The ins and outs of confessional TV

If everyone jumped off a social issue, would you?

In the biggest strip-tease in recent TV history, the character played by Ellen Degeneres is coming out as a lesbian. Leave it to the progressive minds of television to make a big hoo-ha out of something we already know.

The real Ellen is right there on the cover of Time this week, nice and casual, with a nice and casual headline, "Yep, I'm gay." It doesn't get any more direct than that, yet when the blessed event occurs, people will be glued to the set like it was the moon landing, because life on earth is still more shocking to some than life in outer space.

The excitement is so terrific it makes me want to come out about something, too. Look, I'm out on the porch! Look, I'm out on the town! Look, I'm out in the kitchen! Even when I'm in, I'm out! I'm even out of mustard!

In fact, to exploit all the hype, I'm going to make a big confessional deal out of everything I do. Holding hands in public with the boyfriend: "I'm not sure when I decided I was straight. It's probably because all the girls in my neighborhood growing up were ugly." At Taco Bell: "I always suspected I was different, but when they finally came out with soft tacos I knew then there were others like me and I felt totally validated." Drunk in a bar after singing, "I'm a Little Teapot": "Got sumpina tellya. I'm a dork. Really big dork. I thought it would be hard to find other dorks, but lookatcha. Here you are! I don't feel so good. Let's all get a house and live together! Zzzzzzzz."

Reality bites

Reality bites

Confessional television is nothing new. In the '60s Liz Montgomery and Barbara Eden alerted us to the prejudice shown toward witches and genies. In the '70s Archie Bunker outed racism and Maude outed sexism with shows that, as Time points out, were much too mature to be popular today. Then in the '80s everyone came out as an alcoholic or a drug addict, and later we found out how many people had been sexually abused, in what my sensitive, insightful editor calls "the incest craze." Like it was Pogs.

And now Ellen is coming out. Those who think this is a one-trick pony have another think coming. With this new direction there are tons of things to anticipate in her show. Will she try to become a folk singer? Will she quit her job to coach volleyball? Now that she's a lesbian, will they have to take the "Humor" section out of her bookstore?

In fact, a lot of people on television might benefit by coming out about things we already know. People like:

Jerry Falwell. Time told Degeneres that Falwell had called her "Ellen Degenerate," which the star deftly jumped by saying, "I've been getting that since the fourth grade." If Falwell would come out and say, "I'm petty, mean-spirited, holier-than-y'all pitchman who knows as much about the afterlife as the Heaven's Gate cult," who knows? He might lose a million viewers but gain a million others who don't think you get to heaven by calling people names.

Martha Stewart. New Woman magazine reports that at a benefit luncheon, Miss Perfect replied to one person's lament about feeling inadequate by saying, "That's your own problem. You have to figure it out yourself. I have." Everyone would watch "Martha Stewart Living" if she would confess, "You think I want to sit around making festive centerpieces out of my toenail clippings? I don't want to, I have to. I have excessive-compulsive disorder and am so anal-retentive I can secretly use my heinie as a duck press. I am affiliated with K mart! Do you think that's glamorous?," and then break down in a torrent of tears, which she would neatly save to use later in soup.

Michael Jackson. If he called a press conference and said, "Look, I'm not going to lie to you. I'm crazy. Nutty as a Snickers. I carved up my face so I look like a wig head. I named my kid Prince. What else do you need? Just watch what I do next." Every one of us would.

For a voice of authority I asked an actual lesbian what she thought of Ellen's coming out party. "I wish the hell they'd all just stay in," she said.

You have to dig for it, but she's got a point. Entertainment was invented to give us a break from reality. With all these confessions on TV, we might find that we desire more facades and create them ourselves. Then everyone could walk around acting dignified, self-confident and pleasant just to get away from all that damned honesty on the tube. I, for one, would appreciate a little more phoniness of this kind from others.

In the meantime, we applaud Ellen, look forward to the show and remind everyone that while she may be dealing with a real issue, she still has a script that will tell her what to say and do and we don't. Ellen may be out, but she's not out on a limb. Like the rest of us.