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    The Ellen Effect

    TV's hottest talk-show host inspires audiences and guests to twist, shout and shake it all about. Even our TV critic becomes a dancin' fool under Ellen's spell.

    By Ken Parish Perkins

    Star-Telegram Television Critic


    BURBANK, Calif. - A 30ish redhead is circling me like a cheetah, baiting me to join in a particular brand of body jiggling to which I am painfully unaccustomed. Her shoulders are popping up and down, her arms spinning like windmills, her lips poking out like a bird's beak.

    Others are starting to circle her as she circles me, hootin' and hollerin', clappin' and stompin.'

    This can't possibly be good.

    I am far from a smooth or even interesting dancer. My feet are too long and flat for my ankles. I am uncoordinated. Bouncy. Stiff. There's this strange habit of tightening my face, which leads people to wonder if I'm in need of medical attention.

    The adventurous redhead, in jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt that reads "Squeeze If You Like," can't hear me excusing myself; doesn't want to hear me, really. She's in her own world, far from her job as a hairstylist in Santa Monica, out sick with what she cheerfully diagnoses as "Ellen-itis."

    Others around her nod as a kind of confirmation of this, well, condition.

    Like her, like me, they have snared freebie tickets to The Ellen DeGeneres Show, something of a feat unto itself. Many of them have been hanging onto theirs for six months. (A department store saleswoman from Atlanta swears that she kept hers in a bank lockbox.) And today, they've lined up for several hours in the rain to spend just one with Ellen DeGeneres, the latest "It" girl of TV talk.

    Clutching a piece of paper with a number printed on it, the redhead has come to NBC Studios as one of about 250 jazzed men and mostly women -- black, brown and white, graying grandmothers, tall, muscular teen-agers with acorn haircuts, mothers old enough to have teen-age kids and young enough to wear skin-tight jeans, cut-off tops and flip-flops.

    We're lined up like people are every weekday, bodies snaking along Bob Hope Drive. In a few minutes, we'll be shepherded inside, screaming, yelling, pumping our arms and dancing at the slightest urging from anyone carrying a clipboard.

    I wanted to attend a taping of The Ellen DeGeneres Show to assess the star from the vantage point of the people who would climb over hot coals to see her. The newspaper-office switchboard operator from Las Vegas, the middle-school teacher from Van Nuys, the computer support technician from Portland. This wasn't an Oprah Winfrey Show crowd looking for spiritual guidance or the Late Night crowd needing a fix of David Letterman-style sarcasm and celebrity diss.

    When I ask Brandon, a 17-year-old high-school student from Northridge, why he's there (aside from his mother insisting he skip school to do it), he mumbles something about Ellen being "cool to hang out with."

    She endears herself to her viewers by acting as if she's just like them, only funnier -- and richer (although Ellen is so modest in her dress, it's hard to believe that she splurges on anything).

    "We're here because she's funny, of course, but she's just this really, really nice person," says Glenda, a retail manager from Pasadena who arrived with her college-age daughter. "I think that's why we're in such fellowship here. I don't even know these people, but they must be nice because they're attracted to niceness."

    Like Brandon, Glenda tried to get tickets last year but came up empty. By the time she applied online, every ticket for the rest of the season was gone. This year, they tried early, and eventually got a call asking which day they wanted to attend. The show is meticulous about the comfort of its audience -- a staffer calls everyone who applies for tickets to see if they're really coming on that date. (Ticket holders don't know this is done to ensure every seat has a body in it.)

    Still, many of the people awaiting entry, in a slight rain, attribute the show's big-hearted feel to Ellen. She's perceived as an anti-diva, a sunny answer to the inquisition of guests that usually occurs in late-night forums such as, say, those of Conan O'Brien or Jimmy Kimmel.

    So, to see the security guard busting a few moves as he surveys the scene, well, that's the Ellen Effect.

    "She's nonjudgmental," says Elisabeth, a 40-year-old paramedic who with her partner, Beth, drove in from Denver. "Anybody who comes on her show, it's something positive about everybody. She never rags on anybody. Always remains neutral. And man, she's funny."

    Elisabeth and Beth are surprised to hear that when Telepictures set out to sell the talk show, it met with reluctance among some station owners and managers. They were concerned about the star's baggage, specifically her rep as a flag-waving lesbian who bumped heads with ABC when she and her sitcom character burst out of the closet. By the time Ellen returned to television with a tamer sitcom -- her character was a lesbian but, well, let's not make a big deal about it -- she'd been labeled a political fireball.

    Ellen might be awful witty, but daytime isn't nighttime. Audiences don't want to be preached to, whether it's Oprah's spirituality or Rosie O'Donnell's strong-arm politics. Ellen pushed her talker as nothing more than a comedian chatting with her friends; she'd leave politics, sexual or otherwise, to the likes of Jon Stewart.

    Indeed, Ellen's sexuality is a nonissue on her show, and even Elisabeth and Beth, so pumped about seeing Ellen they are first in line, don't bring it up.

    By the time we are shuttled inside a gate and under a long canopy (but still outside), the rain is coming down quite hard. Temperatures have dropped drastically. Soon we are moved into the warm comfort of the so-called Riff Raff room. Coined by guest Tom Hanks, this is the room where the overflow audience can feel somewhat a part of the show and can hear musical guest Alanis Morissette rehearse 8 Easy Steps.

    By now the place is buzzing, and the noise goes up a notch when a man in a baseball cap emerges, explaining how they had the best audience "ever" just the night before.

    I wonder if the earlier crowd really was off the chain, or if he says that to every crowd to get it pumped up, to create an atmosphere so charged it is palpable even through the flat filter of television. (This is how Arsenio Hall put it for his similarly energetic show.)

    Once in our chairs, we're highly encouraged to dance, and after two or three pop and hip-hop tunes, people toss off inhibitions like layers of clothing on a hot, sticky day. Never have I seen so many people dance so wildly and badly and with such vigor without caring about how they look, only about how they feel.

    When Ellen emerges, wearing a blue pullover V-neck sweater, black slacks with a white stripe down the side and white sneakers, the roar of the audience is deafening. So loud I don't notice her shout up into my row and bob and shimmy to P. Diddy's Shake Ya Tailfeather right past my chair, dancing wildly as she zooms by.

    The woman to the left of me (Brandon, the high schooler, is on my right) looks as if she's going to burst into tears; it takes her several minutes to control her breathing as Ellen tries to calm everyone and segue into her monologue.

    Ellen's opening shtick is usually short and takes a standard form -- the running joke is based on an article that said stress is, well, bad for you and on the popularity of oxygen bars. Soon Ellen has all of us practicing our deep breathing, which Ellen likes to see and hear people do, "unless it's someone on the other side of the phone. Then it's creepy."

    Ellen avoids politics in favor of the whimsical observational humor that has marked her career. She characterizes her comedy as "the lowest common denominator" that's certainly not designed to challenge.

    It works for the 2.3 million daily viewers who have made the show a hit in a genre that's very, very difficult to crack. (Her peers like it, too. The show recently won a Daytime Emmy.) Since fall 1995, 38 shows have been launched in daytime, and with the exception of shows such as Dr. Phil, most have crashed and burned.

    Apparently, Ellen's show also works for guests. They seem genuinely happy to be a part it. Her interviews are pleasurable, even if she's not necessarily an accomplished interviewer. Her questions often are setups, lobs that guests can hit for home runs, but mostly it's cocktail party small talk brought alive by Ellen's quick wit. She has gained a reputation for drawing the stars out from behind their protective screens -- but it's all in her customary fun: Jason Alexander, for instance, roller skating in a tutu, Kelly Preston hula dancing, Rob Lowe sliding down an inflatable ramp.

    Ellen's second guest on this day, 18-year-old actress Amanda Bynes, is so blown away by the festive atmosphere, she comes out dancing, bounces in her chair and can't seem to sit still. She mentions repeatedly what a good time she is having, even dissing other shows for being snoozers. The first guest, Anthony LaPaglia of the CBS series Without a Trace, mostly gushes over his daughter. But he nearly falls out of his chair laughing when Ellen brings out a metal detector after the actor reveals his troubles getting through airport security with his hip replacement.

    Audience members laugh and giggle during Ellen's interviews, but it's clear they prefer her interactions with them during commercial breaks. That's when the stand-up in Ellen comes out. She bounds up the steps and into the aisles for handshakes or impromptu chats or, sometimes, to find an unwitting foil.

    The last of the aforementioned can often be a dangerous move. Whenever a performer breaks the "fourth wall," that invisible plane that runs along the proscenium separating artist from audience, they run the risk of falling flat on their face. But Ellen rarely does.

    When the hour is over -- the woman to my left turns to me, again looking like she's about to sob, and says, "That was fast" -- Ellen hands out her favorite ice cream bars to everyone. She makes the mistake of actually eating one before setting up to tape promos. Looking into the TelePrompTer, she flubs her lines several times, blaming it on a frozen mouth, and the audience is loving every minute of this bonus Ellen time.

    Most are standing, eyes wide, with big smiles on their faces, as though they're watching television magic.

    As we file out, it's raining hard, but few are complaining. I share an umbrella with four sisters who just the day before flew in from Calgary, Alberta. They're all in their late '50s and early '60s -- they couldn't be missed during the dance segments. One was flapping her arms so wildly I thought for certain she'd take off.

    The women are like giggly high schoolers as we walk back to our cars, talking about the show, saying how the trip was well worth their time and money. They say they haven't danced that much since their niece's wedding several years ago, nor "felt so young."

    Two days later, I relay this to Ellen, who is on the phone from her office at the NBC studio. She laughs loudly.

    "One thing we've managed to do is create this space where no one is embarrassed to do anything . . . not even you," she says. "For that moment in time, they become free. They're able to let loose any way they want because chances are the person next to them is doing something other than jabbing you in the ribs. Not doing anything makes you the oddball."

    Ellen doesn't seem as surprised by the success of the show as she is by how good it feels to do it. I ask if she feels the same magic her audience feels when it's in her presence.

    "To do something like this and have it come so easy -- no, actually, this is exhausting, hard work," Ellen says. "When I say 'easy,' I mean it feels so right. More right than any sitcom. Even with my stand-up. This is me. I should have been doing this since the age of 3."

    "Dancing?" I ask.

    "That, too," she answers. "There are much worse things out there than having to dance every day."

    Well, for some of us.


    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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    I enjoyed reading this article very much! Thanx for posting it!!
    "Never let go what you believe in. Do never let people make you think you're something you're not

    "Be Strong, Speak True, and Spread the Peace"-MLE

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