Ellen DeGENERES is bummed out. It's nearly 1 o'clock on Oct. 28, and she's in her office on the NBC lot, where she tapes her daytime talker "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," looking out over a polluted, tangerine haze blanketing the mountain skyline over Burbank, resulting from the smoke of wildfires raging from San Diego to San Bernardino counties.
"It's hard to do a show today. It's hard to walk out there," she says. In the six weeks since she premiered her lighthearted show, this is the first time she gets serious. "I'm supposed to help people escape from their problems," she says, "but I think it's important to discuss it."
On the air, sullen faced, tears in her throat, DeGeneres talks about the thousands of homes destroyed, the hundreds of thousands of acres gone, of the lives lost or devastatingly altered. Her voice is filled with empathy. It wasn't long ago that, at Christmastime in Ojai, she and her mother fled their home with animals and photo albums in tow as a fire raced toward their backyard.
"What you try to learn from this is," she tells the audience, "is to live simply, and to try to stay in the moment. Gandhi said: 'Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever,' and that's a really delicate balance because ... a lot of people would just not do anything because you would just want to live in the moment and go, 'Well, I'm just not going to work then, I'm just gonna live in the moment.' I don't think that Gandhi was picturing you in your underwear eating Cheetos watching 'E! True Hollywood Story.' "
It's obvious that, in her own funny way, DeGeneres can connect with people and make them laugh, even in times of unbearable sadness; it is what won over viewers of an unusually somber Emmy Awards show, which she hosted in 2001, just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"What would bug a guy from the Taliban more," she said then, "than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?"
"It's a very delicate balance," said Mary Connelly, executive producer of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." "But as Ellen proved ... you can be reflective about a serious topic and still be funny, and there are not a lot of people who can do that."
At least not like Ellen does it. Underneath the rambling, everyday woman banter and eagerness to please is a skilled comedian with an ability to rely on her instincts. Knowing the strength of her comedy is grounded in silly, good-natured, apolitical banter, she has single-handedly set out to make daytime fun again. Critics are applauding the effort and viewers are taking notice.
In Los Angeles, "Ellen DeGeneres" ranks second in the 3 p.m. time period behind juggernaut Oprah Winfrey, who is being scorched by her witty competitor, delivering the lowest performance for "The Oprah Winfrey Show" since October 1998.
But DeGeneres' appeal goes beyond daytime, says Debby Beece, president of programming for Oxygen, which airs the show at 11 p.m. "She's very broad, she's getting great guests, and she has a real humanist kind of humor that's neither male or female," Beece says. "It's just really fun and sweet. It's very emotional, but at the same time it's not nasty and personal -- it's about this roll of toilet paper, or it's about asking the tough questions with a wink and a smile."
Matthew FELLING, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, puts it another way. "Ellen DeGeneres has evolved into the Bob Newhart for the soccer mom," he says. "And her laid-back style with all the pauses and ramblings tries something novel for talk television, which is she lets the guests speak. It feels less like she's performing and more like she's conversing. I mean, Rosie O'Donnell always made the show about her, but Ellen carries herself like she's a prop herself and is staying out of the show's way."
And, he adds, "Having this hemming and hawing everyman style, she succeeds in doing what I thought was impossible -- she's taken her sexuality off the table."
Enter Stage 11, the happiest place on Earth, northwest of Anaheim. This is where everyday people and A-list celebrities are treated to equal gushing, where dancing the funky chicken is not only OK but encouraged, where blaring applause signs are off-limits, where pingpong is a passion, where a cardboard version of Ellen can be as amusing as the real thing ("Unless people have met me in person, they really don't see the difference," DeGeneres says). It's where production assistant Houston Rose gets to enjoy his 15 minutes doing on-air handiwork, where "puppy handler" Jeff Cosgrave will one day find his true love (or at least a girlfriend), and the supervising producer's dad can write in with his recommendations for the show, including that Ellen "show a little more leg."
"We have fun in the office," Connelly says, "and as we have fun, it is how Andy Lassner's dad and Houston and Jeff get on the air because we are having fun thinking about what we want to do on the show ... and we go, 'Well, this is fun.' This is real. This is what's happening in Ellen's life. That's why we're talking about the fires, it's why we talked about Lucy the puppy."
"That kind of stuff carries over time," says Jim Paratore, president of Telepictures, which produces the show. "The show needs to be a genuine extension of who Ellen is, and Ellen is multidimensional and sure she's funny and sure she knows how to entertain people, but she also ... cares about people and about animals and all that needs to be a part of the show because the show is really about her, her life and what goes on in it."
DeGeneres is sitting cross-legged on an enormous sage-colored sectional in the middle of her office, appearing nearly as casual as she does on air, in a denim T-shirt, jeans and a pair of black Nikes. Her appearance on the show has garnered more than a few complaints from viewers who want her to spruce her wardrobe. "This is who I am," DeGeneres says, "and I feel really comfortable with who I am."
Still, in true Ellen fashion, she aims to please, and on every Thursday throughout November, would-be designers will get their chance to make over Ellen. Rather than let the criticism spoil her good times, she has opted to incorporate it into the loosely structured show.
"I said this in the beginning, 'I don't want to say, "This show does this so we have to do this, or this show doesn't do this so let's not." ' I just want our show to be whatever entertains us," says DeGeneres, adding, "I'm not trying to be the polished interviewer; that's not who I am. I'm a comedian, and I enjoy talking to people and observing life and bringing my point of view to other people."
And the world according to Ellen is now in hardback. The book, "The Funny Thing Is ... ," a follow-up to her 1996 best seller, "My Point ... and I Do Have One," is filled with her artistic musings of the mundane. (A portion of the proceeds will benefit the American Red Cross to aid Southland fire victims.)
She started the book about a year ago, hoping to fill some dead time and was inspired to start writing new material, which resulted in her sold-out 35-city spring tour, "Here and Now," and an accompanying HBO special, which is likely to be her last stage performance, for a while at least. "Well, I hope I never have time again," she confesses, "because I'm doing this, and I plan on doing this for 10 or 15 years."
Her comfort zone
In the five years since ABC canceled "Ellen" in 1998, a year after her now-infamous coming-out episode; since her very public romance and breakup with Anne Heche; since her short-lived sitcom return with CBS' "The Ellen Show" in 2001, DeGeneres has settled into a comfort zone, which includes a new home in the canyons above Hollywood, which she shares with her current girlfriend, photographer Alexandra Hedison, and a year brimming with career highlights, including her voice-over performance that contributed to Pixar's whale of a blockbuster tale with the animated film "Finding Nemo," now the highest-grossing animated film of all time and released this month on DVD.
It's a great comeback story, but it's certainly not something DeGeneres takes for granted. "Every single day, all I can hold on to is that we're doing everything that we can do to have fun here because I know how quickly things can be yanked from you," she says. "And I'm grateful. I'm grateful for all of this, for another opportunity, because at 45 years old it feels really good to have another chance."