th), they were wrong. And at least some of ABC's more conservative affiliates fear the worst should Ellen Morgan make the leap. ''I think [DeGeneres] will be making a mistake if she chooses to do this,'' believes Billy Brotherton, the general manager of KIII, the Corpus Christi, Tex., affliliate. ''I think it will make her ratings deteriorate.'' And in such a competitive time slot, that would be deadly. ''Ellen's biggest problem isn't whether or not to come out,'' believes Schulman. ''Its biggest problem is something called The Nanny.''
A sticky wicket gets stickier when you consider the fine line DeGeneres and her character walk. Ellen is a funny, single, self-effacing character based on a funny, single, self-effacing woman with the same first name, a woman whose sexual preference has been questioned in supermarket tabloids, the gay press, and New York magazine. But the comic has never talked about it, a situation that will get much harder if the two-dimensional Ellen comes out. ''What, is she going to say 'I'm not a lesbian, but I play one on TV?''' asks comic DeLaria.
Whatever the truth, the choice to remain tight-lipped may seem unneccessary in an era when entertainers like Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang have actually seen their careers skyrocket after coming out. Arguably, their cases are different: They inhabit the anything-goes world of pop music, as opposed to the more conservative land of television.
Still, DeGeneres has little to fear at this point if her character does come out. The comedian would be seen as courageous, a Rosa Parks of gay entertainment with a profitable stand-up and writing career to fall back on should the series fail. If she doesn't, the biggest losers will appear to be Disney, which will look as though it gave in to pressure and ignorance. The company would forever be the mouse that squeaked
An Article from Time Magazine
LOOKING FOR AN OUT
Monday, Oct. 07, 1996
By GINIA BELLAFANTE Article
Ellen DeGeneres made the rounds of the hipper talk shows last week in what appeared to be the coyest exercise in trial ballooning since Colin Powell's book tour. Her new comedy CD, Taste This, was the ostensible reason for DeGeneres' visits with David Letterman, Rosie O'Donnell and Conan O'Brien, but the sitcom star reserved her vigor for teasing--and testing--audiences with what has become the Grand Question of the TV season: Will Ellen Morgan, the sneaker-loving, jewelry-avoiding bookstore manager that DeGeneres plays on her ABC series Ellen, soon realize that for her, the world will hold only Ms. Rights?
DeGeneres neither confirmed nor denied the rumor that her alter ego would come out of the closet--a possibility that TV Guide publicized a few weeks ago. Instead, DeGeneres pirouetted around the reports with prepackaged quips she used over and over in her appearances: "The character does find out--and this is where the confusion comes in--that she is Lebanese."
The possibility has already sparked censure from the religious right and clamorous support from homosexual activists primarily because Ellen Morgan would be the first gay lead character ever on TV. Disney, the show's producer, and ABC remain silent on the sitcom's plans. All the network will say is that it has yet to see a script with a lesbian story line. Some industry executives speculate, however, that the network leaked the notion of outing Ellen to test advertiser reaction. DeGeneres has reportedly never been comfortable with the dating subplots of her TV vehicle, and now that rerun rights have been sold to Lifetime in a relatively disappointing deal, she has little to lose by making Ellen Morgan a lesbian.
"It was depressing, that song and dance she did on the talk shows," noted cultural critic and openly bisexual Camille Paglia. "She was asking America, 'Is it O.K.? Will you still like me if...?' It was wimpy. It robbed the act of any courage." But then Ellen, a onetime Top 10 show that plummeted to 39th in the ratings last season, has never been marked by bold confidence. Aimless and conceptually muddled from the outset, when it debuted as These Friends of Mine in March 1994, the sitcom has become so creatively stultified that a controversy over homosexuality is truly the least of its problems.
An almost-Seinfeld without the defining dark snap or subtext, Ellen has always centered on DeGeneres and a coterie of grating, too-unkempt-for-their-age pals and hangers-on, but the cast and creative team have undergone major overhauls since the show's beginnings. The current characters have little chemistry and seem like odd, unfathomable choices to support DeGeneres. Why Ellen, a neurotic but sensible woman in her late 30s, rooms with her temperamental frat-boyish cousin Spence (Jeremy Piven) in her Los Angeles apartment is anyone's guess.
The comedy's plotting has a similarly maddening arbitrariness. An episode last season had Martha Stewart arrive as an unexpected guest at a dinner party of Ellen's. A cooking disaster ensued early on, but just as Ellen finally got things under control, she inexplicably started throwing Cornish game hens at her invitees. The show could have taken any number of inventive turns--think of what Frasier or The Simpsons could do with Martha Stewart--but instead it went illogically toward bland farce.
Ellen has suffered creatively in part because DeGeneres has failed to adapt successfully the essence of her dynamic stand-up routines to the narrative demands of situation comedy. Meandering and digression were the bedrock of DeGeneres' act, and she indulges those instincts too thoughtlessly on the show. Moreover, the genderlessness that so distinguished the comedian's humor from that of far too many female comics who rely on awful self-deprecating jokes about the evil that men do has not worked as well for a lead character in a sitcom, who must have some kind of romantic life if the writers are going to fill out 22 episodes a year. But the DeGeneres character has always seemed so uninterested in men that plot lines throwing her into the madcap world of dating just seemed strained and silly.
Coming out may at least give Ellen Morgan a sex drive, not to mention a new relationship to the rest of the world, and therein a well of some comic potential. Then again, the show's creators have shown themselves so intent on aping Seinfeld's ironic, distanced tone--treating all events from book-club fiascos to marriage with the same absence of weight--that making Ellen gay might prove, in these hands, to be just another quirky, ultimately inconsequential tic, like having Ellen decide that from now on she will eat only couscous or drink Squirt.
Creative issues aside, it's also unclear whether coming out would affect Ellen's bottom line for good or ill. The American Family Association's Donald Wildmon has hinted at a boycott of the show's advertisers. Some sponsors remain circumspect about what they will do if a lesbian plot line develops, but important ones like Microsoft say they would stick with Ellen for the long haul. A poll conducted by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY showed that 72% of respondents "would not be personally offended if a lead character on a TV show were gay," and Letterman's studio audience cheered the idea of Ellen's coming out.
But if Ellen's producers thought the brouhaha surrounding the show would prompt a ratings spurt when it began its fourth season on Sept. 18, they were sorely mistaken. Up against cbs's The Nanny for the first time, Ellen's ratings dropped 28% from last season's premiere. In fact, the show ranked 52nd for the week--13 places behind the aging Family Matters. Of course, it should be noted that ratings were down for nearly all of abc's prime-time shows that week, one more indication that DeGeneres needs a lot more than an outing to save her show. Maybe what she really needs is a hot date with Fran Drescher.
--With reporting by Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles
An Article from The New York Times
Coming Out Party: The Closet Opens, Finally
By JOHN J. O'CONNOR
Published: April 30, 1997
Come out, come out, wherever you are. Today's grown-up version of the old children's game might be called Hide and Wink. For gay men and women, coming out of the closet was once almost exclusively a delicate, if not traumatic, rite of passage. Now it can be a promotional tool. After months of will-she-or-won't-she speculation carefully orchestrated by ABC, the title character of ''Ellen'' officially announces tonight that she is a lesbian, just a few weeks after Ellen DeGeneres herself, who plays Ellen Morgan, came out in Time magazine.
With the help of four savvy writers and Gil Junger's smooth direction, Ellen makes the giant leap with the endearing blend of shrewdness and daffiness that has become the hallmark of Ms. DeGeneres's comedy routines. Just about every possible homophobic objection is present and accounted for, and then smartly finessed. Even the publicity barrage gets a pointed poke upfront. As Ellen dallies while getting dressed offstage for a date with an old college chum, her bookshop staff gets restless. ''Are you coming out or what?'' one asks. ''Yeah, come out already!'' shouts another. Members of the studio audience whoop and holler with delight and, as will be readily apparent in the course of this special one-hour episode, they're just getting warmed up.
Ellen's dinner with her friend Richard (Steven Eckholdt), a television reporter, is interrupted when his assistant, Susan (Laura Dern), arrives with some minor business to get out of the way. Ellen and Susan immediately connect, right down to their riffs on the movie ''Sling Blade.'' Ellen is astonished at feeling so comfortable with someone, so much so that she runs to her analyst (Oprah Winfrey) to plumb the significance of it all. As she puts it later: ''I'm clicking with somebody! Me, who's usually clickless.''
Determined to touch all bases, the show goes into sometimes curious contortions. A dream sequence in a supermarket finds Billy Bob Thornton of ''Sling Blade'' trying to sell Ellen melons, ''a special for lesbians this week.'' One checkout line is for ''10 lesbians or less.'' Ellen is once again rushing off to her analyst, wondering sarcastically if the dream means anything.
Gay characters are certainly nothing new on television. Twenty or so years ago, there were the roles played by Tony Randall on ''Love, Sydney'' and by Billy Crystal on ''Soap.'' At the beginning of this season, it was estimated that 22 gay characters were scattered throughout the prime-time schedule, in shows ranging from ''Roseanne'' to ''Friends'' to ''Mad About You'' to ''Melrose Place.''
Still, the coming out of ''Ellen'' has pushed curious buttons and raised largely spurious issues. Can Ms. DeGeneres (and her real-life companion, the actress Anne Heche) ever again portray anybody but a lesbian? Similar concerns don't seem to apply to heterosexual actors. Tom Hanks played a gay man in ''Philadelphia'' and his career was enhanced. Ms. Dern, who plays Susan in this episode of Ellen, does not let being straight get in the way of her sharp and wholly sympathetic portrait of a lesbian. There is little or no speculation about her career being endangered. Life is still easier, evidently, on the other side of the fence.
Putting it all on the line this evening, ''Ellen'' rounds up formidable support. Other guest stars doing cameos include Demi Moore and Dwight Yoakam. Then there are what could be called the Lesbian All-Stars, including the singers K. D. Lang and Melissa Etheridge. All in all, a sensitive transition is made with refreshing candor and disarming humor. The fate of ''Ellen'' is now in the hands of its viewers. Sociologists will have a field day.
The Puppy Episode
ABC, tonight at 9
(Check local listings)
Created by Carol Black, Neal Marlens and David Rosenthal; Dava Savel, Mark Driscoll and Vic Kaplan, executive producers; Tracy Newman and Jonathan Stark, consulting producers; directed by Gil Junger; teleplay written by Ms. Savel, Mr. Driscoll, Ms. Newman and Jonathan Stark; based on a story by Ellen DeGeneres. A production of the Black/Marlens Company in association with Touchstone Television.
WITH: Ellen DeGeneres (Ellen Morgan), Joely Fisher (Paige), Jeremy Piven (Spence), David Anthony Higgins (Joe Farrell), Clea Lewis (Audrey Penney), Steven Eckholdt (Richard), Laura Dern (Susan); with appearances by Oprah Winfrey, K. D. Lang, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Gina Gershon, Jenny Shimizu and Melissa Etheridge.
An Article from The New York Times
Star of 'Ellen' Threatens To Quit Over Advisory
By BILL CARTER
Published: October 9, 1997
Ellen DeGeneres threatened to walk away from her ABC comedy ''Ellen'' yesterday after learning that the network has decided to add an on-screen advisory declaring that the show has adult content and warning parents to use discretion in allowing children to view it.
ABC executives conceded that a battle between the network and the star over the show's content could lead to the demise of the series.
Ms. DeGeneres's threat heightens a confrontation that began after she made television history last spring by declaring she was a lesbian and her character, Ellen Morgan, made the same declaration on the show.
''How can I go forward?'' Ms. DeGeneres said in a phone interview yesterday. ''This is blatant discrimination.'' She said her show was being singled out for its content solely because it has gay themes.
Patricia Matson, the corporate spokeswoman for ABC, said: ''We are ultimately the ones responsible for maintaining the standards for our audience. The promise we have made to our audience is to provide them with as much information as possible so they can decide what is appropriate for their children to watch.''
In the new content ratings added to television shows this season on every network except NBC, ''Ellen'' has been carrying a ''TV-14'' rating, meaning the material ''might be inappropriate for children under 14.'' Ms. DeGeneres said yesterday, ''This advisory is telling kids something's wrong with being gay.''
She made clear that she was personally offended by ABC's stance. ''It's like if they had a black show,'' she said, ''and put on a warning that said this show isn't suitable for viewers who don't like black people.''
Executives close to the show said ABC had made clear to the writers that they did not want a show that explored only gay story lines. Before the season started, ABC executives openly talked about taking ''baby steps'' with regard to gay themes.
Ms. DeGeneres and the writers, however, seeking to capitalize on what was the largest audience in the show's history for the episode in which the character declared her homosexuality, as well as to seize upon the stronger identity the declaration gave to Ms. DeGeneres's character, have promoted the gay themes in early episodes this season. One script is to include a scene in which Ellen Morgan and a woman she has fallen in love with walk toward a bedroom, presumably preparing to have sex. Ms. DeGeneres said that Jamie Tarses, the president of ABC Entertainment, called her manager on Tuesday to inform him that the network would not allow that scene.
She said ABC has opposed numerous scenes written for episodes this season, including one on the show to be broadcast tonight at 9:30, in which her character jokingly kisses her heterosexual friend. ''No other show on ABC, not 'Spin City' or 'Drew Carey' or 'Dharma and Greg,' would be forced to carry that kind of advisory for a scene like this,'' she said. ''The only other ABC show that's ever had this label is 'N.Y.P.D. Blue,' and that has nudity and violence.''
Ms. DeGeneres said that she and the executive producer on the show, Tim Doyle, ''are ready to walk off the show'' over ABC's position. And ABC may be willing to let that happen, some executives close to the impasse said yesterday, if they cannot not agree with the star on how to handle the gay themes.
ABC is suffering through a poor season. ''Ellen'' is one of its few shows performing well in the ratings. Last week, it ranked eighth among all prime-time shows among viewers between 18 and 49 years old, the most important group for selling television time to advertisers.
An Article from Entertainment Weekly
Published on October 24, 1997
GIRL'S NIGHT OUT
NOW THAT SHE'S NO LONGER IN THE SITCOM CLOSET, ELLEN DEGENERES IS HAVING A GAY OLD TIME. BUT WILL A NERVOUS ABC RAIN ON HER PARADE?
By Ken Tucker
ABC Ellen 9:30-10 PM WEDNESDAYS
It's often said that you can't be funny if you're also trying to promote a social or political agenda; the urge to proselytize is supposed to lead inexorably to sourpuss humorlessness. But Ellen, now in its fifth season, keeps getting funnier, even as its star conducts the most relentless gay-empowerment campaign prime time has ever seen. So far, the triumph of the show's new season is that while the majority of its punchlines are about homosexuality, the subject hasn't become predictable or dull -- pretty amazing, given how many jokes it takes to fill up a sitcom each week.
All of the new Ellens have focused on the fallout since DeGeneres' Ellen Morgan announced her predeliction for women in the final weeks of last season. The howlingly good Oct. 15 episode, for example, elicited its laughs from a virtual litany of gay symbols, including a Gertrude Stein kitchen magnet and a potent brew called Fire Island Lager.
ABC is allowing DeGeneres to do this with nervous reluctance (over the summer, ABC Entertainment prez Jamie Tarses said she wanted the show to take only ''baby steps'' toward the subject of gay romance). DeGeneres, for her part, is understandably reluctant to admit she's propagandizing (''I never wanted to be the poster child'' for coming out, she's said) even as she steadily turns Ellen Morgan into the most lovable horny lesbian in the history of pop entertainment. It's as if the impish little spirit of gayness itself (if Martina Navratilova and Elton John had a baby...) descended upon both DeGeneres and her network and compelled them to do its bidding against their wills.
This juicily unpredictable situation led to the recent flap over Ellen's advisory rating. ABC had been labeling the sitcom with a TV-14. But when the network added an NYPD Blue-style warning to the Oct. 8 Ellen -- in which Morgan gave her straight pal Paige (Joely Fisher) a jokey soul kiss -- DeGeneres took offense at ABC's sense of offensiveness. ''This program contains adult content. Parental discretion is advised'' -- well, it's one thing to try to protect American youth from a bathtub scene in which Kim Delaney gives Jimmy Smits a soapy underwater handshake; it's another, DeGeneres felt, to warn people away from a girl-girl smooch. Casual straight-world bed hopping on TV is so common, DeGeneres must feel as if she's actually been a poster child for comparative restraint. She accused ABC of ''blatant discrimination'' and threatened to leave the show.
Thing is, DeGeneres can't have it both ways. I'll give you an example of what I mean. One of the best things about post-out Ellen has been the complicating of Fisher's character -- the way she's frank about her ambivalence toward her friend's newfound sexuality. In that Oct. 8 show, Paige became upset -- and ashamed to be upset -- watching Ellen flirt. Paige told her, ''I get uncomfortable around you when you are talking with women that way.'' This was a good scene, one that was both believable (as one possible real-life reaction) and funny (as a sitcom setup for well-written jokes). The very next week, Ellen Morgan herself snapped to one of her buds, ''I wish you would stop assuming that everything is tied to my sexuality'' -- again, a believable reaction. So if DeGeneres can acknowledge such feelings in the context of her show, why can't she also see that this is the exact discomfort that ABC believes its viewers may be experiencing? And that the last thing an intrinsically conservative entity like a TV network wants is uncomfortable consumers -- or advertisers?
I'm not saying DeGeneres shouldn't do what she's doing; quite the opposite: Jolly good for her. But her protests seem a little beside the point. By upping both the quality and the ratings of her show while never backing away from the subject she's had the guts to raise, DeGeneres has already won the battle. ABC has apparently caved on a disputed episode in which our favorite tomboy leads a date into the bedroom. And throwing lesbianism to the wind for one merciful moment, let me say that the season's second episode, in which Ellen went rock climbing while making googly eyes at her hard-body trainer (guest star Deedee Pfeiffer), proved what a terrific actress and slapstick comedian she's become.
If DeGeneres wants to exercise some righteous passion, I'd much rather she come out for a ''discretion is advised'' warning every time Paul Reiser plans to prattle to Helen Hunt about how wonderful it is to have such a sweet wittle baby on Mad About You. Speaking as a straight breeder made uncomfortable by such goo, I'd appreciate it. A-
An Article from The New York Times
TELEVISION REVIEW; You, Behind the Potted Palm: Come Out!
By CARYN JAMES
Published: November 19, 1997
You can almost hear Emma Thompson's well-bred British accent in the written statement she released about tonight's ''Ellen,'' in which she appears as herself: ''I love the idea of playing around with one's public persona.'' By the end of this outrageously funny half-hour, she has kissed a woman at a party, privately admitted she is gay and guzzled enough alcohol to pickle all of England. In the last surprise twist, she even sends up the elegant Thompson accent.
This is the new, famously out-of-the-closet ''Ellen'': the writing satiric and sophisticated where it used to be bland, the comedy pointedly social yet never preachy. Virtually a new series, this ''Ellen'' can get Emma Thompson as a guest star and, on the same episode, Sean Penn in a clever cameo. Better than that, the show knows how to use them.
The series immediately gained a comic edge after the star, Ellen DeGeneres, and her character, Ellen Morgan, came out as lesbians last spring. Part of this season's tongue-in-cheek humor comes from the fact that the character is far more naive than the star. It was Ellen Morgan, after all, who did not have a clue she was gay until her producers at Disney told her she could be. So when Ellen Morgan glimpses Emma Thompson kissing a woman behind a potted palm, she is astonished. ''I can't believe I found out that Emma Thompson is gay,'' she tells her best friend, Paige (Joely Fisher), who works in the movie business.
''So what?'' Paige answers. ''Half this town is gay, and the other half pretends they are to kiss up to David Geffen.'' That is the kind of arch, world-weary remark that never would have been heard on the old ''Ellen,'' in which ordering pizza could be a major story line. Inspired by Ellen, the fictional Emma considers coming out, too. Ellen assures her there is nothing to fear. ''Things are changing,'' she says solemnly. ''It's not the same world it was when I came out six months ago.''
Ms. Thompson tweaks her image with enormous glee. Early in her career, she starred in her own sketch-comedy show, ''Thompson,'' and her expertise at physical comedy is evident. Wearing a prissy blue gown that looks like a reject from ''Sense and Sensibility'' and a tiara drunkenly askew, she heads off to receive a lifetime achievement award, determined to declare she is gay. ''An appointment with destiny,'' she announces. ''Let's go out and terrify some Baptists.''
In lines like that, ''Ellen'' clearly enjoys skewering the conservative opponents it continues to upset. But a more basic reason the series now works is that it shrewdly lets the audience share Ellen Morgan's exploration of a life change.
Ellen is not immersed in a gay world; she is trying to discover a comfortable place that includes her straight family and friends as well as her newfound sexuality. Her friends have had trouble coping with the change. Her loving, befuddled parents (Alice Hirson and Steven Gilborn) have become endearing comic figures. Last week, when they met their daughter's girlfriend, they made a point of saying ''lesbian'' out loud, on the advice of their parents' support group.
That accepting attitude, tolerant yet still tentative, plays well to the mainstream audience it most likely reflects. Such inclusiveness is what Vice President Al Gore referred to a few weeks ago when he praised ''Ellen'' for making middle America ''look at sexual orientation in a more open light.'' There's no question that the coming out of the two Ellens was a smart career move. This season the hype has turned into something better: genuine comedy and social commentary.
ABC, tonight at 9:30
An Article from CNN
'Ellen' canceled; DeGeneres disappointed
April 24, 1998
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- "Ellen," the television sitcom that was the first with a gay leading character, has been canceled after five seasons.
The ABC show will not return for a sixth season, a network spokeswoman said Thursday, declining further comment.
But comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who played Ellen on the show, said she was disappointed to see the show go. She and the show's producers found out about ABC's decision Wednesday.
"I loved doing the show every week," DeGeneres said. "This was an important chapter of my life, and although I'm disappointed the show was canceled, I look forward to moving beyond the stereotype. Look for me in my new sitcom, 'Two Girls, a Horse and Some Wine Coolers,'" she joked.
"Ellen" will conclude with a one-hour special May 13, taking viewers through a satirical retrospective of her career. Guest stars will include Jennifer Aniston, Glenn Close and Phil Donahue.
No other original episodes will air this season. The sitcom "Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place" has been aired in "Ellen's" place in the 9:30 p.m. ET Wednesday time slot for several weeks.
Coming-out episode put show in spotlight
The program became the subject of national debate when Ellen announced her sexual orientation a year ago.
More than 36 million people watched the April 30, 1997, episode when Ellen revealed her sexual orientation, making it one of the most viewed moments in television history.
Since then, however, the show's ratings have been disappointing. This year, "Ellen" averaged fewer than 11 million viewers, a 22 percent drop over the previous year.
The sitcom made its debut in 1994 with DeGeneres' character, Ellen Morgan, playing a young, heterosexual bookstore owner. But the actress and her character both came out as lesbians last season.
DeGeneres and the network have since disagreed over the show's content, including whether a kiss between women could be aired.
A disappointment but not a surprise
The coming-out episode and the series' content also brought criticism from groups like the 15 million-member Southern Baptist Convention. The group urged members to boycott the Walt Disney Co., which produces the show and owns ABC, for its "gay-friendly" policies.
Joan Garry, executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said the cancellation was a disappointment but not a surprise.
"We're all disappointed ABC made a decision based on ratings. We really wish that they had seriously considered the impact of Ellen's work and looked at it from a broader perspective," she said.
"The show may have been canceled, but I think she gave a gift to gay and straight Americans, and that's a legacy that the cancellation cannot take from her," Garry said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
To watch some clips of Ellen go to https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=ellen+tv+series
For Tim's TV Showcase go to https://web.archive.org/web/20130406165437/http://www.timstvshowcase.com/ellen.html
For the Ellen episode guide go to https://web.archive.org/web/20021009022948/http://www.geocities.com:80/hollywood/hills/4290/ellen.htm
For an article about Ellen go to https://tv.avclub.com/the-episode-that-liberated-then-destroyed-ellen-1798239919
For a look at TV's gay characters, before and after Ellen go to https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/tv/2017/04/26/tvs-gay-characters-before-and-after-ellen/100898898/
For an Ellen reunion go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_3E2uXHjhM
For some Ellen-related interview videos at the Archive of American Television go to https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/shows/ellen
For a Review of Ellen go to https://web.archive.org/web/20080215232631/http://www.televisionheaven.co.uk/ellen.htm
To watch the opening credits go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpdEvxcN3zQ
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Keywords: The Cast of Ellen (Links Updated 7/26/18)