In 1982, when she was just starting out as a comic, Ellen DeGeneres was named the “Funniest Person in America” by Showtime. As she tells an audience member during the Q&A session that ends her new Netflix special, it was not a blessing.
“I won the title of ‘Funniest Person in America,’ which is a horrible title to have when you have 10 minutes of material and you’re really nobody,” DeGeneres explains. When she would perform at “some place next to a yogurt shop in a strip mall” and be introduced that way, the audience was inevitably disappointed. “That wasn’t fun, that was really bad,” she adds.
Now, at 60 years old, DeGeneres is back with her first new stand-up special in 15 years. Relatable, which arrives on Netflix this Tuesday, emphasizes just how much has changed in both the comedian’s life and the world at large since 2003, when she may have actually been the funniest person in America.
These days, as host of the most successful daytime talk show since Oprah, DeGeneres rarely gets to show off just how funny she can be. With rare exceptions, The Ellen DeGeneres Show is more likely to make audience members dance, scream or cry than laugh the way this writer did when DeGeneres acted out how she eats popcorn in a movie theater during her previous HBO special Here and Now.
Rather than pretend she’s still the type of person who goes to the movies and eats popcorn, DeGeneres leans into her comically privileged existence, making jokes about the opulence of her home and how she’s not sure whether or not planes go back more than 10 rows.
Like on her talk show, DeGeneres prefers to stay almost entirely apolitical during her special, so don’t expect any Trump jokes. The closest she comes is a bit about the expression “curl up with a good book.” She notes that we never say that we’re going to “curl up” with a magazine, adding, “Although when I read the newspaper, I curl up in the fetal position, that’s for sure.”
The only political issue she really gets into, if you can call it that, is her sexual orientation and the “cage” she was in before she decided to be honest about who she was.
“I am still gay, by the way,” she says at one point before comically bowing in gratitude to the crowd. DeGeneres opens up about how much easier it is to be a lesbian now than it was when she first decided to come out in the mid-’90s. “For five minutes, it was really celebrated and then everyone changed their minds.”
During a bit about a fake infomercial for “Gay,” she says, “Side effects may include loss of family, loss of friends and unemployment,” referring to the cancelation of her sitcom shortly after her character came out.
In response to a station manager who actually told her “no one’s going to watch a lesbian during the day,” she replies, “Well, they weren’t watching me at night. What time of day is good for a lesbian?” She even jokes that she started giving free stuff away on her show to distract from the fact that she was a “lesbian during the day.”
At times, the special relies too heavily on visual gimmicks, for instance showing the cute animal Instagram posts that she and her wife Portia de Rossi send back and forth to each other or even worse, photos from their vacations together. Segments like those feel like they could belong on her talk show, but the most compelling moments of the special are when she veers away from the expected.
“A few years ago, I started ending my show by saying, ‘Be kind to one another,’” she says to huge cheers from the adoring crowd. Then comes the thought that wouldn’t make it onto daytime TV: “Here’s the downside. I can never do anything unkind now.”
As the “be kind girl,” DeGeneres says that she might as well not have a horn in her car because she can never get caught using it. She jokes that when a stranger tries to hand her their baby to hold she refuses because she wouldn’t want it to ruin her cashmere.
“That and the dancing, that was a mistake, too,” she adds, expressing some level of regret for how much she made dancing part of her on-screen persona. “I’m not a dancer. I just danced as a joke,” she insists. “Baryshnikov doesn’t get asked to dance as much as I get asked to dance.” Of course, that doesn’t stop her from dancing to Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” later in the special.
Like she did on a recent episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, DeGeneres also talks about what it was like to lose her first girlfriend to a fatal car accident when she was just 21 years old. She recounts writing her first ever stand-up bit in the aftermath of that tragedy and telling herself that she would one day perform it on The Tonight Show and be the first female comic ever to be called over to the couch by Johnny Carson.
It took just five years for that fantasy to come true, and she plays the clip for the audience during her special as proof. “That was before I got my new voice,” she jokes of her timid, high-pitched thank you to Carson.
As refreshing as it is to hear DeGeneres open up in a more nakedly honest way than we are used to seeing, she’s at her purest comedically in the special when she returns to the type of observational humor that made her famous in the first place. A bit in which she acts out the odd behavior of people trying on shoes is not only “relatable” but irresistibly funny.
But again, it’s the incongruity of America’s sweetest daytime talk show host undercutting her sunny image that gets one of the biggest laughs of the night. It comes when she’s talking about wearing socks with a hole in them to someone’s house and then realizing they have a “shoes-off policy.” DeGeneres looks around awkwardly for more more than a few seconds before casually dropping a rare uncensored f-bomb to both the audience’s and her own delight: “I’ve got to get the fuck out of here.”