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Where girlfriends gather

Special to The Times

Something was wrong with Ellen DeGeneres a week ago Thursday -- her eyes were all puffy, and she looked as if a tiny, adorable kitten had died in her arms moments before she hit the soundstage to shoot her chat show. She couldn’t even get a real laugh out of a segment with “Meet the Fockers” star Teri Polo. But this off day merely served to make clear that DeGeneres’ good days -- which is to say pretty much every day -- are really, absolutely right-on, feel-great solid.

Forget the long-stale Leno and Letterman prizefight: DeGeneres has always been the true heir to Johnny Carson. She shares his lighthearted and weird free-association-style humor and his respect for and occasional delighted bewilderment at guests. She even has a sprightly grin a lot like the one Carson had.

According to her publicist, DeGeneres felt as if she was getting the flu on that slightly off day. (“The Ellen DeGeneres Show” is shot at NBC’s Burbank studio a day before it airs), but the next day she was wide-eyed and back in her usual bouncy form as she sat down with Minnie Driver and Treat Williams.

She was dressed down in charcoal-colored pants and a gray sweater, and her appearance prompted exuberant screaming from the women of the audience that went on for exactly 90 seconds. This rapture -- and the bonding and physicality of the short booty-grinding group dance session that follows the opening monologue -- are the show’s hallmarks. DeGeneres has, of course, been compared to Rosie O’Donnell. Like Rosie did, she sets up prizewinning games for the audience and then cheats so that everyone wins, and there’s nothing more endearing than that.

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Like Rosie, she talks about boys. “He’s delicious,” said DeGeneres about Colin Farrell to Driver. “You could just eat him up.”

But it’s without simulated lust or any other falsehood. Instead, it’s like a thoroughly honest and empathic understanding of the desires of her straight gal pals.

The gal pal bond

That works in a sort of reverse way too. Gay men have long been able to channel and express sexual desire on behalf of straight women. Ellen has smoothly adapted that process into something more complicated. She sets the women of her audience free to be sex objects, in a healthy, man-free way. She’s like an Amazonian warrior princess via Melrose Avenue -- she makes the studio a safe place to be admired. And her attention is pleasing -- after all, she has really hot girlfriends.

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This fleeting lesbian thing between her and the audience is tame and PG, but still: People want Ellen to like them because she’s kind of a stud. She’s the new really sensitive man. And there’s bonding -- she had a messy breakup with a crazy partner and, Lord knows, who among us hasn’t?

But unlike O’Donnell, whose goal was to get housewives revved up enough to face the cleaning and the screaming children, DeGeneres’ show is relaxing. It’s not fluffy, but there’s something about it that’s super-soothing, from the light, clear blue of the opening credits to her oh-so-Sapphic natural fibers and, of course, the show’s general freedom from nasty topics (no gambling addiction cautionary tale segments, no dissections of family strife). Oprah may offer afternoon catharsis by churning up dark truths, but viewers return to DeGeneres for a respite. The show feels like an escape, but not a mindless one. Even her recent daily tsunami fundraising moment, in which a corporate representative presents the big donation of the day, reels you in: Ellen signs the ceremonial giant check with a giant pen, or slips it into a giant wallet inside a giant purse. Funny!

DeGeneres is also very L.A. -- just like Carson was. Where O’Donnell tortured us with top-volume Broadway singing so very early in the day, DeGeneres will never force us to consume celebrity product for our own good. Sure, in our celebrity infomercial age, the stars on her show all have a new movie, show or CD to hawk. But somehow it all goes down a lot more easily than we have any right to expect.


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