Get It Straight

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The circle was closed at CBS when the company that originally produced the series, Artists Television Group, dissolved and left The Ellen Show in the hands of that network. Though DeGeneres insists CBS boss Les Moonves has been nothing but kind in his dealings with her—after all, he did tap her to host last year's troubled Emmy Awards, where she killed even in the shadow of September 11—the tarnished Tiffany Network likewise sacrificed her far too soon. Though her sexuality wasn't much of an issue—she announced she was a lesbian in the first episode, as though anyone was still wondering, and pushed past the pink curtain—the show lasted only a season. It had a bad time slot at first (Friday nights), got bounced to Mondays (where it did slightly better), got yanked in January and then again during sweeps and, truthfully, probably wasn't as funny as it could have been. It succumbed to guilt by association: CBS, after all, is the network that brought you Baby Bob, the first network show hatched from a commercial and, possibly, the worst thing ever put on the air.

"The things that stay on I can't believe," she says, "and the things that get canceled definitely had at least possibilities of being smart. But networks are not looking at the audiences and realizing that there's a lot of people out there that are smart and want to think. What's on television I don't think represents everybody out there."

But maybe, she figures, she was also a victim of her own fame—and consequent infamy. Perhaps people didn't watch The Ellen Show because they were tired of her, tired of just hearing about her. America had Ellen DeGeneres hangover; enough already. "There may be people still, especially at that time, still on the fence, deciding," she says. "Or maybe they already made up their minds—they just don't like me anymore. And I think that I may have been suffering from that a little bit. People need a little bit more time to re-evaluate or to maybe forgive or rethink their decision. I don't know. But I think that it was a combination of a lot of things."

It didn't help that only last year, her bizarro ex was peddling a too-much-information tell-all ("[Ellen and I] went inside and had the best night of lovemaking I had ever experienced") about her trip to the fourth dimension. If DeGeneres is through being too famous, Heche can't get enough—even if, or maybe especially if, that means throwing her old lover under the bus just to catch a ride to the next Vanity Fair Oscar party.

After Ellen in 1998, DeGeneres frowned on returning to a sitcom. She considered launching a variety show, if only because she knew it might be impossible for people to view her as merely a character so soon after her coming out. DeGeneres even taped a pilot, only to realize she was never going to round up enough writers to keep the thing afloat for very long; her dream of being Carol Burnett died before it was ever hatched. When she returns to television in fall 2003, it will be as a syndicated talk-show host for Warner Bros. Television.

When you tell DeGeneres her sexuality is a non-issue, at least as far as you're concerned, she's grateful; when you tell her you don't perceive her as a symbol, as anyone's martyr, she's delighted. Though she's often told her coming out helped save the lives and sanity of so many closeted fans, it's really no damned fun carrying the burden of others. After sweating it out beneath the spotlights, she's ready to dim them for a while—forever, if that's a possibility.

"Doing a talk show, I'm sure there are station managers who are nervous," she says, "who are saying, 'Does she have an agenda? Is her private life going to be out there for everybody?' I go into it knowing that it wasn't who I was before, and it's not who I am now, as far as my private life being out there. I'm very understanding of the consequences...but I think that once the residue gets thinner and thinner and thinner and we use a very strong abrasive cleaner, it's going to be gone. And there'll be no hint of ever having residue there. It'll be a brand-new shiny thing. You know, it's like getting a piece of furniture that you've sanded away and you had no idea it was ever painted in the first place. I think that that's what I was: I was a table, an antique table, and then someone came along and painted me this horrible, ugly color that offended everyone. And now we've sanded it off, and there's a few chips of paint—you can still see that it'd been painted for a while—and now we're getting to the fact that you never knew it was painted in the first place."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky