Image: Jennifer Aniston Is First Guest On The Ellen Degeneres Show
Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres emerges victor of a thumb wrestling match with Jennifer Aniston, her first guest on the premiere episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
NBC News
updated 12/9/2003 4:47:02 PM ET 2003-12-09T21:47:02

Six years ago, Ellen Degeneres took a gamble and lost. At a time when gay characters were almost never featured on network television, she and her sitcom character came out of the closet, straight into controversy, and eventually, cancellation. After that, the phone didn’t ring much for Ellen, until this year when she made a “splashy” comeback as the voice of Dory in the year’s biggest movie, “Finding Nemo.” Starting this week, Ellen Degeneres is hoping to find even more success, when she unveils her new talk show. She spoke with NBC’s Katie Couric.

She was born in 1958, as “Great Balls of Fire” echoed across the bayous of her native Louisiana. Forty-five years later, Ellen DeGeneres is still moving as fast as its beat. In the final, frantic days before her big day, she took us on a madcap, behind-the-scenes tour of her new digs on the NBC lot in Burbank.

She played hide-and-seek with our crew and showed us another place she once ran for cover: the closet. She’s just kidding, of course. But if Ellen DeGeneres seems a little uptight, she has good reason. A lot is riding on what happens Monday. After a very trying phase in her life, she’s trying a new gig, as a talk show host.

Katie Couric: “So this is it?”

Ellen DeGeneres: “This is it. My last chance.”

That may be overstating things a bit. Yet, after 25 years of stand-up, sitcoms, movies and then controversy, a daytime talk show is a big change and a big risk.

Couric: “Why do you want to do this? Of course, as you know, the landscape is littered with people who try to do this and fail. What was it about this format that appealed to you?”

DeGeneres: “I love talking to people. I’m genuinely, that’s why I’m a comedian. I’m fascinated by people. It’s an hour. And there will be no desk — and no chairs. We’re just gonna stand. [laughter] Just two people standing, talking like at a cocktail party almost.”

Couric: “Or like at the bus stop.”

DeGeneres: “Or at a bus stop.”

Couric: “Is there somebody that you’d really like to sit down and talk with.”

DeGeneres: “Either Seigfreid or Roy. Either of them. Not together.”

Couric: “Really?”

DeGeneres: “No. Oh, they’re a handful together. But, probably Seigfreid, just so I could say it over and over again. Oh Seigfreid, I am Seigfreid. How do those pants fit? They seem tight. That would be my first question.”

Actually, the first guest will be Jennifer Aniston. And as always, her mom, Betty, will be in the audience.

Mrs. DeGeneres: “We’re very, very excited. I feel like it’s her niche. You know, she’s so spontaneously funny.”

We got a sneak peek at the star in action, during a rehearsal.

Couric: “It’s not a sitcom, obviously, where you kind of get control and know your lines. I mean, are you nervous at all about it? There’s a level of spontaneity, which I think is very exciting on one hand, but can also be kind of intimidating if you’re not used to it.”

DeGeneres: “Not for me. I mean, to me, that’s what I love doing. That’s why I think that this will be better than anything else.”

So far, this has been a good year for Ellen DeGeneres. out on the Santa Monica pier — the ocean is a reminder of a recent part in a smash movie: She was the voice of “Dory,” the forgetful fish in “Finding Nemo.” She had fun testing the waters and even got a chance to travel up the food chain.

The last few years, Ellen Degeneres’ life has hit a lot of bumps that weren’t much fun at all.

DeGeneres: “I worked for 20 years to get to where I was and suddenly just by revealing this one thing that I was scared to reveal, everything was wiped out and for three years really nothing was going on.”

Since the breakthrough “coming-out” episode of her hit show “Ellen” in 1997 and her highly-publicized relationship with Ann Heche, her career came to a screeching halt.

Couric: “I read a quote which I thought was actually quite poignant where you said all your life you’ve spent trying to keep this secret because you’re afraid people wont like you when you reveal the secret. And you said sure enough, that happened...”

DeGeneres: “Yeah. It’s your biggest fear. But there was no handbook. I didn’t know how to act. I didn’t know how to do it. I think I ran away from Hollywood for a little while, I got scared, I got hurt, I got angry. I went through all the different things because I did feel rejected. I felt like people didn’t like me anymore.”

That’s all changing. In many ways, she feels her career has come full circle. Her return to her roots in stand up comedy, with a special on HBO this summer, got raves.

And, in what she hopes is a sign of good luck for her new show, she had her biggest break 17 years ago on this very lot. In 1986, she made her first appearance on the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” She did a bit called “phone call to God.”

What the audience didn’t know was that her routine was based on a personal tragedy, and a real-life conversation with God.

DeGeneres: “My girlfriend had just been killed in a car accident and I just didn’t understand life. So I thought, what if we could just pick up the phone and call up God and ask these questions that we don’t understand, what that conversation would be like.”

Starting Monday, she’s going to be conducting different types of conversations. But no matter how the show works out, she says she now has a healthy perspective.

DeGeneres: “You know, I think sometimes we’re fools to think that life is always happy and there’s something wrong when it’s not. It’s like it’s happy and it’s sad. And it’s hard and it’s great. And it’s all those things. And right now, it’s really great.”

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