Edging Their Bets

NAMES: Sally Lapiduss and Pamela Eells

DESCRIPTION: TV comedy tune-up team.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: Can they give “Ellen” more RPMs?

Can a couple of thirtysomething women TV writers who watch Nick at Nite turn Ellen DeGeneres into a Mary Tyler Moore for the millennium?

The question is not theoretical at ABC. With “Roseanne” in its seventh season, the network is positioning Disney sitcom “Ellen” as a major building block in its comedy lineup. The top 20 show, which debuted last March, is averaging a 15.2 rating and 24 share this season, with an impressively low 10% falloff from lead-in “Roseanne.”

For something that ain’t broke, “Ellen” has been getting a lot of fixing. The show, in just its first full season, has already seen numerous cast and staff changes – the latest last week, when Disney added writers Sally Lapiduss and Pamela Eells as co-exec producers.

Their mission is to give “Ellen” more of an edge. Says one insider: “It’s a cute little show with cute little stories; she goes out on dates; the jokes are OK.”

But ABC and Disney regard DeGeneres as a potentially huge star, not a timeslot filler. The affable comedienne, who slayed ’em when she hosted the Emmys last fall, just signed a $2.2 million film deal at Disney.

Enter Eells and Lapiduss, both 38, whose challenge is to bring a strong female voice to a show that is run by two strong-willed men: David Rosenthal and Warren Bell. The last exec producer on “Ellen” hired to bring in a female voice, Wendy Goldman, lost her voice quickly – ankling after 21/2 months.

Reached on their Hawaiian vacation last week (as close as they are, the two single friends have never vacationed together before), Eells and Lapiduss did not exactly feel like they would be stepping up to the guillotine when they report to work this week. But they acknowledged how difficult it is to control one’s career in a business where job decisions are made on the strength of one meeting. The two are veteran sitcom writers (“Family Matters,” “Mad About You”) but do not have the clout of show creators.

“You have to re-prove yourself every year,” Eells says. “And an agent comes in very handy.

Last year, after writing for CBS’ “The Nanny” (which was based on an idea they pitched to Fran Drescher several years ago), the pair decided to try something a little less “8 o’clock.” They almost took the “Ellen” job then but instead signed on at NBC’s “Madman of the People,” which flopped.

“We wanted to go to a different sensibility, and we thought ‘Madman’ had it,” says Lapiduss. “Those are the risks you take.”

Indeed, had producer Aaron Spelling not convinced NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer to cancel “Madman,” saving him the show’s deficit costs, Lapiduss and Eells would still be writing for that series.

Their agent, Chris Harbert at United Talent Agency, thought the timing was right for a move to “Ellen.” (UTA also reps DeGeneres.) They’ll work on the next 16 episodes (straddling two seasons).

The pair began their collaboration in New York more than 10 years ago, along with Lapiduss’ sister Maxine. Eells was an assistant director at CBS News; Lapiduss, whose mother is a local TV personality in Pittsburgh, was once Katharine Hepburn’s personal assistant and had worked as an Equity stage manager, publicist and casting agent.

Their spec material caught the eye of Grant Tinker, who hired them in 1987 for his new company, GTG. Arriving in L.A., says Lapiduss, they discovered “we had parking spaces with our names on them before we had cars.”

Both women say they always hoped to create a show someday that would be the next “Mary Tyler Moore.” Now they say that show just may be “Ellen.” And of course, they think about writing movies. But says Eells, “I don’t feel that sitcoms are a stepping stone to movies. I watch Nick at Nite and I know every episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show’ by heart; I really believe good series are every bit as great as good films.”

And, she might have added, considerably more profitable.

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