Yeah, she’s gay but so what?

Aug 13, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Ellen DeGeneres and her ABC sitcom “Ellen” made TV history in 1997 when her character, Ellen Morgan, became the first openly gay leading character on a broadcast network TV series. Ms. DeGeneres, who is herself openly gay, is back this fall in a new sitcom on CBS, “The Ellen Show,” once again portraying a lead character who is openly gay. During a recent appearance before the Television Critics Association in Pasadena, Calif., many of the questions Ms. DeGeneres fielded were about gay characters on TV. An edited transcript follows. As is customary with TCA transcripts, the questioners are not identified by name:
Question: There are a lot more gay characters on TV now than there were when you were doing “Ellen.” Do you feel the environment is just much more hospitable now for the kind of show you’re doing?
Ellen DeGeneres: “Will & Grace” is about that. It’s about what that life is. When I did my [first] show, it was about the process of this character all of a sudden realizing that she’s gay and her whole world changed, everything. So I felt that it was an obligation to take it through the steps of what that would be like to realize you’re gay. This [new] show is going to be a funny show and [my character] happens to be gay, and we deal with it as much as we deal with the fact that she’s a woman. So it’s not going to be the same as a lot of the shows that are on the air. [So] yeah, I think it’s a better environment now on television for that.
Question: Your first sitcom was such a groundbreaking show I wondered, do you back away from that? Do you not try to top yourself or are you cognizant of that at all?
Ms. DeGeneres: Well, I always want to top myself. That sounds dirty. Don’t print that. Erase that. I’m always hoping that I’m going to do better work. It’s a totally different show. I’ll always be proud of what I did. I think I did something that was important really mainly just for me. I just hope that this is a really funny show. What happened with the last show is it got to be too issue-oriented, and I take responsibility for that. That was something that I felt that I needed to do. And now I feel like I had a whole career before that that got me to that place. I started as a stand-up, I did a show for four years, and then suddenly I did something that kind of overshadowed everything else. So now I just want to be funny again. I just want to have a funny show and make people laugh.
Question: As you said, your last sitcom character discovered fairly late in life that she was gay. How is this character different? And has she been out a long time so it’s just not a big deal to her to talk about it?
Ms. DeGeneres: Yeah. And “Will & Grace” has been on the air, so she’s been watching that, so that helped her family. Clark [the fictional small town where “The Ellen Show” is set] is this fantasy town that I wish existed. Everybody kind of congratulates her for [being openly gay]. Nobody has a problem. Nobody is shocked by it. It just is what it is and they accept her for who she is. And that’s sort of what I love about small towns-there’s just this kind of, everybody accepts everybody and it’s not a big deal. So yeah, we’re playing it as she’s been aware of her sexuality for a long time and her mother just kind of doesn’t care and just loves her for who she is.
Question: Is that also not a statement about small towns not being as unsophisticated as they’re often portrayed on TV?
Ms. DeGeneres: Yeah.
Question: We have been talking a lot about “Will & Grace,” and that show has found a lot of success with gay characters. And even “ER” had a character discover she was a lesbian and had success with it. Do you feel like you broke that ground? And is there any part of [you] that feels a little resentful that you seemed to take a hit so that these other shows could go there?
Ms. DeGeneres: I don’t feel resentful at all. I feel really grateful for what I had an opportunity to do. It sounds corny maybe, but I did something that was just important and necessary for me to just be fully who I am and not hide it anymore and to get rid of the shame that I had been living with for a long, long time. So it was just something that I’m so grateful that I got to do. And if it helped other people, I think that’s a wonderful thing. If it opened up the doors for other shows
[that’s wonderful, too]. But I think eventually we would have had shows that would have come on the air like “Will & Grace.”
Question: [More about] “Will & Grace” and “ER” and gay characters on that show. I wonder if you notice a difference in the acceptance of [them] because the majority of those actors playing those characters are actually straight. Does the viewing public differentiate between John Goodman playing someone gay [in “Normal, Ohio”] vs. what you do?
Ms. DeGeneres: I have to believe that that’s true. It’s easier for people to accept that. It’s hard for me to answer that question.
Question: Ellen, I assume that the [gay woman] gym teacher on the [new] show, while she may shoot, she’s not going to score with your character. Who is out there for you in this town?
Ms. DeGeneres: I don’t know yet. The character has just gotten out of a relationship, so she’s not really looking to date. She’s regrouping and finding out what’s important in life, and has she lost something that she once had? I just think that there’s plenty of stuff that we can make the show very funny without worrying about the dating stuff for
a while.
Question: How long might “a while” be?
Ms. DeGeneres: I’m thinking seven or eight years. Unless that’s not funny, and then it will be sooner. It’s all about funny this time.
Question: Could you talk a little bit more about what you learned from the first [series] experience?
Ms. DeGeneres: I learned that it’s really hard to do a sitcom and do very important political issues. I thought I could do it. I thought it was something that was important to do and could be educational and funny. And I don’t think people want to see that. I think people want to sit at home and turn on their TV and just laugh. That’s all they want to do. And I understand that now. But at the time, I got caught up in something that was very, very important to me and felt it was important to other people too.
When I started becoming educated about the gay bashings in high school that go on every single day and the attempted suicides, I couldn’t ignore it. I thought here’s a way for me to make something funny and put a face to something so it wouldn’t be so scary.
I thought I could help in some way. And that was a hard thing to do. People just wanted to laugh. And so that’s what I learned. And I think that I’ve done that, and now that I don’t have to say it anymore-people do know I’m gay-I can just get back to what I do. I hope. That’s what I’m trying to do, anyway.