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DeGeneres’ ‘Friends’ Is Hot Despite Behind-Scenes Struggle

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Getting a driver’s license photo taken, learning how to use call-waiting, placing a 5-gallon jug of water atop a cooler--these are some of life’s small indignities presented in “These Friends of Mine,” which has finished in television’s Top 10 every week since its debut five weeks ago on ABC.

The hook of the half-hour comedy series, starring stand-up comedian Ellen DeGeneres as a single working woman in her 30s, is that life rarely moves along in an orderly fashion.

And neither do TV shows.

“These Friends” looks as if it emerged from ABC’s boiler room as the perfect recipe for an instant hit--a female “Seinfeld,” set in Los Angeles, starring a thoroughly modern “Mary Tyler Moore.” She thinks she can fit in, and she’s sure everybody will understand and relate to her, and they never really seem to.

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“These Friends” has been airing behind the top-rated program on television, “Home Improvement,” and it has done a superior job of holding on to “Home Improvement’s” huge audience.

But “These Friends” has endured its own personal struggles, which it has managed to keep relatively quiet. In his friendly review of the show two weeks ago, TV Guide critic Jeff Jarvis wrote that he hoped the creators and executive producers, Carol Black and Neal Marlens, stick with the show. Black and Marlens, who are married, created the enormously successful “The Wonder Years” and then left it for others to run after the first season.

What Jarvis apparently didn’t know was that Black and Marlens had relinquished the creative reigns to “These Friends” before it even premiered--with Marlens and DeGeneres in something of a creative standoff, according to sources.

Black and Marlens, who declined to be interviewed for this story, envisioned an edgy, ensemble show centered around the sometimes dark comic interplay of a smart single woman and her pals, while ABC, Walt Disney Television and DeGeneres herself preferred a star-driven show with a softer tone.

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Early last year, DeGeneres, a hard-working club comedian known for her low-key observational humor, was receiving various TV offers. She chose Black and Marlens because she thought they had the same comic sensibility. DeGeneres had a small role in their last sitcom for ABC, “Laurie Hill,” which was canceled early in the 1992-93 season because it failed to hold onto “Home Improvement’s” lead-in audience.

ABC ordered 12 episodes of “These Friends” after seeing the pilot, which was shot in April, 1993, and then bumped it from last season’s fall schedule to make room for “Grace Under Fire.” “These Friends” finally began production in October, for a midseason debut, but ground to a halt midway through shooting. Among the creative differences that cropped up was a disagreement over how much risque humor was appropriate. The premiere episode featured a guy who repeatedly barked like a dog during sex.

“I don’t think that way,” said DeGeneres, 36. “That’s one thing I’m really known for in my stand-up: I do an hour-and-a-half or two of clean comedy.”

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DeGeneres knows that many fans believe that TV stars are like the characters they play, and she doesn’t want people to see her in a false light.

“Because I’m playing myself, and the show was created around me, I’m really sensitive to things like that,” DeGeneres said. “It’s not that I’m offended by the guy in the pilot barking, but it certainly isn’t something I would have written. It’s just not me. Then the press started questioning it: ‘Why were you clean for so long and now you’re doing this?’ I don’t want people thinking I’m all of a sudden doing something else because I’m on TV.”

There also seemed to be a question at ABC and Disney whether “These Friends,” as seen by Black and Marlens, were nice friends. In one episode, Adam, played by Arye Gross, pretends to have a neck injury from an accident to take advantage of free massages and collect insurance money. In another, Adam witnesses--but doesn’t help out--a woman getting mugged, and then he is reluctant to come forward as a witness because he doesn’t want the woman, who he winds up dating, to think he’s a wimp.

“It wasn’t that there was massive conflict,” said Dean Valentine, president of Walt Disney Television. “What happened, basically, is that the network was pressuring the show to go in a certain direction by putting Ellen in front and making it clear that these people were really friends. I don’t think Neal (or Carol) completely disagreed, it just wasn’t their vision.”

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Black and Marlens, meanwhile, had enough to deal with. Black was pregnant and the couple’s home had just been burned in the Malibu fires. To avoid complications in their lives, sources said, they voluntarily chose to reduce their roles to creative consultants, turning the show over to their co-executive producers, David Rosenthal and Warren Bell. Next season, Black and Marlens are not expected to take executive producer credits on the show at all.

At the request of ABC and Disney, Rosenthal and Bell set out to make the last six episodes “Ellen-centric,” as Rosenthal said. They also began collaborating more with DeGeneres.

“I was totally out of the loop,” DeGeneres said. “I wish I were as powerful as Roseanne, and knew everything that was going on, and had a part of everything, but I certainly am not that powerful.”

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When Black and Marlens backed off, the co-executive producers added a bookstore and cafe called Buy the Book, where DeGeneres works, and they added a character in the bookstore, Joe the coffee guy (David Higgins), and they played up the role of her boss (Cristine Rose).

“Ellen is such a strong personality, such a strong talent, that when you’re watching the show, you really want to know what’s going on with her at every moment,” explained Rosenthal, 26. “For a new show coming out of the blocks, she carries a lot of the weight emotionally and comically. It’s all on her shoulders.”

At one point, ABC was considering not broadcasting the first seven episodes at all, but then decided to air them all in mixed order. Ironically, three of the first four high-rated episodes were from the original batch overseen by Black and Marlens. After tonight’s show, another episode has been slotted for May 24 following “Roseanne,” and the other five will be scheduled this summer.

“These Friends” is all but assured to come back in the fall with a full-season order. “I personally would be very disappointed if viewers don’t see the show on our fall schedule,” said Alan Sternfeld, ABC’s senior vice president of program planning and scheduling.

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