Ellen DeGeneres became the latest mega-comedian to be showcased in a new stand-up special on Netflix, and hers is one of the best and funniest ones yet.
It’s hard to review comedy, both because you don’t want to give away the jokes and because the material often doesn’t translate well without the inflections, body language and other intangible elements that great comedians bring to the stage. This article will be light on the spoilers, but if you want to go into it completely fresh, go watch Ellen’s special now and come back in an hour (I’ve already gotten your page view, so thanks!)
The fact that Netflix has been throwing huge, cartoonish sacks of money labeled with dollar signs at the most popular comedians (or so I assume) in exchange for the types of standup routines that many of them have not put together in years, these specials have been Masterclasses of sorts, albeit with mixed with results: they’ve ranged from funny and insightful and even surprisingly emotional (like Chris Rock’s post-divorce shadowed “Tambourine” to good but not your best, “you seem to be having fun but not super invested” (Dave Chappelle’s twin routines) to “you figured out that you’re a big enough star that Netflix would pay you $20 million dollars even if you just sent in home videos of your pet monkey flinging it’s poop at a wall for 90 minutes (no offense, Adam Sandler; we’re still cool right okay bye).
Ellen’s special reminded me that outside of being the “Be Kind” lady or the dancing talk show host or the lesbian comedienne (all things she acknowledges, deconstructs and leans on without over-relying on them as crutches), she is just funny.
Ellen establishes the theme and title of her routine early on: upon telling an unnamed friend that she’s going to do her first stand up show in 15 years, friend asked her skeptically if she is still Relatable. This is a clever setup. Many entertainers and public figures deal with the challenge of maintaining an image of relatability (the “girl next door” actress, the “keeping it real” rap star, the “guy you would have a beer with” politician) despite being years and millions of dollars removed from whatever humble origins they had or fabricated.
The easier, but not always effective, way to do this is to focus on the past experiences or lingering personality traits that most people can identify with while downplaying or ignoring the wealth and fame and power that might be off putting. (Well, actually, the easiest way to do the relatability thing is to lie, which is a variant of this strategy, but let’s be nice; it’s Christmas Eve).
Ellen instead chooses the harder but potentially more effective route. She embraces, even exaggerates, the fantastical elements of riches and superstardom, getting the audience to laugh with her at how ridiculously privileged her life is now (for reference, her exaggerated lifestyle is more or less Donald Trump’s actual life). All the while, Ellen allows her stories about life foibles to demonstrate, rather than insist, that she fundamentally thinks and acts much like everyone else-if we were multimillionaires, we’d act just like her.
A variant of this relatability technique is to take a seemingly weird or foreign feature of oneself and make it seem ordinary. Politicians often have to do this about some aspect of their lives: Barack Obama and his eclectic parentage and background, reflected in his name (don’t think he didn’t actually consider going with Barry O’Bama) or JFK and his Catholicism. For Ellen, she briefly ventures into her upbringing in Christian Science, a 19th century religious tradition most famous for its Reading Rooms, excellent newspaper and aversion to medical science. She describes the religion and its consequences (the allure of “drugs,” the consequences of childhood injuries) critically but not judgmentally – even though she implicitly rejects the beliefs, she doesn’t mock or disdain them.
The fact that Ellen can make both mega wealth and a “strange” religion relatable is a skill that even seasoned politicians like Mitt Romney are often unable to pull off. (JFK at least had the advantage of operating in an earlier era where it was expected for politicians to be socially “better” than the average person – once the “Catholic question” was out of the way, his privileged background was a strength). Donald Trump has created an interesting variant of that culture, but like many things, his wealth as political strength seems to only work for him).
Beyond showing her potential political appeal should she decide to run for office after her possibly imminent retirement, Ellen effortlessly displays the range of her comic talents. Like comedy in general, some jokes in Relatable are visceral and natural, others are cerebral. Ellen peppers her work with the visceral stuff: a word or phrase or image that’s just funny. For my 3 year old son, the funniest thing In the world is to declare repeatedly between belly laughs, with no discernible reason or context, that our dog is eating poop; for Ellen, cute animals come up more than once. Good comedians both find a way to identify and use those inherently funny words or images, and, oxymoronically, to create inherently funny moments: there’s one joke Ellen tells that my wife labels as her version of The Rakes Joke.
Ellen does not lean on the adorable animals or dance moves, however. There’s an impressive amount of layering to some of her jokes, which work on multiple levels the more you think about them (she breaks down one such joke after telling it, involving marriage and household appliances). Like Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King, Ellen’s Relatable gets surprisingly serious, even dark, for a few parts in the middle, but rather than dwell on the pain, Ellen acknowledges it in a way that, like much of her life, ends with triumph and inspiration. When she drifts into speechifying at the end, it doesn’t feel out of place but earned. Ellen is definitely someone that you want to have a beer with, even if it’s out of solid gold, diamond encrusted goblets.