TO MANY PEOPLE, the "revelation" that Ellen DeGeneres--beloved standup comedian, celebrated TV personality, and sitcom star--was a rug-munching lezzie was about as surprising as fireworks on the fourth of July. Anyone with even minimally functional gaydar had picked up on DeGeneres' adorable dykiness the minute they laid eyes on her. But to the entertainment industry and "middle America" (it's not a place, it's a state of mind), DeGeneres' confession was an informational H-bomb that obliterated nearly every other facet of her being. This is unfortunate, because aside from the splashy distinctions that have characterized DeGeneres' recent years--her groundbreaking coming out and emergence as a dyke icon, her pairing up with cutie-pie actress Anne Heche--the fact remains that Ellen DeGeneres is funny as shit: an intelligently daffy observer whose wry, idiosyncratic delivery can turn tame, even standard topics (air travel, cats) into gut-busting stuff. At long last, DeGeneres is returning to her first vocation of standup, and in advance of her upcoming Seattle appearance, I chatted with the world's most famous lesbian (sorry, Janet Reno!) about politics, comedy, and, of course, the sex life of Stephen Hawking.

So, for better or worse, for the past couple years you've existed in the public eye primarily as Ellen DeGeneres, Professional Lesbian. What's it like to be getting back to the business of standing around and making jokes?

Well, the coming out thing is always going to be a big part of how people perceive me, because it made such a splash. The timing of it all--it became a much bigger thing than I ever anticipated.

You and everyone else.

Somehow I was thrust into the role of leader of the gay world. And, you know, the hours are just crazy. To be gay 24 hours a day, every single day, it's hard. It's a lot of pressure. I made the decision to return to standup to refocus my energies, because I felt my sexuality had overshadowed everything. Of course there's still a lot of work to be done [for gay rights], things we all need to do, but I also need to get back to my art. Still, when I walk on stage a large portion of the audience applauds not just because they want to see me do standup, but because of what I represent to them. And I take it in and I appreciate it, but at the same time I hope people are ready to support my decision to just be a comedian.

But now you carry this load with you--TV star, half of a celeb couple, gay-rights icon. Do you think this affects audiences' ability to perceive you as "just a comedian"?

There are people coming to the shows who really are just there because they want to support me. And they may not necessarily get my humor. It's a little frustrating. I don't mean to criticize those people, because their hearts are in the right place. But they're not realizing there's an art form to this, too--it's not a free forum and it's not a rally. This is my art. I am trying to say something and when I have a space or a pause, which is very necessary in my comedy, it's not for you to fill in by whooping or screaming out my name.


Yeah, it's a challenge. I really have to remind myself, you know, "forgive them, for they know not what they do."

It's particularly strange, because your type of humor is so at odds with your status as Lesbian Activist Superwoman.

I don't understand the position I'm in. I don't know how this happened. I mean, I have this weird mind that goes weird places and writes weird, rambling stories about going to the store to buy cheese. And yet I'm looked at as this controversial person, as an activist and a troublemaker. I never intended on this. I mean, I just decided to lead my life honestly and get rid of the shame and self-hate that I was so filled with. And by doing that my eyes were opened to all this information that put me into the role of an activist: "Oh my God, there are children being tortured every day in school because they're gay; there are people being killed; we can be fired in 38 states." But at the same time, I don't have all the right words and sometimes I don't know what I'm supposed to do. Like when Anne and I went to the march [the Millennium March in Washington, D.C.]. I'm up there speaking in front of 850,000 people and every word I say is supposed to have impact and meaning and power, but I don't have a speechwriter and sometimes I don't know what I'm saying and... I'm a comedian.

Still, to some folks you may as well be the dyke Martin Luther King.

But he was a politician. He knew what he wanted to do. He was ready for that role. I'm just a comedian. It's weird for me, this split between comedy and activism, but I'm trying to balance it out. I would like to find a way, you know?

Enough about activism, let's talk about comedy. Who makes you laugh?

Jon Stewart. He is the funniest, funniest guy. I just love him. He's so underestimated.

I agree. What joke of yours has gotten you in the most trouble?

I did a joke about people who talk in bed. There are certain people who shouldn't talk in bed. Stephen Hawking, I don't think he should talk in bed. Then I went into an imitation of Stephen Hawking's voice of the universe: "If I enter your black hole, I would be stretched long and flat, like a pancake." People got so mad at me. I was just saying it would be wrong for him to talk in bed. I didn't mean to be mean. The guy's been married like six times, hasn't he? He's doing okay. He's not hurting.

What's funnier, a witty bon mot or someone slipping on a banana peel?

Someone falling is always funny. But you have to see it coming, for the anticipation. The funniest thing, really, is to see the banana peel, then see someone walking to it, then see the person step over the banana peel and fall into a hole.

Next: Hanukkah or Christmas?

Hanukkah. It has a 'k' in it. Two, actually.

Gravel or velour?

That's a tough one. I saw a cologne yesterday: Gravel cologne for men. Apparently it's really popular, but who came up with that name? I'm gonna have to go with gravel.

Last one: Al Gore or George W. Bush?

That's another close one. But I have to pick George W. Bush. That overrides all the other answers, too.