The Comedy Couch

 ELLEN DEGENERES - April 26, 2002

GUY MACPHERSON: My sister's in town and she asked me
what I was doing today. And I told her I was
interviewing you by phone. And she had a very
interesting question I hadn't thought of. She asked,
'How will you know it's really her and not someone
she's hired to do interviews?'
ELLEN DEGENERES: (laughs) Well, because I think
everybody knows my voice pretty well.

GM: Yeah. My sister's a little strange.
ED: Yeah, she's paranoid.

GM: I think so. And cynical.
ED: Yeah. I think she should start learning to trust
more.

GM: I'll tell her... I'm really happy that you're
doing standup again because you're so good at it.
ED: Well, thank-you. I'm happy I'm doing it, too.

GM: Are you?
ED: Yeah, I am. It's so much fun. I mean, I kind of
get tired sometimes of
saying the same thing over and over again, you know?
And I think about
people that have a hit song in bands that have to tour
and do... But I can
play a lot -- because it really is just me up there
and the audience -- I can kind of play with it a
little bit. You can't change the rhythm too much or
the wording because that's the whole point of what
makes it good. But that's the only thing. But this
isn't a long tour. This is 24 cities, so it's not that
bad. The last tour two years ago was 35 cities and it
was in a short amount of time because I was leading up
to my HBO special, so that was a hectic schedule. But
I just started last week, so, really, up until
Wednesday night, I was still trying to find what the
set was because, unlike musicians, I can't really
stand in my house and rehearse. My rehearsal process
is on the stage.

GM: Hearing the audience?
ED: Hearing the audience and seeing the pace and
whether some things
should go further back. Because it should start
relatively slow because
I'm walking on stage and they need an adjustment
period that I'm there
and I'm talking. So if I started out with something
that's supposed to be
like a huge killer joke, it would be lost. It's like
composing music, basically. It's really kind of
putting the tone and the pace and everything together.
So until Wednesday night I really didn't even have an
ending. I was just struggling. I didn't know how I was
going to end it because I always like to have a theme
and I like to tie it up in a nice way. And so I
finally found it Wednesday night.

GM: Interesting. So by the time, of course, you get to
Vancouver, you'll
be polished.
ED: Yes, I will. I probably won't even have my cheat
sheet with me. I walk
up with a piece of paper right now because I still
don't know the order. I
write it out before I go on stage. And I'm pretty
good. So far I've been okay. I've had to glance down a
couple of times to go, 'What comes next?'
Because I really like to make a smooth transition and
have segues where it
all makes sense. But some of them are kind of tough
for me to make it work to transition into it, so I
have notes to glance down and go, 'Oh,
yeah.'

GM: I wondering about the challenges standup presents
now as opposed
to before you hit the big time. Now you're so
well-known it's a lovefest.
I imagine it's harder to know if something really
works or if they're just
going, 'Aah, Ellen!'
ED: No, because if it's not working, they'll be polite
and they won't boo
me or anything, but they're not going to laugh.
Nobody's going to just
laugh if it's not funny. You know, like if somebody is
wooing way too
much, that, to me, is not a compliment. That's not me
being funny. If
you're laughing, you can't possibly woo at the same
time. So if someone's
wooing, then they're not totally listening or getting
it.

GM: Yeah, that's kind of what happened to Steve
Martin.
ED: Yeah, it's almost insulting. It's like when I see
singers and they get to that one final part of the
song where they're singing this beautiful note and
people start screaming and cheering, it's like,
'Listen to that! That's a beautiful note.' So that's
hard for me when people are coming and they're just
excited because I'm a celebrity or because I'm gay.
You know, like, I have a lot of people that just come
for the wrong reasons.

GM: Wait. You're gay?
ED: (laughs) I know. I hate to break it to you. I
never heard it before. You know, that's hard because I
want people to come for the right reasons. I want
people to come because I'm funny. And hopefully the
last HBO special that I did kind of reminded people
that my humour is not different
because I'm out now. It's like, suddenly I'm not doing
all gay material or
something. I think people worried about that at first.
Like, 'Oh, is she going to be different.'

GM: It's odd because you were gay before, presumably,
and your material
wasn't.
ED: No, but I guess people thought that, 'well now
that she's out, now she
can open up the door and all the gay jokes will come
out.' It's not who I am. I never have done sexual
humour and anybody who has really followed me or knows
my work, it's just very weird, absurd stories that
ramble on, or observational humour. So anyway, that's
the challenge now. It's because I'm known and I want
people to come because they get my humour and get me
and not just because I'm famous or just because I'm
gay.

GM: Is it harder to be funny now? I mean, you've been
at it 20 years --
which is amazing in itself. Because for one, as you
get older people tend
to get more serious. But now you're way more famous.
You're a role model instead of just a standup comic
out there making people laugh. So do you think it's
harder to come up with new material to be funny?
ED: No, I don't think so. I think that if you isolate
yourself... I think as you get older... I don't think
I'm aging in a normal way, anyway. I don't feel like
I'm 44. I feel like that's just a number and I don't
really pay attention to it. I feel a lot smarter now
than I was when I was 30, but I don't feel older. I
just feel smarter. I definitely think that if you're
playing the game of life right, you're just going to
keep adding to your portfolio of who you are and your
personality and you gain more wisdom through
experiences both good and bad. And I think that I've
had a lot of both (laughs) and maybe a little extra
share of bad, and I think it's really helped form who
I am. I appreciate it. I'm grateful for it because
it's taken me to a place that I certainly wouldn't
have chosen to go to those places. But because I did
go to those places, I think that I'm a different
person. But I feel like I'm very young, you know, and
I think that my attitude is very young and youthful. I
think the only thing that stops you from being funny
is isolating yourself from the world so you can't
relate to people because you don't go to the grocery
store anymore; you send your assistant. Or you don't
pump your own gas or you don't have the same
experiences so you don't really know how people are
living at all.

GM: Yeah, that's what Bob Newhart told me. He said
that the more
successful you are, you really have to make a
concerted effort to, I guess, be with the people.
ED: Yeah.

GM: His early routine about riding buses and things,
he said, 'I never
ride buses anymore.'
ED: Right, right.

GM: So how do you get over that?
ED: Well, there are certain things that I can't do and
that I wouldn't do, but you still have that same... I
mean, it's not like he hasn't ridden a bus and he
can't still tell the story and relate to it. But my
humour isn't that way. My humour just comes from when
I hear something anyway, it just goes in that
direction. My brain just works a certain way. I don't
really have a button that I turn on and off. It just
is there. And it happens or it doesn't. My humour
is... Sometimes I write it, sometimes I sit down and I
write a long rambling story, sometimes I'll see
somebody doing something, and I just make note of it,
kind of a mental note and I'll remember to try that on
stage. The theme of this show is basically there's
going to be a lot of stuff that maybe people have seen
before. It's like really older stuff that I haven't
done in a long time that I really missed doing. So a
lot of it is best of. Some of it is stuff they've
never seen because it was never on TV. Some of it is
brand new. The whole first part of the show is new.
And the theme of it is just sort of what's happening
and the pace of life and my take on what's happening,
especially the change since I was growing up and
what's happening in the world. So that's sort of the
theme.

GM: So you really are like a rock band. You're playing
your hits and you're doing some new things.
ED: Yeah. And that's always been a scary thing for me
because you're not
supposed to go out, if you're a comedian, you've gotta
have brand new
stuff all the time, which is some kind of unwritten
rule that I don't know
who made that up. But it's so unfair because musicians
can go and not only can they play... They're expected
to play their old stuff. But they can
play other people's stuff, too. I'm not allowed to do
that! (laughs) I can't do Jerry Seinfeld's material.

GM: You should!
ED: No.

GM: Throw one in there and see who catches it.
ED: No. See, but the thing is, that's the thing, it's
like, some people do
steal and do that. But I'm proud of the fact that I
write all of my own
material. But anyway, it's great because I was a
little nervous about it but a lot of the stuff I'm
finding that some people don't even know stuff that is
my older stuff. They think it's all brand new because
they haven't seen it. It's because I'm really not
doing anything from the last HBO special.

GM: Right, since you have so many new fans, as you
say, you have gay fans
who come out, since you came out, to see you and that
maybe they weren't watching you when you were just a
standup.
ED: Right. They didn't like me until I was gay.

GM: (laughs)
ED: But then... See, those are the people... I don't
know. It's not that I
don't want them. I just want people that have a good
sense of humour and
that are smart and want to go and think about stuff.
Because I don't
spoonfeed my audience. I avoid the lowest common
denominator stuff
because I just feel like the audiences that I like to
have anyway like to
think. They don't want to be hit over the head with a
joke. So I like people
to come out and see me because they get it. And I
think if you see me even hosting the Emmys or doing
anything where you see who I am, that's my humour,
that's who I am. I don't want people to come just
because I'm a celebrity.

GM: Was Bob Newhart an influence?
ED: Huge. Yes.

GM: Yes, because I saw you here the last time you were
here and I was thinking that, not that you were doing
things on the phone like he did, but your one-sided
conversations...
ED: Yeah, I actually do have a phone-call to God. That
was the first thing I ever wrote was A Phone-call To
God. And so a lot of people compared me... Johnny
Carson compared me to Bob Newhart the first time I was
on
the show. That kind of was a subconscious thing
because mainly I was
influenced by Woody Allen and Steve Martin. Those were
my two models.
And I love Bob Newhart and to this day I still love
Bob Newhart. He's just
fantastic. But the Phone-call to God just kind of, you
know, was what I
was really compared to him for.

GM: Who do you like now in comedy? Or do you hear that
much?
ED: I don't pay attention. Now that I have this talk
show that I'm going
to be doing a year from now, I think I'm probably
going to have to start
paying attention and I'll have my talent coordinators
doing all the booking, but I really, hopefully, will
give a lot of comedians... Because
talk shows for a lot of reasons don't really have a
lot of standups anymore. And it used to be that's how
you got your break is doing Johnny
Carson. And you don't really see them on Letterman or
Leno anymore. So
I'm hoping that I'm gonna a lot more attention to
who's out there and try
to get them on the show.

GM: So tell me about this show.
ED: It's TelePictures, who are the same people who did
Rosie O'Donnell's
show. And it's going to be a talk show and it's going
to be on during the
day but I don't know what that means yet. It means
it's just a show that's
on during the day. I would like to think it's the same
kind of show that I
could have at night time. I hope it has the feel of
just a really entertaining hour of me talking to
interesting people. And I have a whole year to put it
together and make it the most spectacular thing that
anyone's ever seen on television.

GM: Excellent. And are you going to do comedy bits? Or
more just interview guests?
ED: I'll probably come out and start with a monologue.
It'll probably start that way. I may try to do some
man on the street stuff because I love stuff like
that. I mean, everyone's telling me, 'You have no idea
how gruelling the schedule is. It's every single day,
five days a week.' And so, depending on how I feel,
I'll get into a rhythm and figure it out. I'd like to
do some stuff that's on the street.

GM: When you were here last, Anne Heche was filming a
documentary.
ED: Yeah.

GM: Did anything come of that?
ED: No.

GM: (pause) Okay. (pause) Nuff said.
ED: Yeah. (laughs)

GM: Now, you're playing 24 cities. I imagine you do
hundreds of these types of interviews -- unless I'm
getting a scoop here.
ED: (laughs) It's only you!

GM: Really! I was just wondering if most are more
about the celebrity, the
love life, than the work. Do they get pretty serious?
ED: Um, sometimes. There was a woman I just talked to
right before you
who was really great. I mean, sometimes it's
interesting. It's like, I'm sure
you talk to people sometimes and you hang up thinking,
you know, that
was just the worst interview ever because they don't
give you anything or
for whatever reason. It's a two-way thing.

GM: It is.
ED: But I talked to this guy that was just... I don't
remember the interview per se, but I just read the
article. They sent it to me. And it was the worst
thing I've ever read in my entire life and I feel like
calling and saying, 'You should do something else for
a living. You are the worst writer I've ever read in
my life.' It was nothing, basically. There weren't
even full sentences that I said, and it had nothing to
do with anything. In the conversation I had mentioned
my 13-year-old Lab had just died, so I was very upset
about that because he was my, you know, dog for 13
years. And so somehow that was a sentence in there.
But it wasn't even a full sentence. And then there was
really nothing, and then it ended. It was just
nothing. It wasn't like it was negative or anything.
It was just the worst thing I've ever read in my life.

GM: But your conversation was great?
ED: No, the conversation was horrible. But it would
have stood out if it had been that bad, that I would
have said, 'Ooh, I'm worried about this
guy.' But it didn't. But I don't know. I think my
point is...

GM: Yes?
ED: I'm gonna try to find one now, that everybody does
something different. The woman I talked to right
before you was great, and she asked
some really kind of interesting questions and she was
kind of all over the
place and she sounded like she was just going to piece
together a profile
on me as a comedian and comedians as a whole. Like,
she wanted to know
about the whole laughing on the outside, crying on the
inside thing that
people have the opinion of. And then, some people just
kind of want to get to the tabloid-type stuff. And,
you know, I just don't talk about it. It's something I
just don't talk about.

GM: Good. There's enough talk about it.
ED: Yeah, there's enough other people talking about
it. And if I wanted to
clear it all up and talk and tell my side, I guess
someday if I feel the need to do that, I will. But,
you know, I feel that it's a private thing that I'm
processing on my own.

GM: Good. Because not all of us care about it.
ED: (laughs) Yeah, I look back to the whole beginning
of all that and I have some perspective on it now, and
I'm like, 'God, no wonder everybody hated me. I'd hate
me too!' (laughs) It was just too much. It was like
everything. It was all too much.

GM: No, it had nothing to do with you. It has to do
with the whole media
frenzy.
ED: People are like, it's just too much information,
too much in your face, too much everything.

GM: Were you happy with the last series? And did you
think it was given a
chance?
ED: Um, no, I don't think it was really given a
chance. But I think it had
potential. I feel like it fell kind of in the middle.
It was neither/nor. It either should have been a
little bit edgier and smarter or... It just kind of...
You know, I'm never going to get the Everybody Loves
Raymond
audience. I'm not going to get the families. I think
there are people that
are still unfortunately still holding on to some old
baggage. I think I'll get them. I think people will
kind of let go of all that, and if something's funny
and if something's good, they will come back
eventually. But I think there was still... And also
the time of, you know, what you were just talking
about, as far as that person, the name you just
mentioned, had a book coming out right before my show
debuted. That didn't help. I think there was a lot of
stuff that people were still holding onto. And I think
that the cast was great and we had great potential. I
think the writing could have been better. And I think
Friday night was a hard night for it. But you know, it
doesn't devastate me. I don't take it personally. I
look at it like, 'Okay, I came back, I tried to do
another show, and it just didn't work.' Whereas, had I
not been in a good place, I think I would have taken
it personally. Like with the last show. The last show
was cancelled and I felt like that was a hard thing
because it felt personal to me because I was gay and
the character was gay, so I just thought, 'Well, they
don't like me, then.' Instead of realizing it just
didn't make it. It was kind of a tough subject for
everybody to digest all at once.

GM: Right. Although if you look at TV shows now, you
really paved the way.
ED: Well, I'm glad for that. I mean, you have shows
like Six Feet Under,
which is just a brilliant show, and Will and Grace is
on. That's fantastic. I think it really is just about
people giving their own time to process, their own
time to digest and go, 'Okay.' It was just too much, I
think, that I came out and the character came out and
the show changed and went in a different direction.

GM: When you started out doing standup, I guess your
goal was to get a
show one day.
ED: No, it really wasn't. I started out before all the
that started happening. Somewhere in the middle when I
was doing that, all of a sudden Roseanne got a show
and somebody else got a show that I knew that was a
standup, and then I thought, 'Oh, that's a
possibility.' It really wasn't my first... When I
first started doing standup, I was just like...
Because I had so many different jobs. You know, I was
painting houses, I worked for a landscaping company, I
shucked oysters, I was a waitress, I mean I did so
many things, and I had no idea...

GM: While you were a stand-up?
ED: No. I didn't know I was going to be a comedian. I
didn't know that was
even an option. I thought being funny was just a
personality trait. I didn't think it was a career
option. And then I stumbled into this club that had
opened because I had done something at a friend's
function, you know, just being funny in front of my
friends. They thought I was funny, which doesn't mean
anything.


 
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