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About Ellen DeGeneres

The wonderfully deadpan Ellen DeGeneres began her stand-up career in her native New Orleans, with her first act consisting of consuming a Whopper, fries and a shake. She soon developed her distinctive comedy style: quirky, observational humor grounded in understatement and punctuated with pregnant pauses. One year into her career, a videotape of her comedy club performances sent in to a nationwide search by the cable network Showtime earned her the title of "Funniest Person in America", enabling her to tour the country, further refine her act, and create one of her signature pieces "a phone call to God", a monologue about mortality which landed her a spot on Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show" (NBC) in 1986. The erstwhile 'king of late-night' was so taken with the young comic that he invited her over to the couch. Legend has it that this was the first such occurrence for a female comic on her virgin appearance.

DeGeneres began showing up frequently on the small screen, appearing in... Read More »

The wonderfully deadpan Ellen DeGeneres began her stand-up career in her native New Orleans, with her first act consisting of consuming a Whopper, fries and a shake. She soon developed her distinctive comedy style: quirky, observational humor grounded in understatement and punctuated with pregnant pauses. One year into her career, a videotape of her comedy club performances sent in to a nationwide search by the cable network Showtime earned her the title of "Funniest Person in America", enabling her to tour the country, further refine her act, and create one of her signature pieces "a phone call to God", a monologue about mortality which landed her a spot on Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show" (NBC) in 1986. The erstwhile 'king of late-night' was so taken with the young comic that he invited her over to the couch. Legend has it that this was the first such occurrence for a female comic on her virgin appearance.

DeGeneres began showing up frequently on the small screen, appearing in several HBO comedy specials and playing the regular role of the wisecracking man hungry receptionist in the Fox sitcom "Duet" (1988-89) and its spin-off "Open House" (1989-90). She returned to series TV for another try playing a flaky nurse on the short-lived sitcom "Laurie Hill" (ABC, 1992). After these false starts, DeGeneres finally came into her own leading the ensemble of "These Friends of Mine" (ABC, 1994). Though readily embraced by viewers--it ranked third for the week after its first airing--many critics dismissed it as a distaff "Seinfeld" clone due to its structural similarities and comparable collaborative feel (e.g., "Seinfeld" starred three men and one woman while "These Friends" starred three women and one guy). Eventually retooled to focus more on DeGeneres and her stand-up persona, the show returned sans a few cast members as the less clunky "Ellen" (ABC, 1994-98).

Rewarded for its decision to showcase DeGeneres, this second incarnation garnered her four Emmy nominations as Best Actress while capturing her the statue in 1997 for her scripting contributions to the infamous "coming out" show entitled "The Puppy Episode". All along, there had been speculation about the character's sexuality which reached a fever pitch that season with TV Guide leaking the story that the producers were working on having the lead disclose her lesbianism. DeGeneres fueled this speculation by appearing on several talk shows and coyly deflecting the question and building in-jokes into the show's scripts. In April 1997, she herself came out in a Time magazine cover story and in a two-part interview with Diane Sawyer prior to the episode of April 30, 1997, which attracted more than 36 million viewers anxious to see TV history made when her character Ellen Morgan disclosed her homosexuality, thereby becoming the first openly gay lead in a series.

Unfortunately, her "coming out" spelled the end of the sitcom. The "suits" (executives at ABC) frequently saddled the show with warnings (i.e., "This program contains adult content. Parental discretion is advised"), and Chrysler and J.C. Penney temporarily withdrew their sponsorship. Though there was truth to DeGeneres' claims that the network knuckled under to pressure from the Christian Right (Jerry Falwell referred to her as 'Ellen DeGenerate') and quit supporting the series, conventional wisdom cited that the light touch which had made her a perfect primetime crusader in the first place disappeared when the show became more politicized and issue-oriented. Elton John may have said it best: "We know you're a lesbian. Shut up! Just be funny!" A year after the historic episode, in the wake of diminishing ratings (averaging just over 12 million viewers), ABC pulled the plug on "Ellen", and DeGeneres and her then-lover Anne Heche, having promoted themselves as standard-bearers for homosexual equality, felt the backlash of conservatism circling the wagons in defense of the bottom line.

DeGeneres, whose first attempt to transfer her TV persona to the big screen ("Mr. Wrong" 1996) failed to excite audiences, didn't fare much better with Roland Joffe's "Goodbye Lover" (lensed in 1997; shown at Cannes in 1998; released in 1999), turning in an unappealing portrayal as a wisecracking detective. Following her show's demise, she eventually managed to land some big screen roles, despite the fact that many doors remained closed to her because of her outspoken activism. DeGeneres scored points for her humorous portrayal of the TV producer who comes up with the idea of televising Matthew McConaughey's life in Ron Howard's "EDtv" (1999), her line to boss Rob Reiner about their network's position apropos the Gardening Cannel ("People would rather watch soil") perfect for her classic deadpan delivery. She also got to reveal a girlishly romantic streak beneath her cynical facade for that year's "The Love Letter". She went on to be directed by her then Heche in "Miss Conception", a segment of HBO's "If These Walls Could Talk 2" (2000) featuring DeGeneres and Sharon Stone as a lesbian couple attempting to have a child.

Gradually, DeGeneres was wooed to return to network sitcoms. Testing the waters, she embarked on a national comedy tour that included the well-received Emmy-nominated 2000 HBO special "Ellen DeGeneres: The Beginning". CBS made a commitment to the performer and after several abortive attempts, she returned to the weekly grind as executive producer and star of "The Ellen Show" (CBS, 2001- ), playing a lesbian who returns to hometown. While her career seemed to be back on an upswing, DeGeneres' personal life once again became tabloid fodder when she and Heche ended their relationship in August 2000. Heche had been working on a behind-the-scenes documentary about their life and DeGeneres' stand-up tour, but it is doubtful that material will ever see the light of day, particularly after Heche made outrageous claims in her memoirs that she was "insane" for much of her life and that it was the love of her new (male) husband that saved her. DeGeneres wisely took the high road and refused to comment on her private life.