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Ellen in a Different World

In 1997, the ABC sitcom Ellen set off a sociological time bomb when Ellen DeGeneres became the first television character to come out as a lesbian. Advertisers balked, and so did some viewers, and the show left the air.

It seems like a million years ago now.

With hits like Will & Grace and Queer Eye for a Straight Guy on NBC and other relaxed attitudes about homosexuality in the public in general, being gay is the big so-what of television.

"It's a different time," DeGeneres says. Remembering the past, she says, "I was doing something then that hadn't been seen. And I think it was harder for viewers. They knew me as one way, and then, all of a sudden, I'm a gay person now."

It's certainly not an issue for Warner Bros. Domestic Television, which premieres the new Ellen DeGeneres Show in syndication on Sept. 8 on stations covering 95% of the country. including NBC's O&Os.

For DeGeneres, the idea of doing a talk show is redemptive. Her recent HBO concert, her voice role in animated hit Finding Nemo and hosting the post-9/11 Emmy Awards show, she thinks, helped promote her image as a comedian instead of the firebrand she never was. She is just a super-funny observational comic whose act is, and always has been, free of foul language or randy topics.

A talk show at the end of that is a good place to land. Ask her if she's ready for the rigors of a daily talk show, and, except for the fact that she's too Southern-polite to do it, she almost laughs at the question.

"I've been doing standup for 25 years so I'm really looking forward to sitting down," she begins. "Everyone told me how exhausting this life is. But it's launching the talk show that's exhausting. I've done a lot of stuff that prepared me for this kind of schedule.

"I've been training myself for this for the last two years as if I'm training for a marathon. That what I want this show to be. I don't want this show to run forever. I want it to run for 15 years." She pauses and explains: "Forever is too long."

One of her executive producers, Mary Connelly, who worked for David Letterman back in his NBC days, says in comparing the two comedians that "the two of them share an incredible work ethic. She's not only on time, she's there ahead of time. They both work hard and expect people around them to do the same."

In 2001, DeGeneres resurfaced in prime time as the star of The Ellen Show on CBS. The show quickly tanked, she thinks because she tried so hard to please.

"I think, when that show was launching, I was coming from a place of 'Oh my God, I hope they like me again.' And that's never a good place to come from. It was important for me to get back to the place I was, but I don't think you should ever come from a place of needing someone's approval." She says that, back then, "I was a scared puppy that was just thrown out of the yard and told, 'You can't be in the house with the other puppies.'"

In a way, she says, the flap over the lesbian issue gave her a new perspective. She refers to "different situations" in her career that toughened her. "Whereas someone who has had a steady course of working and working and is lucky enough to stay [at one place], I've actually had the fortune and misfortune of falling and getting back up, and being knocked down and getting back up again. So I probably have a take on this career that somebody else in the same career doesn't have" because she rebuilt hers.

When Warner Bros. began talking to her about a talk show two years ago, she says, it had been arranging focus groups to gauge what the daytime public thought of her. "I found out later that [the focus group's attitude] was always positive but there was negative. At the beginning, it certainly wasn't as positive, and now I guess it's completely changed. Now, it's really ... good." You wouldn't have predicted that in 1997.