Ellen DeGeneres delivers TV stand-up special, reveals battle with depression
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There’s one key difference between Daytime Ellen and Stand-Up Ellen.
“Ellen on the show gives stuff away, and Ellen on stage doesn’t,” deadpans DeGeneres, 60, who returns to her comedy roots with Netflix’s “Relatable” (streaming Tuesday), her first stand-up special since 2003’s “Here and Now.”
Most of the material in her hour-long set would be equally at home on her syndicated daytime talk show: observational humor about vacation expectations vs. reality, prescription-drug ads and exchanging funny pet videos with her wife, actress Portia de Rossi. There’s even an extended bit in which she ardently twerks to Juvenile’s “Back That Thang Up,” although she nixed her now-famous dancing on TV.
But there are also refreshing moments of candor. DeGeneres emotionally details how the death of a former girlfriend led to her first stand-up material, and her years-long battle with depression after she came out as gay and ABC canceled her sitcom, “Ellen,” in 1998. She drops a rare F-bomb, too, while jokingly bemoaning the holes in her favorite socks, earning deafening cheers from the crowd.
“Relatable” was filmed during an eight-night stand-up tour last August in San Diego, Seattle and San Francisco.
Q. Why did now feel like the right time to return to stand-up? Had it been on your mind for a while?
A. No, not at all. I didn’t even think about it, and my agent said, “What would you think of doing stand-up again?” And I was like, “I don’t know. I have no idea what I’d talk about.” It was sort of like, why would I decide all of a sudden to host the Oscars? It’s something (different to try) if I feel like I’m getting complacent and not creative enough. The show is great, but it’s a well-oiled machine, and we pretty much have it down. I just wanted to challenge myself.
Q. You bookend your special with this idea of being relatable: how some people may not think you are anymore because of your wealth and celebrity, but we’re really all the same. Why did you choose to frame your set around that theme?
A. Because we’re all relatable. I didn’t have money for a long, long time. I’ve been doing this (talk) show for a long time and now I do have money, but I’ve always been the same person. Just because we have different experiences, at the core we’re all the same.
Q. You speak frankly throughout your set about feeling depressed and alienated in Hollywood after coming out. What helped you get through that period?
A. Meditation and being quiet. For a long time, there was a lot of fear that (being gay) was going to influence people’s opinions about me and and so I didn’t ever have the confidence that I should have had. Because whenever you carry shame around, you just can’t possibly be a confident person. It took a while to shake off that judgment and the attacks I felt. And once that was gone, I realized I didn’t have anything to be ashamed of anymore; that no matter what, I was fully honest with myself and that gave me confidence. I think that helps with depression. Depression eats away at your confidence and you get lost in that, and forget that you’re enough just as you are.
Q. Were there any comedians or other people in the industry who supported you during that time?
A. No, not really. You know, I also hadn’t been doing stand-up during that period because I was doing a sitcom for five years, so it wasn’t like I was still in that world of comedy then, either. Obviously, I had close friends that did and people I worked with on the sitcom, like Laura Dern and Oprah (who had a cameo in the “coming out” episode). But I moved out of L.A. and I was on my own, so I didn’t really reach out. If you ever have experienced depression, you isolate yourself and don’t reach out for help. You don’t say, “I’m hurting, I need help” – you kind of crawl further into that dark hole, so that’s where I was for a while.
Q. How has stand-up changed in the 15 years you’ve been away from it? Do you feel that audience tastes have gotten more sophisticated?
A. Obviously, there’s some great, sophisticated comedians. Trevor Noah is really smart and has a great special (Netflix’s “Son of Patricia”) out right now. It depends on where you go and who your audience is. I would like to think my audience is sophisticated. I was hoping (they didn’t all buy tickets) just because it was Ellen from the talk show. But a lot of people have followed my stand-up from the beginning, and (they) were excited to go back and see that.
Q. Comedians are also held to higher standards now, in terms of what is or isn’t politically correct. Looking back, are there any past jokes that you wouldn’t tell today?
A. I’ve never done anything that’s hurt anybody or made fun of anybody. And if I had, I certainly learned a lot from being on the other end of being made fun of after I came out. So that would have changed me. I mean, I don’t remember every single joke that I’ve ever told, but I don’t think I would look at anything and think it was politically incorrect.
Q. Aside from one bit about wanting to curl up in the fetal position every time you read a newspaper, you don’t touch on politics or current events in the special. Have you ever thought about being more topical in your comedy?
A. No, I never have. I’m not a political person. Obviously, when there’s somebody that’s hurting other people and not supporting equality, then that’s something I’m going to talk about. But it’s really not about politics and I don’t ever think about that. I mean, I didn’t think about it when I came out – that was not a political move, that was just my personal choice. And that (joke) is really just a comment on what’s going on in the world today. All kinds of things make me want to curl up in a fetal position.
Q. You recently said that you’ve considered ending your talk show when your contract is up in 2020. Are you feeling the itch to move on to something new?
A. I don’t know. Look, I love the show and I’ve always said (I’ll do it) as long as I still enjoy it and it’s still stimulating to me. I’m a creative person: I started in stand-up and (comedy) writing, so that’s really at the core of who I am and I don’t ever want to lose that. I haven’t really decided yet what I’m going to do. But I miss doing films. I would love to do a movie. I don’t have time to do much else, because I have (NBC’s “Ellen’s Game of Games”), and my brand and a production company and a digital company that’s growing, so I’m limited on time. That’s the only thing that would inform my decision.
Q. Could you ever see yourself doing another sitcom?
A. No, I don’t think so.
Patrick Ryan, USA TODAY
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