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Ellen just wants to be funny

Her new show won’t preach

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Ellen DeGeneres says she's learned her lesson and she's ready to return to sitcom stardom.

Like her last sitcom, "Ellen," DeGeneres will once again be playing a lesbian in her new sitcom, "The Ellen Show." But this time around, she's not going to make a big deal out of it.

"I learned that it's really hard to do a sitcom and do very important political issues," DeGeneres said. "I thought I could do it and it was something that was important to do and could be educational and funny. And I don't think people want to see that. I think people want to sit at home and turn on their TV and just laugh. . . . And I understand that now.

"But at the time, I got caught up in something that was very important to me and it was important to other people."

Now what DeGeneres would like to get caught up in is making people laugh. In "The Ellen Show," DeGeneres play Ellen Richmond, a successful businesswoman who returns to her small hometown to find something more meaningful in life. She moves in with her mother (Cloris Leachman), deals with her spacey sister (Emily Rutherford) and takes a job at her former high school, where Martin Mull plays the principal and Jim Gaffigan plays her high-school boyfriend.

"The idea of me giving advice to kids should be enough to make you laugh," DeGeneres said.

There are a few laughs in the surprisingly pleasant premiere, which airs Monday at 7:30 p.m. on Ch. 2. But only a few. There are fewer still in the second episode, which airs in the show's regular timeslot on Friday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m.

The strident tone that quickly made "Ellen" unwatchable is gone — and the fact is that both network executives and the viewing public seem more willing to accept gay-themed programming (witness the success of "Will & Grace"). Not that DeGeneres thinks of "The Ellen Show" as particularly gay-themed.

"I don't think that we're focusing on (being gay) as much. I mean, 'Will & Grace' is about that," DeGeneres said. "And I think when I did my (first) show, it was about the process of this character all of a sudden realizing that she's gay and her whole world changed. Everything. So I felt that it was an obligation to take it through the steps of what that would be like to realize you're gay.

"This show is going to be a funny show and she happens to be gay. And we'll deal with it as much as we deal with the fact that she's a woman. I don't think it's going to be the same as a lot of shows that are on the air, but, yeah, I think it's a better environment now on television for that."

While "Ellen" may have paved the way for the success of "Will & Grace," DeGeneres said she's not at all unhappy that that show has been accepted in a way hers was not.

"I don't feel resentful at all. I feel really grateful for what I had an opportunity to do," she said. "It sounds corny, maybe, but I did something that was just important and necessary for me to just be fully who I am and not hide it anymore and get rid of the shame that I have been living with for a long, long time. It was something that I'm so grateful that I got to do. And if it helped other people, I think that's a wonderful thing — if it opened up the doors for other shows. But I think eventually we would have had shows that would have come on the air like 'Will & Grace.' "

But, still, she's not looking to break down any more barriers the way she did on "Ellen."

"I'll always be proud of what I did. I think I did something that was important, mainly just for me," DeGeneres said. "But I just hope that this is a really funny show. I think what happened with the last show is it got to be too issue-oriented, and I take responsibility for that. That was something I needed to do. And now I feel like I had a whole career before that that got me to that place. I started as a stand-up (comedian), I did a show for four years and then suddenly I did something that overshadowed everything else. So now . . . I just want to have a funny show and make people laugh."

That's going to take some doing, but it's certainly a worthy goal.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com