Today, Ellen Degeneres is most recognizable from her Emmy winning daytime talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Last year, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then President Barack Obama. Before that, she made headlines by coming out as a lesbian on her own sitcom, Ellen. In 1997, over 40 million people watched as she told Oprah Winfrey, who played her therapist, about her feelings towards the same sex. This was almost two decades before the Equal Marriage Act. Previous to having any hit show, Degeneres was a stand-up with cracks about her family and using puns. Her growth and success qualify her an obvious game changer.
The Louisiana native was born January 26, 1958. She has an older brother who currently works for her production company. The family was conservative following a Christian Scientist ideology: no drinking, no smoking, and no cursing. Around when Ellen turned 13, her parents split. The young teen stayed with her mother. The two shared an apartment, during which time, Degeneres grew up fast. The comedian has described herself as being a quiet kid who developed a sense for funny as she aged. At some point, she noticed people’s behavior and weird things they would do like writing the word “over” at the bottom of a note that finishes on the back or asking someone to taste food that has gone bad for reassurance. As Ellen began to voice these observations, she realized she was funny, and when her mom became diagnosed with breast cancer, this skill became especially important.
The comic’s first act on stage actually happened at a fundraiser. After some encouragement from friends, she went up to the microphone, but she also brought up a burger, fries, and a shake. She started, “This is my first time being on stage and I have to admit, I’m a little nervous. I didn’t know what I was going to say, and I realized I hadn’t eaten all day, so I hope you don’t mind — I stopped and grabbed something to eat on the way.” As she continued, she interrupted the bit by eating and commenting on chowing down, “Oh, that is good. That’s better.” The crowd played along, and Ellen would restart the sentence. She closed by eating the whole meal and never completing her original thought. The rookie was so successful that she got booked at a local coffeehouse.
She worked the New Orleans circuit while painting houses, bartending, and waitressing. By 1986, she appeared for the first time on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Watching the act, she is clearly influenced by some of comedy’s finest: Steve Martin, Woody Allen, Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett, and Lucille Ball. She riffs clean material using word play and outlandish scenarios. The topper is when she finishes a silly bit with something so obvious. It garners laughter. Such as on that premier TV appearance, “My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was 60. She’s 97 today. We don’t know where the hell she is. [applause break] I’m kidding. We know where she is. She’s in prison. [more applause] I’m kidding again. I kid a lot because I’m a comedian.” Her matter-of-fact delivery still provokes laughter.
Today, Ellen delivers great monologues, sketches, and running jokes on her tv show. Usually clad in sneakers accompanied with supercool dance moves, her humor is still full of just as much wit as when she started. While Degeneres purposefully refrains from politics, she recently blew up the internet from a segment of her show where she coyly relates the moral lessons in Finding Dory back to the latest policy in banning immigrants. Her motives for sharing such an idea evidently originates from the phrase she uses to end each taping, and the mantra that makes her stand out so brightly, “Be kind to one another.”