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Ok, She’s Gay; Will She Be Any Funnier?

Mon., April 28, 1997

Blond and strangely virginal, she’s a funny lady who comes to TV in a sitcom bearing her name.

Right away it’s clear that, despite this star’s unquestioned appeal, the show just isn’t working. The formula is tinkered with. Supporting players are fired and hired.

The next year, there are more changes. Even more the year after that.

Five rocky seasons pass. By now it’s 1973. Still half-baked, “The Doris Day Show” disappears.

History suggests that, after a brief probationary period, fate pronounces a TV series a turkey, no matter what it’s stuffed with. As Doris Day would put it, “que sera sera.”

This is worth pondering as the world awaits the umpteenth, likely doomed-to-failure overhaul of “Ellen.” Zero hour is Wednesday at 9 p.m. on ABC (parental rating is TV-14), when the sitcom’s title character, Ellen Morgan, will declare herself gay on a special hourlong episode we’ve all heard so much about, we could swear we’ve already seen it.

What else do we know?

This broadcast will surely take its place as a TV event of monumental proportions. No TV character has ever made such a disclosure, then, reconfigured with a brand-new sexual identity, resumed life a week later as the series’ driving force.

Another thing we can count on is more heat from the “family values” kingpins, to whom, at least in the short-term, a handful of affiliates and advertisers will kowtow.

For instance, seasonlong “Ellen” sponsor Chrysler has dropped out of this week’s broadcast. Despite touting “the new Dodge - it’s about change,” the automaker seems to feel the new Ellen represents a little too much change.

We know that this week’s big step by Ellen Morgan will bring her into synch with Ellen DeGeneres, the series’ star.

There’s no way we couldn’t know. In a three-pronged publicity attack (her recent Time magazine “Yep, I’m Gay” cover story, last Friday’s “20/20” interview with Diane Sawyer, and Wednesday’s appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”), DeGeneres is coming out, too.

And we can be sure that “Ellen’s” bold move will continue to be hailed by the gay and lesbian community, which threw its support behind the notion from the moment it was leaked to the press last fall.

A TV show exploring “the full and funny complexity of our love would be a first,” writes Sarah Pettit, editor of Out magazine, in its current issue.

Who could blame her for being pleased? But Pettit is expecting a lot from a TV series, especially “Ellen.”

After all, how many shows have what it takes to dramatize “the full and funny complexity” of even the most mainstream, heterosexual love? Or, for that matter, of anything? What would lead Pettit, or any other viewer, to expect a dependably feeble show like “Ellen” to excel at what other series seldom if ever even attempt?

Since it premiered three years and a month ago, “Ellen” has gone through concepts and cast members, writers and producers, with numbing regularity. For most of that time, its ratings have remained in the mediocre midrange (for total viewers season-to-date, it’s currently ranked 42nd place).

Through it all, Ellen Morgan has remained an enigma. Up to now, she has been a wistful, overeager puppy dog of a character. A failure with men, with no comprehension why. A sitcom android who seemed to have no mission beyond giving Ellen DeGeneres a steady gig.

To finally establish Ellen Morgan as a lesbian is to explain “Ellen’s” senselessness. This new piece of the puzzle tells us that she was as much a mystery to herself as she was to the viewers.

Fine. But what will this revelation have to do with being funny?

Declaring Ellen Morgan gay provides new storytelling opportunities. But it also raises the storytelling stakes. This week, “Ellen” becomes the most ambitious sitcom on the air, perhaps ever - yet it consistently has failed at the one thing any sitcom ought to do: Make us laugh.

Dual announcements that the Ellens Morgan and DeGeneres are gay may be a good thing for advancing social tolerance. They may help the larger population grasp what a gay person faces when going public.

But lesbian, left-handed or Lebanese, it doesn’t matter. “Ellen” wasn’t funny in its past incarnations. Odds are, it won’t be funny in the future.

To borrow an old show-biz quip: Coming out is easy; comedy is hard.

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