Dancing with DeGeneres
Born in Metairie, Louisiana on January 26, 1958, Ellen Lee DeGeneres attended the University of New Orleans after graduating from high school, but dropped out following her first semester. After a number of unsatisfying jobs, Ellen’s started out in showbiz as an emcee at a comedy club in New Orleans. By 1982 she had already landed national recognition when her videotaped stand-up performances led to her being named the “Funniest Person in America” by Showtime.
Ms. DeGeneres then moved to Los Angeles to film her first HBO Special. That same year, she made history on the Tonight Show by becoming the first female comedian to be summoned by Johnny Carson to sit down with him after a performance.
Her acting career began on TV on the Fox sitcom, “Open House,” and she was subsequently offered a part on ABC’s “These Friends of Mine” which was renamed “Ellen” en route to enjoying a successful run from 1994 to 1998. During the series’ fourth season, Ellen came out publicly as lesbian on the Oprah Winfrey Show, as did her character in an episode watched by a record 46 million viewers.
A beloved entertainment icon, Ellen’s distinct brand of humor comic has resonated with audiences not only on television, but on the big screen (Finding Nemo) and as the author of two books. However, she’s found a home in the daytime arena with her hit syndicated talk show, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” now in its sixth season, which has now earned a total of 25 Daytime Emmy Awards.
Here, she talks about Ellen’s Really Big Show, an annual special she’s again hosting for TBS. The one-hour variety special, filmed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, is set to air on Saturday November 29th at 9 PM (ET/PT). During our spirited chat, Ellen also talked about the Presidential Election and about both Barack and Michelle Obama’s dance moves. And since she married her longtime companion, Portia de Rossi, in August, she was willing to weigh-in on the passage of Proposition 8 in California, a measure banning gay marriage in the state.
KW: Hi Ellen, thanks for the time.
ED: Well, thank you.
KW: You danced with both Barack and Michelle on the show. So, which one’s the better dancer,?
ED: Well, I think that we agree that Michelle was. But I think that’s good. I would be worried if he was a good dancer because that would mean he’s not spending enough time working. I always worry when someone’s a good golfer, too. It’s like you shouldn’t have time to be good at anything. You should just be a politician and you shouldn’t have time to practice golf or dancing. So I am thrilled that Michelle’s a better dancer. Although he is a good dancer, better than a lot of people that I have seen on the show.
KW: Were you surprised at how much play the dance clips from your show got on all the cable news channels?
ED: No, I wasn’t that surprised about that. I guess when you get the political candidates to dance, well actually only one danced, that’s going to get some play. I have the picture of Barack and me dancing right outside of my dressing room door, I see it every single day, and it makes me very happy.
KW: Where did you develop your dance moves?
ED: I get my dance moves from just moving around and listening to music and not really worrying about if it’s perfect or not.
KW: I see you have Tony Okunbogwa back this season as the show’s DJ. How is that working out?
ED: I love Tony, I love his music; I love his style, so I am thrilled to have Tony back.
KW: Have you heard from Senator McCain since his appearance on your show, since your awkward exchange?
ED: No. I don’t think we’re going to keep in touch anyway. I mean, I would be glad to take a call from him. He seems like a nice guy. That was a moment that was an obvious question for me to ask, if he doesn’t really agree with equality, and that’s what it really boils down to is equality. I wasn’t going to give him too hard of a time because I understand that that’s what he believes and I wasn’t going to change anything. I wasn’t there to change his mind, I just wanted to present a very obvious case that we are all the same and we all deserve to have equal rights. But I am glad people watched it and, like I said, I didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable. That’s not my job. It’s not the kind of show I ever want to do.
KW: Do you care to comment on the outcome of the election?
ED: I was thrilled, and really proud as a lot of people are about it. It was energizing that Obama got in and I felt excited about that. But the next day, especially because Obama got in, there was a big loud voice saying you were not equal to us. And that feels bad. That feels really, really bad. And if anybody could put themselves in that situation of feeling a giant loud voice saying you don’t deserve the same rights, you are different and you are not equal, it feels really bad. So it took a little bit of air out of me from the excitement from the night before. I do feel hopeful and excited. But certainly that was an emotional day for me. The next day, I’m trying to do a show when I felt that sad inside. But I’ve kind of bounced back. I feel good now. I’m not really a political comedian. So I think I’m done with that. I don’t think I will be commenting further.
KW: I watched your show the day you mentioned Keith Olbermann’s commentary about Proposition Eight.
ED: I thought Keith Olbermann was so brilliant and eloquent, and that what he said is all that needs to be said. It’s on our website and I hope that everybody watches it. I am sure you can find it just about anywhere. It really is just about following your heart and people really paying attention to what the right thing is.
KW: I also read an article in the LA Times by Steve Lopez where he said that what the gay movement needs is a black Elton John, a black icon.
ED: I don’t understand that statement about a black Elton John. But it needs for people to not be ignorant. It needs for people to open their minds and understand. It is a fundamental right for people to be allowed to love who they want to love and marry who they want to marry and stop holding on to some form of discrimination that it’s just isn’t fair. And if you look back, as you know if you watched what Keith Olbermann talked about, this happened to black people. It’s crazy that we’re still holding on to some form of this. So I don’t know what it is going to take, but I do have faith that people will realize that this is wrong.
KW: What the writer was suggesting with that black Elton John comment was that, although the African-American community is generally liberal, it tends for some reason to be somewhat homophobic and anti-gay marriage. And it would help if a black superstar would come out.
ED: Well, I think, unfortunately, it all comes down to certain cultures are just more accepting or less accepting. I understand what you’re saying about that stigma and unfortunately there are a lot of very well-known black people that are gay but unfortunately closeted. And that doesn’t help things that people are not able to live their lives honestly. Do you come out and just force people to deal with it, or do you wait for it to be accepted and then people get to live their lives honestly and openly? Which comes first? It’s a big risk for people to have a big career and come out. And that’s because of what’s going on, but it would change things if people would live their lives in a way that’s healthier for them really. It’s not really helping anybody to live a life that isn’t true to themselves. But I don’t know, I have faith that people will, even without some type of a symbol, open their minds and their hearts.
KW: Have you gotten any negative feedback from people about your marriage?
ED: I think I am probably protected from a lot of stuff that would be negative. I know there’s always going to be feedback no matter what the subject. I mean I am shocked by somebody commenting on my shoes or my clothes. Everyone has an opinion and especially now more and more, everyone is logging about everything and has an opinion. So I can’t possibly pay attention to that. Listen, I am sure that there are station managers that carry the show in certain markets that aren’t really thrilled with it because they probably are the people that would vote yes on Proposition 8. They don’t agree with gay marriage, they don’t understand it, and probably were a little fearful in the first place of an openly gay person. So, I am sure people have opinions about it and I am sure they don’t really love me anyway, any which way I go. So, I can’t really pay attention to that. I just have to speak from my heart. I don’t really ever get political on the show. But to me that was not political. To me this is just about equality and about something that is way, way overdue. But to answer your question, I am sure some people don’t like it.
KW: Are there topics that Ellen, the stand-up comedian, would touch on your upcoming special that Ellen, the talk show host, wouldn’t do on her daytime show?
ED: There is really no difference between Ellen, the stand-up, or Ellen, the talk show host, or even Ellen at home. The humor that I’m still writing that you see every day on the show is the same as when I did stand-up, as when I toured. It’s just kind of commentating on absurdities and human behavior. So, as far as the special how goes, it’s not like I’m going to be topless or start cursing all of a sudden. It’s pretty much the same. Although now that I mentioned it, I may be topless. That’s sounds actually kind of exciting.
KW: What can we expect from this year’s special as compared to last year’s, anything different or anything big plans?
ED: Well, as the title says, it’s even bigger. And, I think that’s says it all. Last year it was really, really big. This year, even bigger. And you know what that means! I don’t know. I think it’s going to be the same kind of excitement, the same kind of acts that you have never seen before. We brought in people from all over the world that are fascinating to watch and I think most of you are going to just sit there and wonder how they even thought of this idea that that would be a possibility as a talent. That’s what I am going for.
KW: Of the other comedians who will be performing, Jerry Seinfeld, Katt Williams, Mike Epps, Jamie Kennedy, etcetera, do you have a favorite?
ED: I don’t really have a favorite comedian. And it wouldn’t be fair for me to say. But I think, I mean, obviously Seinfeld is just so smart, so funny. And there will be a lot of new comedians that I haven’t seen. I hope I get to go see some of them because I really haven’t seen any of the newer comedians, because I’m always so busy.
KW: Do you miss doing stand-up?
ED: I don’t miss traveling and sleeping in a hotel every night. I mean that touring got really old. I did it for 15 years and I had no idea I was going to be a talk show host, but I used to joke with the audience at the end of my set that someday I am going to make you come to me, and I’m not going to come to you anymore. And now they do come to me. So, I still get to do stand-up every single day. I love that live energy exchange between the audience and myself, and to get to say the things I want to say and comment on.
KW: Is there any guest you haven’t been able to book on the show?
ED: Bono, because I think he’s an amazing man for what he does as a humanitarian even more so than as a musician. And George Clooney, of course, we’re going to capture him one day. We’re going after him and he has eluded us, but we will get him. Of course, now I want Keith Olbermann on, just because I love him and I think he’s brilliant.
KW: Why you think people should tune in to a comedy special at this time, considering the tough economy?
ED: Well I think people need to laugh everyday, even more so now. Whether the economy is good or bad, I think the most important thing is to laugh and to feel positive, if you are laughing at something positive. But if you are laughing at mean jokes then it’s a wash.
KW: What is your process when you are trying out new material?
ED: I am the opposite of Chris Rock and Seinfeld and Leno and everybody. I never try out material. When I did the Oscars, when I do anything, I write it and I just have a gut feeling and I just keep tweaking and tweaking and tweaking until I think have the wording right and know what I want to say and I just say it. I don’t ever go to clubs and try it out. I have writers here with the show and we collaborate on that and the same thing with this special coming up. So, I just have a feeling of what I want to say and what is the right wording and I don’t ask anybody. In the very beginning, I made lots of mistakes. I did some stuff on stage that clearly didn’t go over, but you know you just keep trying, and I think part of the fun, especially early on, is letting the audience see the mistakes. They love to see that. They like to see the process. So yeah, that’s always how I’ve done it.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
ED: I’m very happy.
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
ED: Afraid! No, I’m not afraid. I’m sometimes sad. Afraid of what, just in general?
KW: The way I got that question was I asked Columbus if there’s any question nobody ever asked him that he wished someone would, and he said, “Yeah, are you ever afraid?”
ED: Oh, really. What was his answer?
ED: I wouldn’t even think to say that. No, never. I don’t really ever live my life in fear. I really live my life in gratitude and feeling positive for the most part, except for the other day that happened. That was sad to me, but then I realized that everything happens for a reason and it has caused this movement of people kind of standing up and saying this isn’t fair. So I kind of accept everything, that it’s all perfect.
KW: Bookworm Troy Johnson asks, what was the last book you read?
ED: Probably Wayne Dyer’s book, The Power of Intention.
KW: And Music maven Heather Covington’s question: What music are you listening to?
ED: God, I listen to so many different things. Last night I was listening to Anthony Hamilton and Coldplay.
KW: My wife just saw Anthony Hamilton in concert this week She loved him. Thanks again for the interview, Ellen, and best of luck with everything.
ED: Thank you.
To see a video of Ellen dancing with Barack Obama,
To see a video of Ellen dancing with Michelle Obama,