It's often said that you can't be funny if you're also trying to promote a social or political agenda; the urge to proselytize is supposed to lead inexorably to sourpuss humorlessness. But Ellen, now in its fifth season, keeps getting funnier, even as its star conducts the most relentless gay-empowerment campaign prime time has ever seen. So far, the triumph of the show's new season is that while the majority of its punchlines are about homosexuality, the subject hasn't become predictable or dull pretty amazing, given how many jokes it takes to fill up a sitcom each week.
All of the new Ellens have focused on the fallout since DeGeneres' Ellen Morgan announced her predeliction for women in the final weeks of last season. The howlingly good Oct. 15 episode, for example, elicited its laughs from a virtual litany of gay symbols, including a Gertrude Stein kitchen magnet and a potent brew called Fire Island Lager.
ABC is allowing DeGeneres to do this with nervous reluctance (over the summer, ABC Entertainment prez Jamie Tarses said she wanted the show to take only ''baby steps'' toward the subject of gay romance). DeGeneres, for her part, is understandably reluctant to admit she's propagandizing (''I never wanted to be the poster child'' for coming out, she's said) even as she steadily turns Ellen Morgan into the most lovable horny lesbian in the history of pop entertainment. It's as if the impish little spirit of gayness itself (if Martina Navratilova and Elton John had a baby ... ) descended upon both DeGeneres and her network and compelled them to do its bidding against their wills.
This juicily unpredictable situation led to the recent flap over Ellen's advisory rating. ABC had been labeling the sitcom with a TV-14. But when the network added an NYPD Blue-style warning to the Oct. 8 Ellen in which Morgan gave her straight pal Paige (Joely Fisher) a jokey soul kiss DeGeneres took offense at ABC's sense of offensiveness. ''This program contains adult content. Parental discretion is advised'' well, it's one thing to try to protect American youth from a bathtub scene in which Kim Delaney gives Jimmy Smits a soapy underwater handshake; it's another, DeGeneres felt, to warn people away from a girl-girl smooch. Casual straight-world bed hopping on TV is so common, DeGeneres must feel as if she's actually been a poster child for comparative restraint. She accused ABC of ''blatant discrimination'' and threatened to leave the show.
Thing is, DeGeneres can't have it both ways. I'll give you an example of what I mean. One of the best things about post-out Ellen has been the complicating of Fisher's character the way she's frank about her ambivalence toward her friend's newfound sexuality. In that Oct. 8 show, Paige became upset and ashamed to be upset watching Ellen flirt. Paige told her, ''I get uncomfortable around you when you are talking with women that way.'' This was a good scene, one that was both believable (as one possible real-life reaction) and funny (as a sitcom setup for well-written jokes). The very next week, Ellen Morgan herself snapped to one of her buds, ''I wish you would stop assuming that everything is tied to my sexuality'' again, a believable reaction. So if DeGeneres can acknowledge such feelings in the context of her show, why can't she also see that this is the exact discomfort that ABC believes its viewers may be experiencing? And that the last thing an intrinsically conservative entity like a TV network wants is uncomfortable consumers or advertisers?
I'm not saying DeGeneres shouldn't do what she's doing; quite the opposite: Jolly good for her. But her protests seem a little beside the point. By upping both the quality and the ratings of her show while never backing away from the subject she's had the guts to raise, DeGeneres has already won the battle. ABC has apparently caved on a disputed episode in which our favorite tomboy leads a date into the bedroom. And throwing lesbianism to the wind for one merciful moment, let me say that the season's second episode, in which Ellen went rock climbing while making googly eyes at her hard-body trainer (guest star Deedee Pfeiffer), proved what a terrific actress and slapstick comedian she's become.
If DeGeneres wants to exercise some righteous passion, I'd much rather she come out for a ''discretion is advised'' warning every time Paul Reiser plans to prattle to Helen Hunt about how wonderful it is to have such a sweet wittle baby on Mad About You. Speaking as a straight breeder made uncomfortable by such goo, I'd appreciate it. A-