Remembering Ellen

Haha, don’t worry she’s not dead, she’s only turning 65! The title of this post has more to do with the fact that Ellen ended her long-running talk show a few months ago, and the monster success of that show has eclipsed what she had been before, which I very much admired.

Ellen DeGeneres (b. 1958) grew up in greater New Orleans and the town of Atlanta, Texas, though you’d scarcely know it from either her stand-up material, personality, or accent. She actually does have a slight New Orleans accent, but hers is the Harry Connick Jr kind, which sound almost identical to, like, a New York accent. This, combined with her vivid surreal imagination and manner of delivery make her early stand-up reminiscent of that of Woody Allen’s, and he was actually one of her heroes. As I mentioned in this post, she also reminded me a great deal of Bob Newhart, both in stand-up and in her acting roles. I highly recommend watching her 1986 debut set on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (available on Youtube), in which she comes on with poise, (apparent) confidence, absolute polish, and even a Newhart-esque telephone conversation with God. Carson was so impressed he gave her the rare honor of an invitation to come sit and chat after her set (bumping Joe Piscopo one seat over, haha). As a comedian, she had and has exquisite timing, and just a wonderful deadpan earnestness. You absolutely have to listen to hear the humor; she is not making a lot of funny faces and wearing a wacky hat or something. Watching her work an audience is almost like a sheepdog rounding up sheep. Sometimes the laugh is delayed and the audience has to catch up with her.

As early as 1989 DeGeneres was a regular on the Alison LaPlaca sitcom Open House. Then, from 1994 to 1998 she starred on her hit sitcom Ellen, in which she played the owner of an L.A. bookstore. The show had initially been called These Friends of Mine, but was changed after the first season due to the advent of the similarly named Friends. Other shows Ellen was compared to were Seinfeld and Mad About You, I guess because there were stand-up comedians in the center of them, but I have to say the comparisons were superficial at best. Suring these years, she also broke into films with a supporting role in Coneheads (1993), and her first starring role in the presciently titled Mr. Wrong (1996). Because, for Ellen, ALL men were Mr. Wrong.

In 1997 DeGeneres made history and there was a shifting of the firmament. With rumors swirling about related to her relationship with Anne Heche, De Generes did something bold and sort of unprecedented. She got out in front of the story, and came out publicly in a two pronged initiative with an appearance on Oprah and a “very special episode” of Ellen. The move was widely praised in the mainstream — and of course condemned or ridiculed by a conservative minority. It was a kind of galvanizing moment. She was on the covers of all the magazines. It’s not like there hadn’t been openly gay people in Hollywood before (and lots more rumored ones). What was different about this moment was the high profile announcement, with all eyes pointed in her direction. This point is history was somehow just perfect for it, and it caused a sea change in the culture. While there are some public figures to this day who remain closeted, many more, especially among the younger generation, are just completely out, so many that it is scarcely remarked upon any more. People from all walks of life loved Ellen, and they weren’t about to stop loving her because she was a lesbian. And this gave others permission. This is a wild oversimplification, and some may object to it, but that’s what it looked like from where I was sitting…in my armchair.

Following the announcement, however, ratings for the show went down, less because of the announcement itself, I think, than that Ellen became a different show, a bit more didactic and humorless. For a couple of years she focused on movies: Goodbye Lover (1998), Dr. Dolittle (1998), EDtv (1999) and The Love Letter (1998). Her second sitcom The Ellen Show (2001-2002) with Jim Gaffigan, Cloris Leachman and Martin Mull, only lasted one season.

Then in 2003 she found a new niche with her popular talk program The Ellen DeGeneris Show, which lasted almost two decades and catapulted her to an Oprah like status as something bigger than a star — a brand. And she kept a hand in stand-up by hosting the Emmys and the Oscars, and returning for specials like Relatable (Netflix, 2018). And of course there’s what may be her most treasured role of all, the voice of Dory the fish in Finding Nemo (2003) and Finding Dory (2016).

In recent years, rumors have been circulating about the comedian once again, to the effect that behind the scenes she can be a mean and nasty piece of work. She has not come out in quite the same forthright way on this topic. That conversation with God in her early stand-up? She’s on the other end of it now, apparently. But if she would own up to some of this behavior in public — that would set an example almost as valuable as her first coming out, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.

For more on show biz history please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous