40 at 40: long before Ellen DeGeneres had a talk show
27 years after putting her on NOW's cover, Susan G. Cole discusses the ups and down of the career of the "Queen of Nice"
By Susan G. Cole and Glenn Sumi
May 31, 2021
Ellen DeGeneres's style was so casual she posed in pajamas for this 1994 cover.
A couple of weeks ago, Ellen DeGeneres announced that, after 19 seasons, she was leaving her hugely successful daytime talk show. She’s one of those celebrities who seems to have always been around – on her show talking to other famous people, hosting the Emmys or the Oscars.
But exactly 27 years ago, she was a stand-up comic a couple of months into her ABC sitcom These Friends Of Mine – which was soon to be renamed Ellen – and touring her comedy show, which brought her to Massey Hall. And NOW’s Susan G. Cole had a hunch she was about to explode.
“I knew she was on the cusp of something big,” says Cole, NOW’s former senior entertainment editor. “She wasn’t somebody who made you laugh so hard you couldn’t breathe. She had this wry, medium-key humour that was funny and perfect for a TV sitcom so you could move the plot along.”
Although DeGeneres was to make international headlines a few years later with her famous Yep, I’m Gay cover in Time Magazine, Cole doesn’t recall there being any talk in queer circles at the time about her sexual orientation.
“We might have suspected, but it wasn’t a big thing,” she says. “What’s interesting about the 1994 story is the ease with which she was prepared to alter her image in order to make her way into the upper echelons of Hollywood.”
Near the end of the story, Cole even calls her a “fashion victim.” Years later, DeGeneres would take her signature jeans, jacket and sneakers look and adjust it for her famous talk show. The jeans disappeared, but the sneakers stayed.
“And what you can’t tell from the NOW cover is that she was wearing pajamas,” says Cole. “Just like Jodie Foster was wearing pajamas when she won her Golden Globe Award recently.”
Despite prominent lesbian entertainers coming out in the 1990s – kd lang’s infamous Vanity Fair cover appeared in 1993, the same year Melissa Etheridge released her album Yes I Am, and closer to home Canada’s own Elvira Kurt made queer history – there was backlash to DeGeneres’s Time cover. Sponsors pulled out. Angry readers wrote letters. A year later, the sitcom was cancelled.
“Or, the show could have just run its course,” says Cole. “I mean, we’re talking about prime time TV.”
Still, DeGeneres made a couple of savvy moves over the next few years: a brilliant performance hosting the 2001 Emmy Awards (“What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?”); voicing the adorable, forgetful Dory in the Pixar movie Finding Nemo.
“The fact that she could parlay her career into one of the most successful talk shows in TV history is really something,” says Cole. “She had a brand, which was capital-N Nice. She and her producers found new talent – including Canada’s Justin Bieber – and showcased it.”
Then, last year, came a couple of big missteps, says Cole. First, DeGeneres complained about being stuck in her mansion during the pandemic, comparing it to “being in jail.” And a few months later came allegations of bullying, racism and sexual misconduct on her show, which resulted in several senior producers leaving. Suddenly, everyone began questioning her niceness.
“She didn’t invent racism. But she handled [the allegations] really badly. As did just about every white leader in every kind of organization everywhere, whether it was progressive or not.”
What DeGeneres does next is up in the air. She’ll probably continue to produce shows. And she’s still a pretty damn good awards show host.
“I loved that selfie bit she did at the Oscars a few years ago,” says Cole. “She knows how to step back. She understands that the stars are the people getting the awards, not her.”
– Glenn Sumi
Below is Susan G. Cole’s cover story, Hotshot stand-up’s sitcom savvy, republished from NOW’s June 2, 1994 issue.
Stand-up sensation a female front-runner in sitcom sweepstakes
By Susan G. Cole
For a while there, the glut of comedy clubs made it possible for just about anybody to get up on stage and have their 15 minutes. But in these lean 90s, only the best and the brightest – like Ellen DeGeneres – are surviving.
Surviving probably understates her case. Thriving is more like it. After 13 years honing her humour, the New Orleans-born DeGeneres has bagged her own sitcom, These Friends Of Mine, got it renewed – and retitled Ellen, which says a lot – and is heading on to bigger and better venues to deliver her stand-up act. She hits Massey Hall Tuesday (June 7).
DeGeneres, who counts best female stand-up at 1991’s American Comedy Awards among her credits, appeared on The Tonight Show in 1986 and earned the distinction of being the only female comic to be asked by Johnny Carson to sit on the couch after her first appearance.
Fans of the National Film Board documentary Wisecracks will remember her as the relaxed deadpanner with the nifty routine about the social dynamics of riding elevators. The bit is typical of Degeneres’ style – take an everyday situation and strip it down to its bare essentials in order to get at human foibles and frustrations.
But where the five-year-old Wisecracks reveals a rough-edged but endearing talent, DeGeneres now packs more punch and power.
“It’s definitely evolved into a more confident act,” she says on the phone from Atlanta. Don’t ask her about the peach tree blossoms – on a leg of her hectic North American tour, she hasn’t seen the outside of a hotel room in weeks.
“In the old days I used to go onstage and think, ‘Please laugh, please laugh.’ Now I say, ‘Yes, you’re going to laugh.’ And it’s not happening in a small club where people drop in not knowing who’s going to be there.”
Although she’s a feminist favourite – she’s not into putting herself or other women down, and she’s super-casual in her presentation – she says comics like Bob Newhart and Woody Allen are the ones who’ve inspired her.
She has, however, none of Allen’s neuroses – the comparison to Newhart is much more apt. There isn’t an exploitative bone in her body, and she has a healthy disdain for any humour that hinges on shock value. She steadfastly refuses to fill up space with flashes of overbearing hysteria. This is a comedian with a keen intelligence, who understands that the most hilarious moments can occur in total silence.
“The women who were doing stand-up when I was growing up didn’t make me laugh. For one thing, they made women subjects. I think life is funny – not what men or women in particular do. And I don’t like to laugh at someone else’s pain. It’s like getting money for something illegal.”
But male role models aside, DeGeneres harbours few illusions and has a canny sense of where women fit into the comedy picture.
“Now, comedy is a money business. At first there were a few clubs and then there were way too many, and now the numbers are thinning out again. The promoters don’t care if it’s a man or a woman or a donkey onstage, as long as there’s an audience.
“But women didn’t draw those audiences. The comedy circuit is a white male society. People aren’t used to seeing a woman onstage unless she’s singing or doing something sexy.
“Laughter is incredible. When someone tickles you, you say, ‘Stop, stop,’ because you don’t like being out of control – it’s that physical thing. But comedy – that’s manipulating emotions. It’s powerful. People aren’t used to women having that power.”
People are gradually getting accustomed to giving women comics some clout, especially in the form of TV situation-comedies. The success of Roseanne has helped, and Brett Butler’s hit, Grace Under Fire, has proved that women can go from the stand-up stage to sitcom success without missing a beat.
But the transition to TV hasn’t been without its problems for DeGeneres.
“This year it’s going to be different. We started out with two producers who wanted to do everything themselves. Then they backed away after six episodes, and now we have new executive producers.
“You can’t take great stand-up comics and surround them with writers who don’t know how to write about them. After 13 years of writing for myself, I’m just getting used to working with other writers.”
DeGeneres – and doubtless this helps in Hollywood – knows when she doesn’t know everything, and she admits she wasn’t exactly in a position to storm the barricades and demand creative control.
“I’m a funny person,” she says with her signature timing, “but I’d never written a script.”
After six episodes of These Friends Of Mine, she feels like she’s beginning to find her strengths.
“We’re going to concentrate on the situations I get myself into, like that one where Ellen gets heard through the baby monitor while she’s talking – well, let’s say, too much.
“It’s those nagging things, like being caught behind the guy who has too many items at the express checkout counter, or behind the person with the five kids who waits in line at the fast-food restaurant for an hour, but doesn’t ask the kids what they want until they get up to the front.”
Success has its price, and DeGeneres knows it. These Friends Of Mine wound up being the highest-rated debut ABC show since Home Improvement, and as it goes through its predictable paces – dropping cast members, for example, and now bearing the new title – the public perception of DeGeneres’s personal power is bound to be grossly inflated.
“It’s one thing to change a show,” she admits. “Cheers started and then found its strengths and weaknesses as it went along. In this case, we started out with two of my friends in the show and then we had to let them go.
“It makes me feel very weird. We’re going through a lot, that’s for sure. I’m just hoping that ABC can handle the damage control and make it clear that these are all their choices.”
Then there’s the dicey detail of the change in DeGeneres’s physical appearance since she’s made it into the category of major star. Jackets and jeans used to be her style, and she had an androgynous gestalt that was refreshing and effective, working to make her material infinitely accessible.
Lately, she’s looking more like a fashion victim, to say nothing of what photographers have been doing to her wonderfully character-ridden face. Albert Camus once said that an individual is responsible for his or her own face. But that’s patently untrue in Tinseltown, where the airbrush rules.
Some of the new developments she attributes to the improvement in her self-image, something that goes along with increasing success.
“One interviewer asked me if I was going to great lengths to look better. Just a year and a half ago, I started feeling better about myself. It’s like Janet Jackson when she changed her image. She explained it by saying she felt different about herself.”
She takes questions about her near-makeover extremely seriously, pressing for information about how she’s being perceived.
“I’m sensitive about this stuff. The only times I wear makeup are when I’m on TV. When they try to make me wear something, I say, ‘No, that’s not me, that’s Heather Locklear.'”
As for Hollywood’s omnipresent airbrush, she’s wising up and is rapidly losing patience.
“Whenever we do a photo shoot, they say, ‘Don’t wrinkle your forehead,’ and I say, ‘Why not? My forehead has wrinkles.'”