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Ellen Morgan is a neurotic, 30-something, bookstore employee who tries to get by life in dealing with her various friends whom include the outgoing redhead Paige, insecure photographer Adam, her unsure-of-himself cousin Spence, coffee shop guy Joe Farrell, the critical and obnoxious Audrey, and most challenging of all, Ellen also has to contend being around her annoying and overbearing parents Lois and Harold. Written by
While Portia de Rossi Degeneres was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show (1986) in 2010, Oprah told Portia that when Oprah played the therapist on the "coming out" episode of Ellen (1994), Oprah got more hate mail about that minor appearance than she had ever gotten during her entire previous career as a talk-show host and actress. See more »
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a highlight of television comedy -- until the final season
During most of its run, "Ellen" was set in a book store owned by the title character, and it was one of the funniest situation comedies to be produced for U.S. television. It had a variety of regular characters, each a well developed mix of comedy stereotype traits and realistic individual traits. The varied cast provided lots of opportunities for comedy plot twists.
Ellen's personal gift was humorously portraying the moments of mild embarrassment everyone experiences -- much of comedy is based on embarrassment, after all. But Ellen didn't stop with mild embarrassment. Instead of keeping quiet and hoping no one would notice her blunders, or hoping they'd forget, she tried to talk her way out of them. Of course, she was hopelessly inept at talking herself out of an embarrassing situation, and escalated each mild blush scene into a personal disaster for her, and hilarious comedy for viewers.
The show, to me, most resembled the old Lucille Ball comedies. But I had a hard time identifying with Lucy's setting in the distant past, which exists only in black and white television and the nostalgia-clouded memories of people older than I am. Ellen, by contrast, was set in a familiar approximation of the modern world, which is funnier to me because it's a world I understand.
In its final season, the show changed its focus from comedy to civil rights. It started out almost as funny as before, but the civil rights message quickly crowded out the comedy. I applaud her political message, but by neglecting the comedy Ellen DeGeneres effectively cancelled her own show, and any chance she had of using it as a political soapbox. I and others watched the show because it was funny, and in the final season in the hopes that it would become funny again. I didn't want to watch her pitch a civil rights message I had accepted years earlier.
Perhaps it's difficult to deliver a message, while still entertaining, but it can be done. Most "Home Improvement" episodes contain a family moral of some sort, but never at the expense of the humor. Giving a choice between presenting a moral and making people laugh, "Home Improvement" went for the laugh, although it didn't go for the laughs to the point of presenting (for lack of a better term) an anti-moral. Given the same choice, "Ellen" usually chose the civil rights moral instead, and the comedy lost. It's possible to make a comedy with a gay star and lead character, and deliver Ellen's civil rights position, but comedy has to come first for the show to succeed.
One exception to the badness of the final season was the farewell episode. It set aside the efforts to deliver a civil rights message, and tried to be funny again. It demonstrated that Ellen had not lost her comedic gift, but had instead set it aside in favor of her political interests.
A now-moot question to ABC: Why were there viewer discretion notices before the show? It had less adult content (sexual or other) than almost any other shows then on television. The only shows of that time period I knew of with less adult content were "Simpsons", "King of the Hill", and "Home Improvement". Occasional scenes of women kissing women don't need a viewer discretion warning. Or if they do, almost all of ABC's surviving series need even stronger warnings.
While ABC deserves mockery for its stupid viewer discretion warnings, it deserves no blame for cancelling the show -- it had become a low-rated, unfunny comedy, for which Ellen DeGeneres deserves most of the blame. Still, before the final season, "Ellen" was comedy genius.
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