“Nothing has been easy. Not one step of the way has been easy.”
November of 2016 saw a red-eyed, choked up Ellen receiving her Medal of Freedom, the highest American civilian award, from Barack Obama. “It’s easy to forget now just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages 20 years ago,” he said in praise of her. As she says, her journey has not been an easy one, personally and professionally; not before she came out of the closet and definitely not after.
Today, at the age of 58, she is one of the most loved TV personalities for a comic sense that she flaunts on her widely-watched show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show. She has matched moves with Obama and waltzed with John Travolta; she has surprised Beckham with her perfect goals and Woods with her seamless golf techniques; she has made her audience laugh with a sharp wit which comes at her own expense, a comedian ‘rule’ that she has set for herself, of keeping away from mean-spirited comedy. When asked where the positive energy for her show comes from, she replied, in her typical witty style – “The Liquor. I’m sure of it.”
Comedy is no joke
But one hardly ever gets to a good place in life before it beats you down first and draws some blood. It was no different for Ellen. Her stand-up comedy career was literally ‘fuelled’ by blood. The first monologue she wrote was in response to a fatal accident that claimed the life of her first girlfriend. Unable to comprehend the weight of the emotions, especially guilt, that was drowning her, she found an outlet in performance.
She soon started performing in small clubs and coffee houses. In an interview with W Magazine, she proclaimed, “You have to be really, really tough-skinned, because it's hard. There's lots of travelling, lots of being by yourself, lots of really rude drunk people.” By 1988, she had been named Showtime’s ‘Funniest person in America’, had made several tours nationally, and appeared on Jimmy Carson’s Tonight show, where she became the first female comedian to be invited to an onscreen ‘chat’ post the shoot.
When a carefully built career came crashing down
Between the late 1980s and early 1990s Ellen appeared in many films. Her career in the sitcom industry began in 1989 with Open House followed by Laurie Hill, both of which didn’t fare too well. It was only in 1994 that she got her big break with a show called Ellen that put her on the map.
The show did fairly well up until the fourth season when news broke out that Ellen Morgan, the character that Ellen played, was going to come out as gay. The media sharks picked up on this news which fed public anticipation and curiosity, making the coming out episode the highest rated in all four seasons. But the response to the first gay character on television was barely positive as middle-class Americans were horrified at the publicised homosexuality.
When it was Ellen’s turn to come out of the closet, she did so boldly: The cover of the Time Magazine read, “Yep, I’m gay.” She later confessed that she was naïve to think that she would be accepted. What followed was something she could never be prepared for. “I lost my show, and I lost my entire career, and I lost everything for three years.”
Blessing in disguise
Not a single magazine or a news tabloid spared her. She was the butt of every joke, each as excruciating as the stab of a knife. “I guess that's why I'm so sensitive about negative comedy,” she confessed in retrospect. But Ellen feels the three-year-long debacle proved to be a blessing in disguise as it taught her to be strong when all she wanted to do was “crawl up in a ball and climb in a hole and hide forever.”
Crawl she did, but on her way up. She continued stand-up comedy and in 2003, launched The Ellen DeGeneres Show, whose success needs no elaboration. She has since won 28 Daytime Emmy awards, which constitute only a small percent of the recognition she’s received for her show.
Setbacks, tragedies, and misfortunes leave behind a bitter aftertaste, and because it is difficult to forget, it instils a fear for the future. But Ellen, despite her falls, looks ahead comforted by one truth – “I came back once, I’ll come back again.”