Ellen DeGeneres got sick of dancing, and really, can you blame her?
She has to be the only 60-year-old woman in America who is expected to dance with total strangers wherever she goes. “There’s been times someone wants a picture, and while I’m doing a selfie, they’re like: ‘You’re not dancing!,’” DeGeneres said in her office on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif. “Of course I’m not dancing. I’m walking down the street.”
As she prepares to release her first comedy special in 15 years, DeGeneres is considering a much bigger change, retiring from the long-running hit show that bears her name. She’s been receiving conflicting advice from her wife, the actress Portia de Rossi, and from her older brother, Vance DeGeneres, a comedian, and has changed her mind more than once.
At a transitional moment in her remarkable career, DeGeneres agreed to sit for a rare series of interviews over two days. As much as anyone possibly could, she has taken on Oprah Winfrey’s mantle as the queen of inspirational daytime talk, providing an oasis of positivity and escapist comedy in a culture short on both. But with DeGeneres’s status as a sunny stalwart come certain burdens and constrictions, like the expectation to dance, which she finally stopped doing on her show two years ago, after some agonizing over how her audience would react.
In person, she is more blunt, introspective and interesting than she is on the show, willing to express mild irritation that might seem off-key in front of a national audience. She’s also much more likely to explore dark corners of her psyche, regrets, second thoughts, anxieties that linger. And DeGeneres is appealingly open about the tensions in her career between providing a cultural safe space and delivering laughs, and says she has learned to care less about being liked.
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Spoofing her own approachable, down-to-earth image, her surprising new special, “Relatable” (available Dec. 18 on Netflix), doesn’t just reveal a refreshingly irreverent version of Ellen DeGeneres. It also provides a window into her state of mind.
In sharp contrast to her public image as everyone’s good friend, happy to listen, she presents herself — with tongue in cheek — as cartoonishly aloof and indifferent, stuck in a privileged bubble, cracking several jokes, for instance, about her fabulous wealth. (Forbes reports that she earned $87.5 million this year, making her the 15th-highest-paid celebrity in the world.) When she mentions a seat in the 10th row of an airplane, she admits, with practiced cluelessness, that the back of the plane is a mystery to her, asking if the seats even go that far.
For a famously nice talk show host, this is risky stuff. Yet the most jarring jokes in this special are those that subvert her reputation for kindness. After a lifetime of clean comedy, she startles her crowd with a curse. The comic Tig Notaro calls it “a decades-long payoff,” adding, “Then you’re like: Ellen’s a real person with a foul mouth.”
Notaro, a friend who co-directed this special with Joel Gallen, said that while these are jokes, they are rooted in honesty. “Being trapped in the world of being asked to dance and expected to be nice, it’s real,” Notaro said by phone, after noting that, of course, DeGeneres is exceedingly grateful. “I’m sure there’s people who think she’s kidding. Or can’t have a bad day. But she does. It’s an interesting pickle she’s in.”
Asked why his sister returned to stand-up, Vance DeGeneres, a former correspondent for “The Daily Show” who helped create the “Mr. Bill” shorts for “Saturday Night Live,” said: “After doing the show for 16 years, it’s second nature. She wanted to break out of, not a rut, but a mold.”
DeGeneres came out publicly in 1997 on her sitcom, opposite Laura Dern. Initially celebrated, she was stung by criticism from gay viewers for not being more political.CreditABC, via Getty Images
DeGeneres put it another way, emphasizing the kind of expression stand-up allows. “I wanted to show all of me,” she said. “The talk show is me, but I’m also playing a character of a talk-show host. There’s a tiny, tiny bit of difference.”
Because daytime talk shows get less attention than their late-night counterparts, DeGeneres is often overlooked in discussions of important hosts. But make no mistake: No other current daily host has been as successful or celebrated. Among her vast collection of awards are the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and 32 Emmys. And apart from Conan O’Brien, no one matches her television longevity (she’s been daytime host for as many years as Jon Stewart led “The Daily Show”) or her influence. Years before Jimmy Fallon turned games into standard elements of “The Tonight Show,” DeGeneres regularly invited guests to play them.
Fallon has become known for these segments, and they have been imitated on other shows, but they all clearly owe DeGeneres a debt. (Last year, she started a hit game show “Ellen’s Game of Games,” which returns for a second season in January.) “I’m flattered that he’s taken stuff,” DeGeneres told me, adding: “He said he was going to steal everything, so it’s fine.”
During an October taping of her show, what stood out was the stark contrast between the relaxed, low-key charisma of DeGeneres and the chaotic, charged-up energy of her audience. The crowd is encouraged to stand and dance, but they don’t need to be told; they are ready to party, while DeGeneres projects a seemingly paradoxical blend of warmth and reserve, actively engaging, waving at people, listening intently to guests, adding a quip here and there, but never pushing too hard.
With the supreme confidence of a professional who has seen it all before, she pingpongs from a monologue of topical jokes to an interview with a chef dying of cancer, from playfully joking with Sean Hayes of “Will & Grace” to talking to a Tennessee assistant principal whose dance video went viral. Some guests cry. More than one leaves with a big check. DeGeneres is clearly having a good time, but her energy remains steady. She doesn’t look like someone going through the motions, ready to retire, nor does she appear particularly challenged.
After the show — without her makeup on, she still looks a decade younger, her alert blue eyes her most distinguishing feature — she sat in an elegantly airy office surrounded by paintings as she analyzed her performance, beat by beat, with the authority of a doctor explaining lab results.
In this post-mortem, she said one of her trickiest challenges involved a segment focusing on a 6-year-old’s romantic duet of “Meant to Be” with her dad. After hearing this youngster sing to her father about her broken heart, DeGeneres chuckled off camera, turned away and smothered a smile. In that moment she thought of a joke to use when the song was over: “That was adorable and … and … and,” she said, employing her characteristic stammer, “really, really creepy.” She knew this would get a big laugh, but would that embarrass the girl? Would she be hurt? DeGeneres held off, concluding this would not suit her show. “It’s escapism for what’s going on, one hour of feeling good,” she said. “At the core it’s a comedy show. But if it’s not funny, at least it feels good.”
THE NEXT MORNING, DeGeneres, in jeans and a casual white shirt, sat staring at the ocean from her beach house outside Los Angeles in Carpinteria, where you can see dolphins leaping from the water. George Lucas lives two doors over, and Conan O’Brien is down the way, as are Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. She has a farm nearby and a place in the city, but she seems to prefer this tranquil spot, where she walks her dogs and chats with neighbors. “It’s the most community I have ever felt,” she said.
As her private chef dropped off a drink, she explained that she spent a year struggling to come up with a subject to make comedy about. “I used to talk about airplane food,” she said, summing up her gentle mainstream style of observational humor. “What do I do now?”
Her breakthrough, she explained, came when she developed a bit about whether she was still relatable, which, considering the extravagant surroundings (she and de Rossi have works by Richard Serra, Tracey Emin and Basquiat), does sound like a joke. But it is a subject DeGeneres understands in a personal, idiosyncratic way, “It was interesting to me that I was more relatable when I was closeted and dishonest than when I came out,” she said.
When she came out of the closet in 1997, the first out lesbian lead of her own sitcom, “Ellen,” she became a huge star, on the cover of Time, accompanied by the headline “Yep, I’m Gay.” But what’s remembered less is what happened next. ABC put a parental advisory warning on the show and canceled it the next season. According to DeGeneres, her straight audience left her and she received wounding criticism from gay viewers for not being political enough. (Elton John’s comment that she should stop talking about her sexuality and be funny still stings.) She sank into a depression.
And yet, while DeGeneres has a spikier, more confessional style in her new special, this is more of a recalibration than a reinvention. She still dances and shows videos of adorable animals, even though de Rossi told her it was too much like her talk show. DeGeneres’s inclusive sensibility remains fundamental to her outlook. She’s too much of an old school entertainer to pour out her neuroses onstage, as some comics do.
Her vision of comedy is old school, too. She said that she loved “Nanette” by Hannah Gadsby, who stopped by Largo, in Los Angeles, to see DeGeneres work out material for her special, but described Gadsby’s celebrated special as less stand-up than solo show. She also disagreed with Gadsby’s biting critique of the art form, saying, “I think comedy is the best medicine.”
Before DeGeneres stumbled into stand-up, really honing her craft at a comedy club in New Orleans, near where she’s from (Metairie, La.), she had little idea what career she would pursue. In fact, DeGeneres said, in elementary school she didn’t think she would live to see adulthood. “I just didn’t think I’d be alive,” she said, vaguely. Asked why, she said without a trace of self-pity that she was a very sensitive kid. She remains sensitive, she added, confessing that she stayed up the night before worrying that she had sounded like she was accusing Jimmy Fallon of stealing her show. (She not only raved about him, but also texted me on Thanksgiving wishing me a happy holiday and mentioning she should also have praised James Corden and Seth Meyers along with Jimmy Kimmel. Then, after this article went online, she asked if we could add Stephen Colbert’s name to that list.)
Of the few memories she recalls from her youth, many are of feeling out of place or bottled up, in part because of her upbringing as a Christian Scientist. She recalls the other kids’ being given shots, but her parents barred her from getting them or taking aspirin. With glassy eyes, she described her father, an insurance salesman who died in January, as kind and cautious, someone who wanted above all else for things to be harmonious. “He was a very fearful man,” she said. “He couldn’t hear or engage with anything not pleasant.”
DeGeneres stays off social media and entirely avoids the news. She finds Donald Trump upsetting and dangerous, so steers clear. “I don’t want to put that in me,” she says.
AS SHE SPOKE, she glanced at her phone on the kitchen counter, made a call and immediately tensed up. “What do you mean?” she asked urgently. “Is anything broken? Baby!” She put the phone down and explained that de Rossi had been riding, fell off her horse during a jump and sustained a concussion. She was taken to the hospital and was now heading to the beach house.
“This is my biggest fear,” she said, sounding shaken. “I’m scared all the time for her.”
The mood darkened and the interview seemed beside the point. But as she does so smoothly on her show, DeGeneres shifted gears, asking her chef for an iced tea, and explained how her wife had helped her with her new special, attending every performance, giving feedback and appearing onstage.
DeGeneres said her wife also had a note about this interview. “Portia said: Just remember, the nicer they are, the more they are going to screw you,” DeGeneres said, smiling disarmingly.
Unsure how to respond, I replied awkwardly: “That’s good advice.” Then I started feeling self-conscious and several minutes later, asked my least-nice question, about the tabloid stories featuring anonymous complaints that she isn’t always kind to those she works with. “That bugs me if someone is saying that because it’s an outright lie,” she said. “The first day I said: ‘The one thing I want is everyone here to be happy and proud of where they work, and if not, don’t work here.’ No one is going to raise their voice or not be grateful. That’s the rule to this day.”
DeGeneres said that she stopped reading her press years ago, but that she knows what people say. “I hear Portia and I are divorcing every other week or having a baby or whatever,” she said, shaking her head.
Minutes later, as if on cue, de Rossi entered in full riding gear, cutting a glamorous figure in jodhpurs and dark sunglasses. DeGeneres embraced her and shouted, “Baby, stop riding horses!”
De Rossi seemed unscathed, although her condition would worsen the next day, when she would have trouble concentrating. (She’s doing better, but is still healing.) And as she bantered lovingly with her wife, she seemed charming and at ease, talking effusively about the special. “She’s just a bit more complicated than she appears on the show,” de Rossi said. “There’s more range of emotion.“
DeGeneres recently took the option to extend her contract — until the summer of 2020 — although she had been close to declining. On the question of leaving, she changes her mind all the time. Her brother has been an advocate for staying on, making the case that in the age of Trump, the country needs her positive, unifying voice on television every day.
“She gets mad when my brother tells me I can’t stop,” DeGeneres said, glancing over at de Rossi to see if she’s gone too far.
“I just think she’s such a brilliant actress and standup that it doesn’t have to be this talk show for her creativity,” de Rossi said. “There are other things she could tackle.”
DeGeneres, who has largely done voice work in film, most famously as Dory in “Finding Nemo,” said she would love to do another movie and play “someone unappealing”; her wife mentions doing radio or a podcast.
“I don’t see the end of her show as her career ending,” de Rossi said.
DeGeneres smiled and considered the comment for a second. But she skipped the kindest response and went straight for the laugh: “You have a concussion. What do you know?”