From Hopeful to Household Name

Jan 27, 2008  •  Post A Comment

She has achieved a measure of fame reserved for a select few: She’s known to millions simply by her first name. From her scrappy beginnings as a standup comic to her acclaimed work as host of her syndicated daytime talk show, Ellen DeGeneres has far exceeded her own expectations in show business.
A native of Metairie, La., Ms. DeGeneres began doing standup in the early 1980s, landing a coveted spot on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” in 1986. Eight years later, she was starring in the ABC sitcom “Ellen,” where she broke new ground in television by coming out as a gay woman on the program and, at the same time, coming out in real life.
After the show was canceled in 1998, Ms. DeGeneres went back on the road as a comedian, then reinvented herself as one of the premier awards show hosts of recent years, using her comedic talents to wow critics and audiences alike. She emceed two Grammy Awards and two Emmy Awards broadcasts—most notably hosting the Emmys in 2001 after the show was postponed twice following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Last year she hosted the Academy Awards, completing the awards show trifecta.
Just before the debut of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in 2003, she received rave reviews for voicing a fish named Dory in the animated film “Finding Nemo.”
The accolades quickly accumulated. Ms. DeGeneres’ talk show has received 21 Daytime Emmy Awards, winning outstanding talk show four years in a row and talk show host three years in a row. She has won seven People’s Choice Awards, including three apiece as talk show host and funny female star.
A Harris Poll released this month showed Ms. DeGeneres as the most popular television personality, dethroning Oprah Winfrey from the perch she held in the survey for five years.
Ms. DeGeneres talked recently with TelevisionWeek correspondent Hillary Atkin about a wide range of topics, including her groundbreaking sitcom, the success of her talk show and her decision to go to work during the writers strike. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.
TelevisionWeek: Tell me about the beginning of your career and being on Johnny Carson’s show.
Ms. DeGeneres: When I started writing comedy, I was living in a one-room basement apartment and I wrote a film called “The God.” I had fleas all over the place, and when I finished writing it I said to myself, “I’m going to do this on Johnny Carson. I’m going to be the first woman in the history of the show that he asks to sit down on the first appearance.” And a few years later I was the first woman in the history of the show that he asked to sit down, which was incredible, because I said it and it happened. And you know, every time I saw somebody funny on there I was like, “Oh, he’s gonna ask Roseanne to sit down. He’s gonna ask her to sit down.” I was so panicked that it wasn’t gonna happen. So it was incredible. He changed my life.
TVWeek: How would you describe your unique brand of humor?
Ms. DeGeneres: I don’t know that I can ever get perspective on who I am to other people. I know who I am and how I feel inside, and I know that it’s kind. It’s not mean-spirited humor—it’s not a joke at someone else’s expense. I’ve never been interested in that. So I know that it’s nice humor, and sometimes it’s silly, and sometimes it’s smart, but other than that I don’t know how to label it.
TVWeek: You have won so many awards, including 21 Daytime Emmys, as well as a Primetime Emmy and People’s Choice Awards. Your humor and you as a personality have resonated both with your peers and with the public. What do you attribute this to?
Ms. DeGeneres: I think it really comes down to honesty. And I think that people respond to that, because I think both my peers and the public know that who I am is really what they see, it really is who I am. I guess that resonates with people. I think people always are attracted to honesty and truth.
Believe me, every single night before I go to bed I’m filled with gratitude, and when I wake up in the morning I’m filled with gratitude and can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next. I want to be able to do everything and anything. And I don’t know what that means yet. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but whatever it is, if it’s inspiring and creative, I’d like to take it on.
TVWeek: Your talk show has been on for five years now. What has that experience been like?
Ms. DeGeneres: It’s been amazing. I think everything [before this] has been such wonderful groundwork for me. To be able to do standup for 15 years and be spontaneous and think on my feet and interact with people—that was a big part of it; it wasn’t just me talking to a room full of people. I always ended every performance with talking to the audience and taking questions, because I love talking to people and hearing what they were interested in, what was on their minds.
So to have 15 years of that and then to be able to be in the business long enough, hosting shows and having the sitcom—the talk show just seemed like an obvious progression. And also coming out. That was really hard because in a way it limited me as far as what I could do acting-wise. Because once people knew I was gay and once I was too established as a person, it was hard to hide behind the characters. So I didn’t know where my career was going to go, really. And so to be able to be myself, to be able to feel comfortable enough to be open about who I am and talk to people every single day, is just the greatest job in the world for me right now. I love what I do.
TVWeek: The talk show was something of a comeback for you after your sitcom “Ellen” went off the air. How were you able to make it happen?
Ms. DeGeneres: If somebody would have told me this was going to happen after my sitcom got canceled and I didn’t work for a few years….
It was a tough sell, this show. I had to go around and write another HBO special and go on tour, and we had to convince station managers. We had to get them to come see me so that they could see what my humor was and what my show was.
Jim Paratore and Telepictures believed in me and worked really hard for us to go on tour and invite the station managers in every city and every market and ask them to please buy the show when no one thought that women or daytime viewers would watch a gay woman.
It was interesting, because I knew who I was and I knew what I wanted to do, and I know what I represent, and it was a very interesting experience to try to sell this show. So to be in this ranking, and it’s not only accepted but we’re celebrated and rewarded in all the ways we’ve been rewarded, it feels good because it’s everything I’ve wanted to do. It’s everything I knew I could do—I knew what the show was going to be, and every year it surpasses my expectations. So I feel proud and I feel good because, like I said, it was a show that a lot of people doubted would make it. You know, there are very few talk shows that actually stick. So it’s been an interesting journey and I bet it’s going to get even more interesting in the next five years. I just can’t wait to see what happens.
TVWeek: Some of your peers seem to be excessively branded, but you have avoided that for the most part. What are your thoughts about branding yourself as a personality?
Ms. DeGeneres: I think [it’s OK] if you can do something that makes sense. There’s one thing that will be announced in probably the next month that I’m doing, but it makes total sense because it’s me and it’s something I’m passionate about. But for the most part, I’ve kind of waited to see what the right thing is. It’s not like I haven’t had offers to do perfumes or a clothing line or other things. I work a lot; I say a lot, too. So I have to really try to limit. American Express has been a great partner because they’re creative. It’s another creative outlet for me and it’s something that I actually use, and I like the company.
TVWeek: Talk about your blog and your use of new media. Where are you with that?
Ms. DeGeneres: I’m able to hit send, so I’m coming along. I mean, we try to do video blogs, and I host my lunch every single day just because it’s so interesting and attractive. We started doing that just as a joke. But that’s not my area of expertise. We’re probably not into it as much as we should be or can be, and that may change. But for the most part, my focus is on the show every single day. It’s not as much on the Internet.
TVWeek: What is your feeling about the reaction you got from moving forward with your show during the writers strike?
Ms. DeGeneres: I understand that when people don’t know the facts and they’re just looking from a distance, and they don’t take the time to research what my situation was … you know, it just looked like I went back to work and I didn’t care, didn’t support the strike. So it hurt me that people didn’t know the facts and it hurt me that there weren’t more people stepping forward and trying to explain what my situation was.
But [it’s] the same reason that Oprah didn’t go down or any other syndicated daytime show didn’t go down: I didn’t go down because I can’t. I wouldn’t have had a show to come back to, and 140 employees here wouldn’t have had work and wouldn’t have had a show. I’m under a different contract and I didn’t have a choice. So it hurt my feelings because people didn’t understand and I wish that they did. But other than that, I knew I was doing the right thing and the only thing, and I came to work and we’re just plowing away here.
TVWeek: Are there certain moments that stand out to you from your five years of doing the talk show?
Ms. DeGeneres: You know, every single day there’s something new. Every day there’s some moment that happens that’s fun, that makes me laugh really, really hard. And that’s what I love about the show—it doesn’t matter who the guests are or … what’s supposed to happen that day, because I’m trying to be in the moment and I just let happen whatever is going to happen. There’s always something that is a great moment for me.


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