Kind and DeGeneres
Ellen takes the show on the road
By Davina Baum
Some people think that cow tipping is pretty damn funny. Others might get all giggled up from a bumper sticker that says “I Break for Lunch” or a poster of a kitten hanging from a branch with a “Hang In There” tag line. Jokes about priests and rabbis usually go over pretty well at the water cooler, whereas dumb-blonde jokes seem to have lost the sheen they once had.
We like to laugh. We even make up little words for laughing, such as “ha” and “tee-hee.” Comedy is a marvelous thing. Remember the first time you saw a Monty Python movie? Remember bonding with someone over episodes of Laverne and Shirley. Remember Gallagher? I’m not sure he was so funny, but he certainly wasted a lot of watermelons. Watermelons are funny. Tee-hee.
It’s hard to write an introduction to an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, because–sadly, despairingly–I am not as funny as she is. From her early standup routines to the breakout hit Ellen to the more recent (and less of a hit) The Ellen Show, she has carved out a niche in the funny world.
Isn’t it hard to be funny all the time? This might have been a question to ask Ellen (yeah, I call her Ellen), but I didn’t ask it. I also didn’t ask about Anne Heche, Ellen’s ex-girlfriend who now has a husband and a baby and a memoir. I was gently steered away from such questions. You will also not find much mention of Rosie O’Donnell and the shocking declaration that she is gay. Yeah, she’s gay. Is it really news?
Here’s news: Ellen DeGeneres does not want to be an astronaut. Also, she might be losing her mind. You heard it here first.
I’ve been struggling with whether I should show due respect and call you Ms. DeGeneres, or whether I could go with my gut and call you Ellen.
Ellen, just Ellen.
In the same vein, can you comment on the familiarity that comes with the cult of celebrity?
Actually, I’m kind of more surprised, I guess, when people call me Ms. DeGeneres. I kind of understand a little bit, but I rarely call anybody by their last name.
I think that what I do for a living is to try to represent everybody and say that we’re all basically the same. I mean, we all have our differences, but there’s a core to all of us. So it’s fine that everybody calls me Ellen and feels that they know me. I think they do know me; when I’m onstage doing whatever I do, I’m pretty much myself. I mean, they certainly don’t know all aspects of me; there’s a lot more that they don’t see. But I think that pretty much I am who I appear to be, so people do feel like they know me.
What about other celebrities? I mean someone like Sean Penn, for example, who obviously wants to hide a lot.
First of all, he’s not a comedian. I think that when you’re a comedian it’s different, because–and especially if you do observational things about life–it’s really important to your material, to you as an artist, to stay as grounded and as in touch with reality as you can. One of the reasons I’m coming back on the road is that I had gone too long without being on the road before my last tour two years ago, and I find that you can really isolate yourself when you’re in this business; it certainly takes you to another level and what your experiences are–do you go to the grocery store, do you fill your own gas tank. … I mean, most people have assistants who do everything for them.
I think it’s important, especially as a comedian, to get your material from life experiences. When you get to be famous, when you have a lot of money, you’re more and more in a bubble. So Sean Penn–I know him somewhat and he’s a really nice guy, but he’s a very private person and also he’s not a comedian–all of his roles are really different; he’s more of a blank slate. I’ve learned my lessons the hard way, that sometimes that’s really the best thing. The audience wants to perceive you the way they want, they want to make you their fantasy, and as soon as you start labeling yourself and identifying yourself as gay or Democrat or vegetarian or whatever, you start narrowing down people because they have opinions of you. I understand the privacy issue completely. It’s a little too late for me.
Can you me what’s going on with The Ellen Show?
I’m willing to wager it’s not going to come back, and so if that happens I have a second position, something that I’m going to do if the show doesn’t come back, but I can’t talk about it yet. I’m starting the tour in Santa Rosa, so I won’t have the information then, but somewhere in the middle of the tour I will [be able to] reveal it.
And why do you think the show, if it isn’t continuing–what it is about it that hasn’t allowed it to be successful?
Well, I don’t think Friday night was a good night for me. My show is a little edgier and a little hipper. Most shows on CBS are family shows, and although my show, in my opinion, is a family show–it’s about going home again and living with your mom and sister–it’s not the same kind of thing as the shows that are on now. So I think that would probably be the reason for it.
It’s hard, it’s so hard to get a good cast together, a good idea. I thought we had that: Cloris [Leachman] was great, everybody on the show was great. When you have a first-year show, you definitely have a lot of work to do. You find out what works, what doesn’t. Look at any show. The first year is always rough. So there are definitely things I would change, and if we come back I’ll change those things and I’ll make it funnier and better and just keep working harder. But if it doesn’t, I gotta keep moving.
As far as your tour goes, how do you develop your material?
Originally, I just wanted to get back on the road, and I just thought, ‘Why am I worried about doing new material?’ There are a lot of comedians who go out and just kind of do a combination of a lot of old stuff. There’s some of that stuff that I really love doing and I miss doing. So that was my initial idea, just going on the road and doing a combination of the last [HBO] special, which was The Beginning, and then older material that people still come up to me and say, you know, that airline stuff or that hunting stuff, or whatever it was. I’m also trying to write some new stuff and blend it in.
I’m my worst critic. I tear things apart before they even get down on paper. So I’m a really slow writer, and the process for me is torture. It’s not like when you’re writing music: You get together with a band and you jam and play back and forth and come up with what the song is. With me, to be by myself and just all of a sudden go, ‘What’s the deal with shoes?’–you know, it just doesn’t come out like that; I have to be around people and expand as I start talking about the subject. I have that horrible procrastination thing that I’m sure you can identify with–any writer can–and I’ve learned to just accept it; it’s baking in there somewhere.
And that’s sort of what the beginning of this tour [will be like]. I don’t know if they’re lucky people or unlucky. The beginning of the tour is basically going to be me on stage with a notebook trying to remember my stuff. Because even my stuff from The Beginning, the last HBO special–I haven’t done it since I did it, and that was all brand new stuff. I wrote that and did it in 35 cities, and then filmed it in New York for HBO and that was it–I just walked away from it. I only did it 35 times.
I’m getting onstage here at the Knitting Factory [in Los Angeles], which is a really tiny club that I’ve actually never even been to, to just get onstage and really try to rough it out. And then I’m coming to Santa Rosa. And the lucky folks in that audience will see the birthing process. Most comedians get onstage at the Improv or the Comedy Club and just do a few minutes to try stuff out. I don’t do that. I trust my gut enough to know that it’s good enough to be in front of 3,000 people.
What do you think is funny? What makes you laugh?
Right now, Liza Minnelli and her new husband. They make me laugh. It’s not so much make me laugh–I am just in awe. I cannot get over that whole situation, and I would love to be a fly on the wall and just see what the hell is going on there.
Were you at the wedding?
No, I don’t know her. I mean, I’ve said hello to her, but I don’t know her. And I imagine if I had been in New York and run in to her just recently, I would have been invited because they were just trying to get every celebrity they could there. And I keep forgetting to ask Rosie [O’Donnell]. I keep talking to Rosie, and I keep forgetting to ask her because she went.
But what makes me laugh is the stuff that I do–obviously I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was funny. I like observational things, human behavior; it just doesn’t get any funnier than that. And the hard part of it is to see the humor, because sometimes human behavior is just plain cruel. There’s a part of me that is just so extremely sensitive to all of life, whether it’s people chopping trees down or the stuff you see on the news, the violence, and what obviously is happening to our world since Sept. 11. There’s a part of me that’s so sensitive that I am kind of paralyzed with finding humor in any of it; it’s just not funny. Then I go to the absurd things like, ‘What if I’m out of cheese, and they’re out of cheese.’
Like today, I got out of my car–I left the keys in it because I was in one of those parking garages you have to leave the keys in–and I got out of the car and I hadn’t put it in park and it started rolling, and the guy was screaming, running, it was going right into his Harley-Davidson. So the two of us are trying to stop my car. And I don’t know what is funny about it yet. . . . Maybe it’s that I was on my way to the gym, and so my heart was racing so fast I felt like I really didn’t need to do anything, my cardio was just fine.
And that may be something I talk about onstage in Santa Rosa. That was bad. I am losing my mind. I just notice that I’m doing more things like that, and I think at what point do I start worrying about myself; when is it not comedy material but [time to] see a doctor.
Where do you draw the line, or do you draw the line, between activism and comedy? Do you consider yourself an activist?
No, not at all. No. My mother’s more of an activist than I am. I think in the beginning, when I first came out, I thought I was going to save the world, I’m going to do whatever I can because I’m aware of these horrible atrocities. And I tried. It’s interesting, because I got criticized from a lot of extreme gay groups–who do I think I am, I’m not doing anything–and it was just outrageous. I just was trying to do what I could.
And I got attacked by a lot of heterosexual people for changing so drastically, and suddenly I wasn’t funny anymore–everything was gay this and gay that. It’s a really hard line to walk. I certainly never turn my back on anything that I can help with and I definitely do my part and show up at events and charities, but I certainly know that there’s a price to pay if you really trying to entertain people–which is really my priority, it’s what I got into this business for.
I really love to make people laugh. To me, that feels like a contribution. I think it’s so important and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to get back on the road, because not only does it get me back to who I am but also it’s healing. I think we need to laugh, and I love that I can do that. And on the other hand, I feel like there’s a very unfair, unbalanced world out there, and it’s not just against gays: It’s against people of color, it’s against all kinds of people who aren’t considered the “norm.” It’s a really hard thing to try to balance both.
I think what everyone wondered the last time–I hadn’t done standup since I came out–is, was I going to be political. It didn’t change me in that way, it didn’t change my sense of humor, it didn’t change me onstage and as a performer. It changed me as a person to come out, but it certainly didn’t change what I find funny and who I am. And I think that’s what people had a hard time with–to think suddenly I’m a different person. I really wasn’t but people saw me getting involved. And shortly after that Matthew Shepard was killed, and there was a lot of stuff I was speaking out against. It gets you in trouble.
So I think there are a lot of people who do far more political work and they’re great at it. And I think that what my gift is, what I’m supposed to do, is entertain people and be funny, and at the same time stand up and be proud that I happen to also be a gay person, and I’m going to represent that as a funny person.
Who are your role models?
Oprah. I think that Oprah is god. I don’t know, I think that there are others that I’ll think about later. Like at three in the morning, I’ll wake up and think, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’
Just give me another call, any time.
Yeah, well, hopefully I won’t be at work then. How do you see your career progressing? Where do you want to go from here?
Well, I know where I want to go, but I can’t talk about it yet.
Like be an astronaut? Is that what it is?
That’s right, I want to go to space! Yeah, I don’t think I want to be an astronaut. But I do know what I want to do, and unfortunately I can’t reveal it yet. But it seems like when you hear it you’ll say, that’s the obvious progression, that’s obviously what she’ll do.
Ellen DeGeneres performs at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts on April 22, 23, and 24. Tickets are available at the LBC box office, 50 Mark West Springs Road in Santa Rosa. You can also call 707.546.3600 or get them online at www.lbc.net or www.tickets.com. Tickets are $35-$65.
From the April 4-10, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.