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COVER STORY : True Tales of TV Trauma: 3 Comics Chase Roseanne-dom : Ellen DeGeneres : ABC’s changing the name of her show to her name and DeGeneres is the network’s spokeswoman. All this without a full season under her belt. Welcome to Pressure City.

<i> David Kronke is a frequent contributor to Calendar. </i>

Ellen DeGeneres on “These Friends of Mine,” the original title of her TV series: “It was bad.”

Ellen DeGeneres on her show’s initial opening title sequence, in which she and those friends of hers cavorted in the desert and did leg-kicks: “Everyone hated that. . . . (Shooting) it was a hellacious time. . . . I don’t know where that came from, I have no idea.”

Ellen DeGeneres on two mystery episodes that will not run: “They were just bad. Bad ideas, bad. . . . ABC paid a lot of money for them, but I begged them not to run them.”

Ellen DeGeneres on some of the episodes that did run: “It’s like having a photo of you that you hate and the whole world is out there looking at it going, ‘God, that’s hideous.’ And you think, ‘I know it is; so why are you looking at it?’ ”

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Hard to believe she’s talking about a hit show, isn’t it?

DeGeneres’ show was an instant ratings smash as a replacement series this spring, and it enters its sophomore season--retitled “Ellen” at the behest of the network--in a plum position, following “Roseanne” on Wednesday nights.

Moreover, DeGeneres, whose first act as a stand-up comic 14 years back consisted mainly of munching on a Whopper, has now become, more or less, the symbol of a network: ABC has announced that she will be the network’s spokeswoman in radio ads and on-air promos, personally introducing the debut of every show in ABC’s lineup this fall--an almost unprecedented vote of confidence. She’s also co-hosting the Emmy Awards telecast on ABC Sept. 11.

Yet ABC held the series back more than a year after the first episodes were taped. And in its earlier incarnation, “These Friends of Mine” was a textbook case of how even the engine that powers the machine has no control over the steering wheel. Staff defections, critical jabs, a brief production shutdown to regain creative focus, and DeGeneres’ own dissatisfaction with some of the writing made the program’s success less sweet than it should have been.

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“As in any business, there are creative, talented people and then there are people who could have been working at IBM, but they’re working at a studio instead, and people who have no idea what the creative side is, they just look at the business side,” DeGeneres observes. “That’s frustrating.”

Even though significant moves were taken during the show’s hiatus to ensure that everyone concerned was on the same page artistically, the recent departure of executive producer Wendy Goldman after only 10 weeks on the job suggests there may be a few more kinks to be ironed out.

DeGeneres, who mirrors her TV character, Ellen Morgan, in her look-on-the-bright-side demeanor and eager-to-please friendliness, casts the negatives in an upbeat light. “Even if it’s bad, and it hurts, at least you’re now somebody to talk about,” she says.

“As far as the creative struggle now, ABC has really just taken control of the ship and said where it’s going. They said: ‘It’s going to be called “Ellen,” and it’s going to be more about Ellen.’ It wasn’t even me standing up and saying things should change.”

Disney, the show’s production house, “didn’t want to call the show ‘Ellen,’ ” DeGeneres says. “They had a rule: They didn’t want to call a show by the star’s name. We asked many, many times. ‘Couch People’ was one of the suggested names for the show, and we were, ‘Omigod! Why would anyone want to watch a show called “Couch People”?’ ”

When DeGeneres signed on for the series, she says, executive producers Neil Marlens and Carol Black “really had all the clout,” but following internal disagreements regarding the direction of the program, they left after a handful of episodes. Many critics dismissed the show as “Seinfeld Lite,” and more, who were fans of DeGeneres, responded as your parents might--they weren’t mad, just disappointed.

Without an executive producer who truly understood and appreciated DeGeneres’ own distinctive comic sensibilities, as Larry David does with Jerry Seinfeld, her perspective was submerged, and the show was less sophisticated and more risque than her stand-up persona (the pilot tried to eke laughs out of a character who barked like a dog during sex).

“What ultimately people were saying was, ‘How come the show is not what you do?’ ” DeGeneres concedes. “That’s because I didn’t have a Larry David. . . . If someone’s trying to create a show for you, unless they’ve been your writing partner for the whole 14 years, they can try and they can come really close, but that’s why no one’s written for me in the past 14 years, because I write the best for myself. They tried, they gave it a good shot, and these producers are trying, they’re getting closer, and they’re seeing more what they can do. And eventually they’re going to hit the bull’s-eye.”

Part of the problem, perhaps, was that DeGeneres was so happy just having her own show that she was too willing to please others and didn’t assert her own vision--in other words, a rare case of a star not having enough ego. “I felt I was the lucky one,” she says. “They were giving me this wonderful break. I’ve learned that I have a large part to do with the show and I should speak up and say, ‘This is not what I would want to do.’ ”

David Rosenthal, who wrote for “Laurie Hill,” an earlier series on which DeGeneres co-starred, and a co-creator and executive producer of “Ellen,” adds: “Unfortunately, we didn’t have the benefit of being on the air when shooting those first shows. There was more than a year between taping the shows and their airing. That’s a lot of time to go without audience feedback. The criticism came in a vacuum. There was no public response.”

When “Ellen” returns Sept. 21, last season’s clunky title and the cloying title sequence will be gone, as will actress Holly Fulger. (Another actress, Maggie Wheeler, left after the first six episodes.) Joely Fisher joins the cast as Paige, Ellen’s childhood chum.

“Holly is a wonderful actress, but ultimately the problem was she projected a real vulnerability, which is what Ellen does as well, and they stepped on each other,” Rosenthal explains. “Paige has more of an edge, a tougher, bolder side. She’s more act-now-think-later.”

Adam (Arye Gross), Ellen’s platonic roommate, will return, but sans goatee and his more weaselly impulses. Adam didn’t test all that well with audiences, Rosenthal explains, “so we cleaned him up, made him a little sweeter.”

Mainly, though, “Ellen” will focus on Ellen, particularly her talent for talking her way into and out of uncomfortable situations. “My feeling is, Ellen is the funniest person in the room--it would be foolish not to listen to her,” Rosenthal says.

In Studio 3 on the Disney lot in Burbank, DeGeneres is rehearsing a scene in which Ellen Morgan visits her dentist, a handsome gent she just happens to have a crush on. DeGeneres, wearing a “Late Show With David Letterman” T-shirt and sweat pants, lets loose with her beaming, appealingly childlike smile as she begins playing with the dentist’s chair. She hits a button once, it whirs and elevates her; hits it again, it whirs her back down. She hits the buttons so that the chair undulates up and down as quickly as it can, but still at a soporific pace, and, ad-libbing, throws an arm upward, like a suburban cowgirl atop the kind of dull, listless mechanical bull that lawyers would have designed in order to avoid lawsuits.

In general, DeGeneres’ bumpy ride through the world of network television has gotten smoother. The episode’s centerpiece is a sequence in which Ellen, under the influence of nitrous oxide, flirts shamelessly and humiliatingly with her dentist. “If I had a scene like this in every show, I’d be ecstatic,” DeGeneres says. “It’s, ‘You’re attracted to this guy, you’re on nitrous: Go.’ ”

Of course, none of this might have happened had DeGeneres not become so disillusioned with stand-up. After laboring long years to create a unique comic persona that, she says, revealed and distorted “all sides of me to form a sneeze guard to protect me from the public,” she got burned out about five years ago, weary of having to compete with slick yet lame wanna-bes and opportunists who stole her material.

“When I first started on the road and somebody on the plane would ask me what I did and I’d say, ‘I’m a comedian,’ they’d look at me like I was a gunslinger. That was weird. Then it got to the point where saying ‘I’m a comedian’ was like saying, ‘I’m an attorney’. . . . It got to the point where I hated saying I was a comedian.”

Cable TV helped destroy the integrity of stand-up, she says. “Everybody suddenly realized: ‘We can have a half-hour program, and you don’t have to pay actors huge sums of money. You have a set that’s a brick wall. And put up five people, pay ‘em scale and you own ‘em forever. You get different guys every week, and you have a show.’ All of a sudden, you started running out of good comedians and anybody got on television.”

On her farewell tour, however, she regained a smidgen of appreciation for what she had done all those years.

“After a show, I usually just kind of say thank you and leave, but in New York, I just kind of watched everybody stand up and listened to the applause for the first time in a long time, because you get so used to that,” she recalls. “And it really kind of--I let it in. It was weird. I was thinking, ‘This is a really nice thing that not too many people get to experience,’ and here I was taking it for granted for so long.”

Though her series is only entering its second season, DeGeneres is already looking forward to a time when she’ll no longer do TV. Call it the David Caruso syndrome.

“I don’t want to be 50 years old going ‘Aaaaaugh!’ You see those people on the talk shows and they have the one catch phrase and they do it and the audience goes crazy,” she says, the distaste of the idea apparent on her face.

“It’s so uncomfortable. You watch ‘I Love Lucy,’ which is wonderful, then you see ‘The Lucy Show,’ and you’re just cringing. Somebody should’ve stopped her. Somebody should’ve said, ‘Don’t do TV anymore.’ ”

Vital Stats

Like Roseanne, Brett Butler, Ellen DeGeneres and Margaret Cho are comedians with sitcoms based on their stand-up personas. Like Roseanne, their shows air on ABC. When to watch:

“All-American Girl”

Cho’s series premieres Sept. 14 at 9:30 p.m. and moves to its regular Wednesday slot Sept. 21 at 8:30 p.m.

“Ellen”

DeGeneres’ retitled series, moving to Wednesdays, starts Sept. 21 at 9:30 p.m.

“Grace Under Fire”

Butler’s series, moving to Tuesdays, returns Sept. 20 at 9:30 p.m.


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