Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage of Ellen (1994-1998, ABC), which has been released on DVD and is currently available on Amazon Prime.
Ellen stars ELLEN DeGENERES as Ellen, ARYE GROSS as Adam, DAVID ANTHONY HIGGINS as Joe, and JOELY FISHER as Paige. With CLEA LEWIS as Audrey.
Season Two of the newly titled Ellen continues its attempts to create for the series a concrete identity. After already losing Anita in favor of Joe, this year opens also without Holly, now replaced by Joely Fisher’s Paige, a composite of the first two women, with some of the grounding cynicism of Anita but a place in dating stories once thrown to Holly. Paige is a much more refined character though: a Hollywood wannabe with a harsher viewpoint and a more casual understanding of sex and relationships (which contrasts well against Ellen). But Two doesn’t stop there; at its midpoint, it adds to its regular cast again by bringing back a former guest — Clea Lewis as the annoying Audrey, who quickly ingratiates herself into Ellen’s world. She’s got big energy and secures easy laughs — her boldness may seem off-putting given the series’ early literal realism but she helps frame Ellen as comparably relatable, and it’s good for the show, especially because it strengthens the humor and provides more narrative opportunities. That said, the vague “situation” doesn’t change much. It’s still a basic “hangout” show with a workplace, and this kind of low-concept setup requires strong support from character (in plot) if it’s not going to be totally idea-driven and dependent on funny notions. The character work for everyone but Ellen remains generally subpar, yet Two’s scripts are more amusing, thanks both to this improved ensemble and the fact that the show has realized, regardless of narrative, that the key to its episodic success is merely showcasing the unique talents of its well-liked star. Accordingly, Ellen — literally named after her alone now — deliberately gives Ellen more chances to clown by herself in the spotlight. And with a broader, more physical type of humor, comparisons to Seinfeld are diminished, as Ellen begins to feel more like a throwback — like, say, The Lucy Show. Such centerpieces move the show’s aesthetic realism into a sillier place, but this is mostly excusable because, sans a better understood “situation,” the series needs big yuks to justify its existence. Thus, Two is a much more enjoyable year than its predecessor — it’s the springboard for Three to become even better, with an even stronger ensemble, funnier scripts, and, oh yeah, a halt on stories focused on Ellen’s dating life with men (which don’t really work here — for reasons later obvious). So, this is a solid growing year for the always shifting Ellen.
01) Episode 12: “The Dentist” (Aired: 09/21/94)
Ellen has a crush on her new dentist.
Written by Mark Driscoll | Directed by Tom Cherones
Season Two of the newly christened Ellen lives up to its title by spotlighting its lead, who gets to do big shtick when she’s high at the dentist and flirting with her attractive doctor. Now, usually stories that put Ellen in some kind of romantic scenario this season don’t work because her nervous comedy often feels deliberately downplayed when opposite possible male suitors (as if to insist on their dramatic viability), but here it’s only played for hahas, when Ellen’s trademark awkwardness blends well with a classic intoxicated routine, indicating the way forward for this series: just give the star as many laughs as possible. Andrea Parker and Robert Gant guest. (I’d also like to note that although the show is intentionally trying to deflect Seinfeld comparisons, this is the year where its resident director is a Seinfeld alum, Tom Cherones.)
02) Episode 13: “Saint Ellen” (Aired: 09/28/94)
Ellen feels bad after winning a TV under someone else’s name.
Written by Richard Day | Directed by Tom Cherones
One of the first entries to take advantage of Paige’s career in Hollywood — a job that provides new avenue for story and therefore helps episodic ideas find some connection to the series’ “givens” — this offering is nevertheless a great showcase of the Ellen characterization, which, as discussed last week, is actually fairly well-constructed (because it’s based on her known standup persona), for she’s someone who will do wrong and then feel bad about it, since she’s primarily a bumbling people-pleaser with well-intentions. Thus, it’s a terrific display of her character when she does something immoral and then tries to make up for it by working with a charity organization… trying to convince herself that she doesn’t hate it and isn’t miserable. Also, this is the debut of the recurring Patrick Bristow as Peter, and Jane Carr notably guests.
03) Episode 15: “The Note” (Aired: 10/12/94)
Ellen tries to find the culprit of an insulting note.
Written by David S. Rosenthal | Directed by Tom Cherones
Early Season Two really does a fine job of pinpointing stories that can emphasize Ellen’s characterization, and just as with the installments above and below, “The Note” zeroes in on a comic trait that can be maximized — Ellen’s desire to be liked by everyone, which encourages her to go to great lengths to rectify a scenario where she feels like someone doesn’t. This smart script not only gives her this beautifully character-rooted guiding objective, it also uses elements of the bookstore locale — the “book club,” a device that’ll be featured even more in Three — along with Paige as Ellen’s half-willing sidekick. Plus, it knows to provide Ellen something physical to do as well, in a memorable scene on a test mattress. Ultimately, this is a well-rounded exhibition of Ellen‘s emerging efforts to land on an identity here in Two, using its characters, aspects from the cultivated setting, and a specific style of comedy.
04) Episode 17: “So Funny” (Aired: 10/26/94)
Ellen is insecure when she meets Adam’s funny female friend.
Written by Maria Semple | Directed by Tom Cherones
Ellen DeGeneres’ pal Kathy Najimy guest stars in this unique entry as a friend of Adam’s whom he unthinkingly bills as the funniest person he knows — praise that makes Ellen Morgan incredibly jealous. This is an interesting conflict because it feels autobiographical — the standup comic playing this role probably would be threatened by not being a pal’s “funniest” friend — but it works for the Ellen Morgan character too, for it stems from insecurity, which is predicated on some degree of self-awareness (the idea that Ellen knows she’s comedic) and that’s both good for the character’s relatability as a human (particularly as the series gets sillier and sillier) and also gives her believable flaws that can be exploited for story. So, like the two above, this claims another intelligent use of the central character. An underrated winner.
05) Episode 20: “The Trainer” (Aired: 11/23/94)
Ellen tries to help Paige by posing as her boss’ personal trainer.
Written by Holly Hester | Directed by Tom Cherones
With Paige’s presence now bolstering the ensemble’s laugh quotient via her better-defined characterization, she’s also helping to inspire story, in large part because of her chosen profession as a Hollywood wannabe. This is another episode that takes advantage of what’s been established about her as she uses Ellen in a scheme to get her boss (Harry Shearer) to recognize her talent as a potential executive. The scheme itself invites a bolder, broader comedy that then centralizes its star — as Ellen has agreed to pretend to be a personal trainer — so it feels like an accurate representation of the series as it exists this season, while utilizing known details about Paige, the newest (and best) member of the year’s supporting ensemble.
06) Episode 26: “The Spa” (Aired: 01/25/95)
Paige brings Ellen to a health spa where she’s miserable.
Written by Suzanne Martin | Directed by Tom Cherones
In finding ways for Ellen DeGeneres to clown in offerings that are basically star vehicles (per the new title of her show), this year sometimes sheds its sustaining structural trappings, which — on the whole — are perennially mediocre and not as conducive to the big-laugh comedy that makes the series worthwhile. This is good and bad for, as we know, strong sitcommery hinges on the smart use of a “situation,” even when it’s flawed, and the removal of those elements leaves segments such as these to feel like glorified sketches. And yet, DeGeneres is the show’s most reliable purveyor of hahas as a result of her established persona, and it’s fun, in this case, to see her uncomfortable at a spa where she’s starved of food, aggressively massaged, forced to sit in mud, and then stuck while trying to escape — especially because it enables a contrast between her and Paige, who usually goes in for this kind of Hollywood treatment (until she herself can’t take it anymore). Indeed, it’s the incorporation of Paige that helps tether this otherwise unoriginal, sketch-like idea to the series’ concrete “givens,” allowing it to be a top contender for this year’s best. (Patrick Warburton, Molly Cheek, and Kimberly Russell guest. Also of note, Ellen DeGeneres was Emmy-nominated for her work here.)
07) Episode 27: “Ballet Class” (Aired: 02/08/95)
Ellen tries to satisfy her childhood dream of dancing in a ballet.
Written by Richard Day | Directed by Tom Cherones
Hailed even at the time of its airing as an instant classic, “Ballet Class” is often cited by fans as one of the comedic highlights of the pre-“Puppy Episode” Ellen. I don’t necessarily agree with that high praise — I think there are better samples of the series (next year in particular), and I certainly don’t believe it’s of the caliber of anything resembling a “classic” when we consider what that means for other sitcoms from this time (like Seinfeld, Frasier, and even Friends). However, I think it’s the perfect display of the series as it exists precisely in this season, with a story meant to spotlight its star in an idea that puts her physicality at the fore. What’s more, the ballerina imagery — that is, the use of ballet as an excuse for physical comedy — really does frame the series as a desired successor, or at least homage, to Lucy, and embracing this familiar style of comedy is indeed one of the elements that Season Two of Ellen is exploring as it seeks to discover itself and how to project a reliable “situation” in weekly plot. Personally, I think the climax is not crazy enough — I expect a little more bungling from a comic nuisance like Ellen — but true to her persona, there’s a feel-good sense of optimism that justifies a happier ending. And, of course, the story is enlivened by the supporting cast — specifically the work of Ellen’s recurring parents (Steven Gilborn and Alice Hirson), and the returning Peter, all of whom represent a series that’s building up its identity in this era. So, if you haven’t already guessed, this is my choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE).
08) Episode 30: “Gladiators” (Aired: 03/01/95)
Ellen becomes a contestant on the fight show American Gladiators.
Written by Richard Day | Directed by David Owen Trainor
Another popular installment that forsakes a lot of the regular aspects of the year’s “situation” so it can focus on comic centerpieces anchored singularly by its funny, affable star, “Gladiators” is, I must admit, not as desirable in my book as some of the other outings in this sillier subcategory (namely “The Spa” and “Ballet Class”). This is mostly because it feels so sketch-like — a one-off notion disconnected from any other elements of the series’ usual existence, like Paige, or Peter, or Ellen’s parents. And yet, I again can’t deny that the show works best when Ellen is allowed to clown, and frankly, she makes this amusing idea memorable enough to seem like it must be included on this list — it’s simply a half hour that stands out from this collection and would be missed if it wasn’t here. (Mike Adamle and Connie Needham appear.)
09) Episode 31: “$5,000” (Aired: 03/22/95)
Ellen donates her tax refund check to charity but then tries to get it back.
Written by Jonathan Stark & Tracy Newman | Directed by Tom Cherones
Ellen’s core characterization is well-engaged in this enjoyable offering that finds altruistic Ellen donating the entirety of her unexpected $5,000 tax return to charity (the same place she worked before, with Peter). The problem is that this check was a mistake and the IRS has demanded she return it, forcing the well-meaning bumbler to go back with her tail between her legs and try to collect the money, even after it’s been used to buy a classroom full of wonderful stuff for a bunch of eager, grateful kids. This isn’t a conflict caused by Ellen, like the most satisfying character-based entries are, but it invokes her own personality traits to maximize her discomfort, enabling the kind of jittery nervous comedy for which DeGeneres is best known, and in honor of what this series now knows it does best. A favorite. (Dann Florek guests.)
10) Episode 33: “The Therapy Episode” (Aired: 05/03/95)
Ellen tries to be honest with her parents after a near-death experience.
Teleplay by Mark Driscoll & Holly Hester | Story by Holly Hester | Directed by Tom Cherones
After having seen Paxton Whitehead as a psychiatrist in “The Sleep Clinic,” Ellen returns to seek help following a near-death experience with Paige and Adam that changes their outlooks on life. This feels like a forerunner to the long fourth season arc where Ellen goes through a string of shrinks, finally coming out — in a highly touted Sweeps excursion — to a doc played by Oprah. In this regard, there’s something of Ellen‘s future suggested by this installment, which also predicates its plot on Ellen’s attempts to live an open and more authentic life, particularly with her parents. It’s basically an excuse for the old “radical honesty” routine — seen on shows like I Love Lucy — but it utilizes Ellen’s established relationship with her funny folks, rendering it a worthwhile example of how some recurring elements of this “situation” can be employed for enjoyable story. And, again, with a hint of where Ellen is going, this is an important segment to highlight for a series that’ll always be trying to improve itself…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Toast,” where Ellen causes familial discord (but on accident, not due to any actual character traits), “Ellen’s Improvement,” an agreeable entry that merely boasts the comic idea of a high-brow intellectual suddenly falling for the charms of low-brow entertainment like TV (it’s not as connected to Ellen’s character as I need it to be), and two Audrey offerings, “Ellen’s New Friend,” which reintroduces her, and “The Apartment Hunt,” which sets her up for the regular cast. I’ll also take this space to cite “Mrs. Kroger,” which enlists a familiar Golden Girls idea that also works for Ellen, “Guns ‘N Ellen,” which claims a hackneyed story but several laugh-out-loud moments, “Three Strikes,” which relies on ridiculous narrative beats but is enjoyable because of the relationship dynamics between Ellen and her parents, and “The Sleep Clinic,” which is Friends-like…
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Ellen goes to…
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!