Looking Back at Ellen and Mitch Hurwitz’s Sitcom ‘The Ellen Show’
The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
Before Mitch Hurwitz created Arrested Development, he cut his teeth writing on The Golden Girls, but you already knew that. Between the latter and the former, there were a few projects that he worked on that helped him to transition from the classic three-camera sitcom to the rule breaking single-cam that is Arrested. One was The John Larroquette Show, which he ran after the departure of creator Don Reo. Another was Everything’s Relative, a CBS sitcom starring Jeffery Tambor. And then there’s The Ellen Show.
The Ellen Show is also a transitional show for Ellen DeGeneres, the titular star of the show. It comes a few years after her successful and controversial ABC sitcom, Ellen, and before her mega-hit daily talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Ellen’s second sitcom, co-created by Hurwitz and Carol Leifer, shows an Ellen who has learned from her previous sitcom, but isn’t apologizing. Her new character is still a lesbian, despite the controversy that announcement caused last time, but this is less of a focus in the new show. Ellen’s mom (played by Cloris Leachman) and sister are totally accepting of it and treat it as old news. It comes up again briefly when she’s visiting her hometown to accept an award and stops by her old high school. Her high school prom date, played by Jim Gaffigan, tries to hit on her and she tells him that she’s gay. Thrown for a loop, he gives a nervous chuckle, then, unsure what else to say, congratulates her. Ellen responds, “Thank you. You may actually be the first person to congratulate me for that.” Without missing a beat, one of her old teachers (played by Martin Mull) joins in congratulating her, as do everyone else in the room. Ellen quiets them, saying, “That’s enough! No need to harp on it!” making a tongue-in-cheek reference to what the rest of America told her in the final season of her previous sitcom.
The premise of the show is pretty straightforward: Ellen is the head of a dotcom company, she goes back to her hometown to accept an award from her school and while there she learns that her company has folded (remember, this is 2001, so this is relatively edgy stuff). A little humbled, Ellen decides to stay in her quiet, rural hometown with the people she loves and see what her new life can be in a familiar surrounding. However, that’s very different from the way the show was originally conceived. According to an interview Hurwitz did with the AV Club in 2005, originally it wasn’t going to be a sitcom at all. It was a variety show. The choice, according to Mitch, “was an odd choice for everyone involved, including Ellen,” because she “doesn’t do voices and doesn’t play characters. She just plays Ellen. She’s kind of the Kermit of The Muppet Show.”
And that’s exactly what she does. Those little rants that Ellen does on her talk show, where she spends some time discussing a little thing that irks her or an observation about an upcoming holiday or something? Well, that obviously is an extension of her career as a standup, and almost to make Mitch’s point above that she’s playing herself, her award acceptance speech in the pilot episode is exactly one of those. Her character, Ellen Richmond, has the voice of a woman who is simultaneously over-confident and neurotic, while being friendly and well-liked by those around her. This description would hold for her character from Ellen, Ellen Morgan, as well as her persona as a standup. And there’s nothing wrong with that: she’s a talented woman who’s found a voice that works for her and she’s applied it and reapplied it throughout her career very successfully.
So in that way, Ellen’s influence can be felt throughout the show. What about Hurwitz’s? In terms of that transition from Golden Girls to Arrested Development, The Ellen Show is still closer to the old ladies than the Bluths, but the wordplay and humor style of the more recent show is evident throughout Ellen’s show. As Ellen and her scatter-brained sister Catherine catch up on their romantic trials and tribulations since they’ve last spoken, it becomes clear that Catherine does not know how to pick nice men. She tells tales of them treating her poorly and stealing money from their mom, and the like until she brings up Rudy. “Oh, yeah,” says Ellen. “Mom called him ‘the one that got away.'” “Oh, no. They found him!” Catherine responds. There are many small, dry jokes throughout the pilot that feel like they could be right at home in an episode of Arrested. The big difference is that this show has a laugh track to call them all out, but one quickly falls into the groove of the show and they just become a part of the rhythm. In the tradition of Everything’s Relative, Arrested Development, Running Wilde, and the unproduced Happiness Isn’t Everything, this show is about an offbeat, but ultimately functional family. Ellen has her doting, eccentric mother and her strange sister, but her “family” extends out to her former teacher and prom date, and the strange cast of characters that surround her. Despite its name, this isn’t a show about one person’s view of the world: this is about a group of odd people being held together by a common figure in their lives (sounds familiar, right?). While that’s not a concept created by Hurwitz, it’s certainly one that he’s found that works for him, and he’s applied it and reapplied it throughout his career very successfully.
Last week it was announced that Netflix has signed an exclusive deal with Hurwitz to have him supervise their comedy output for the next few years. One belief that Mitch has stated over and over in interviews is that he doesn’t want to repeat himself (and please don’t point out the irony of that sentence to me). We’ve seen through Arrested Development that he is constantly producing new jokes, and new ways of delivering them, changing the entire structure of the show in a very unique in the fourth season. But the only way to keep things fresh is by improving on what’s come before, as we can see through his past work. The Ellen Show did not complete its full season on the air at CBS, but its impact on what came after it is invaluable.