At the outset of a press conference promoting her syndicated talk/variety show "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," which premieres on Monday, September 8 (check your local listings for stations and times) and airs weekdays, Ellen DeGeneres made it clear -- in response to a question from a reporter -- that the new program will not revolve around her sexual orientation. Yep, she is still gay. But she won't be obsessing about it on her new talk show. Got it.
Well, most of us got it. About halfway through the press conference, another reporter asked, "Will you talk about being gay or bring gay culture to the show in any way?"
"Constantly," DeGeneres cracked. "That's all I want to talk about."
After the laughter died down, DeGeneres addressed the question more thoroughly. "People know I'm gay. There's nothing to talk about. It's part of who I am, and [the audience] knows that," she said. "I don't know how that would ever come up in a conversation [with a guest]."
That said, DeGeneres added, "I can't say it will never come out of my mouth -- if I have to remind someone if they forget for a second, and they want to set me up with a nephew."
You can always count on DeGeneres to be clever.
Of course, I don't have to remind all of you about the backlash DeGeneres suffered after she -- as well as the character she played on the sitcom "Ellen" -- came out nearly six years ago. Even then, GLAAD media director Chastity Bono criticized her, maintaining that her sitcom had become too gay.
"I don't think [me doing a talk show] would have worked a few years ago," DeGeneres admitted. "I'm in a different place [now]. I think people are in a different place with me, and things have, I think, settled down."
Talk of her sexual orientation aside, why did DeGeneres decide to do a talk show at this point in her career? "I know it's really hard to say I've always wanted to do a talk show, because I think everybody who does a talk show says that, even if they haven't," DeGeneres said. "But it does seem like a natural progression."
Certainly, DeGeneres is an experienced talk show guest. She has appeared on them all from Leno to Letterman. Earlier in her career, she even appeared on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." "I was really lucky that I got to be on that show before he retired," DeGeneres said. "I think Carson was great at being the right host, [setting] the right tone, letting the guest shine, being funny when it was necessary, being funny by just responding to the guest's comment."
As for the tone and format of her own show, DeGeneres resisted comparing it to others. "People keep asking me if it's going to be, you know, like Rosie O'Donnell. And I keep saying, 'No, it's going to be like Ellen DeGeneres.' I think what makes a show work is that you're staying true to who you are. Johnny Carson was brilliant because he was Johnny Carson. And the format for Leno and Letterman and Carson are all basically the same -- a desk and chairs. And yet they are all completely different. I think it's the host who kind of drives the show."
This host is looking forward to conversing with everyone from celebrity guests to everyday folk. Live music from a variety of guests will also be central to her show. "I will say right here and now, I want Justin Timberlake," DeGeneres declared. (Actually, she is getting him: Timberlake will appear on the second installment of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" on Tuesday, September 9.)
"I love him. And it's not a Rosie-Tom Cruise thing. I promise," she clarified. "I just really like Justin Timberlake. I've told him that, too. He knows."
Other dream musical guests? "I would love to have Annie Lennox. I would love to have Celine Dion -- if she'll ever leave her own theater -- and Sting and Bono and Beyonce," DeGeneres said. "I want to have everybody."
While a lot of performers -- everyone from Tempestt Bledsoe to Gabrielle Carteris -- have tried and failed to launch talk shows in recent years, I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying that DeGeneres' odds of success are strong. We TV critics had not been shown a pilot at the time we met with DeGeneres in July at the Television Critics Press Tour in Hollywood, but the general consensus among us was that if anyone could launch a successful new talk show, it is DeGeneres.
"I'm confident," she said. "I love what I do, and I love making people happy. I love making people laugh. I can only go into it knowing that I'm going to love doing this, and I think people will feel that I love doing it."
For information on how you can attend a taping of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" in Los Angeles, visit http://ellen.warnerbros.com/. The site also has information on upcoming guests: Look for DeGeneres to chat with "Friends" star Jennifer Aniston on her premiere September 8 show, which will also feature a performance by Macy Gray.