"If somebody is wooing way too much, that, to me, is not a compliment. That's not me being funny. If you're laughing, you can't possibly woo at the same time. So if someone's wooing, then they're not totally listening or getting it."
– Ellen DeGeneres
Guy MacPherson: My sister's in town and she asked me what I was doing today. And I told her I was interviewing you by phone. And she had a very interesting question I hadn't thought of. She asked, 'How will you know it's really her and not someone she's hired to do interviews?'
Ellen DeGeneres: (laughs) Well, because I think everybody knows my voice pretty well.
GM: Yeah. My sister's a little strange.
ED: Yeah, she's paranoid.
GM: I think so. And cynical.
ED: Yeah. I think she should start learning to trust more.
GM: I'll tell her... I'm really happy that you're doing standup again because you're so good at it.
ED: Well, thank-you. I'm happy I'm doing it, too.
GM: Are you?
ED: Yeah, I am. It's so much fun. I mean, I kind of get tired sometimes of saying the same thing over and over again, you know? And I think about people that have a hit song in bands that have to tour and do... But I can play a lot – because it really is just me up there and the audience – I can kind of play with it a little bit. You can't change the rhythm too much or the wording because that's the whole point of what makes it good. But that's the only thing. But this isn't a long tour. This is 24 cities, so it's not that bad. The last tour two years ago was 35 cities and it was in a short amount of time because I was leading up to my HBO special, so that was a hectic schedule. But I just started last week, so, really, up until Wednesday night, I was still trying to find what the set was because, unlike musicians, I can't really stand in my house and rehearse. My rehearsal process is on the stage.
GM: Hearing the audience?
ED: Hearing the audience and seeing the pace and whether some things should go further back. Because it should start relatively slow because I'm walking on stage and they need an adjustment period that I'm there and I'm talking. So if I started out with something that's supposed to be like a huge killer joke, it would be lost. It's like composing music, basically. It's really kind of putting the tone and the pace and everything together. So until Wednesday night I really didn't even have an ending. I was just struggling. I didn't know how I was going to end it because I always like to have a theme and I like to tie it up in a nice way. And so I finally found it Wednesday night.
GM: Interesting. So by the time, of course, you get to Vancouver, you'll be polished.
ED: Yes, I will. I probably won't even have my cheat sheet with me. I walk up with a piece of paper right now because I still don't know the order. I write it out before I go on stage. And I'm pretty good. So far I've been okay. I've had to glance down a couple of times to go, 'What comes next?' Because I really like to make a smooth transition and have segues where it all makes sense. But some of them are kind of tough for me to make it work to transition into it, so I have notes to glance down and go, 'Oh, yeah.'
GM: I wondering about the challenges standup presents now as opposed to before you hit the big time. Now you're so well-known it's a lovefest. I imagine it's harder to know if something really works or if they're just going, 'Aah, Ellen!'
ED: No, because if it's not working, they'll be polite and they won't boo me or anything, but they're not going to laugh. Nobody's going to just laugh if it's not funny. You know, like if somebody is wooing way too much, that, to me, is not a compliment. That's not me being funny. If you're laughing, you can't possibly woo at the same time. So if someone's wooing, then they're not totally listening or getting it.
GM: Yeah, that's kind of what happened to Steve Martin.
ED: Yeah, it's almost insulting. It's like when I see singers and they get to that one final part of the song where they're singing this beautiful note and people start screaming and cheering, it's like, 'Listen to that! That's a beautiful note.' So that's hard for me when people are coming and they're just excited because I'm a celebrity or because I'm gay. You know, like, I have a lot of people that just come for the wrong reasons.
GM: Wait. You're gay?
ED: (laughs) I know. I hate to break it to you. I never heard it before. You know, that's hard because I want people to come for the right reasons. I want people to come because I'm funny. And hopefully the last HBO special that I did kind of reminded people that my humour is not different because I'm out now. It's like, suddenly I'm not doing all gay material or something. I think people worried about that at first. Like, 'Oh, is she going to be different.'
GM: It's odd because you were gay before, presumably, and your material wasn't.
ED: No, but I guess people thought that, 'well now that she's out, now she can open up the door and all the gay jokes will come out.' It's not who I am. I never have done sexual humour and anybody who has really followed me or knows my work, it's just very weird, absurd stories that ramble on, or observational humour. So anyway, that's the challenge now. It's because I'm known and I want people to come because they get my humour and get me and not just because I'm famous or just because I'm gay.
GM: Is it harder to be funny now? I mean, you've been at it 20 years – which is amazing in itself. Because for one, as you get older people tend to get more serious. But now you're way more famous. You're a role model instead of just a standup comic out there making people laugh. So do you think it's harder to come up with new material to be funny?
ED: No, I don't think so. I think that if you isolate yourself... I think as you get older... I don't think I'm aging in a normal way, anyway. I don't feel like I'm 44. I feel like that's just a number and I don't really pay attention to it. I feel a lot smarter now than I was when I was 30, but I don't feel older. I just feel smarter. I definitely think that if you're playing the game of life right, you're just going to keep adding to your portfolio of who you are and your personality and you gain more wisdom through experiences both good and bad. And I think that I've had a lot of both (laughs) and maybe a little extra share of bad, and I think it's really helped form who I am. I appreciate it. I'm grateful for it because it's taken me to a place that I certainly wouldn't have chosen to go to those places. But because I did go to those places, I think that I'm a different person. But I feel like I'm very young, you know, and I think that my attitude is very young and youthful. I think the only thing that stops you from being funny is isolating yourself from the world so you can't relate to people because you don't go to the grocery store anymore; you send your assistant. Or you don't pump your own gas or you don't have the same experiences so you don't really know how people are living at all.
GM: Yeah, that's what Bob Newhart told me. He said that the more successful you are, you really have to make a concerted effort to, I guess, be with the people.
GM: His early routine about riding buses and things, he said, 'I never ride buses anymore.'
ED: Right, right.
GM: So how do you get over that?
ED: Well, there are certain things that I can't do and that I wouldn't do, but you still have that same... I mean, it's not like he hasn't ridden a bus and he can't still tell the story and relate to it. But my humour isn't that way. My humour just comes from when I hear something anyway, it just goes in that direction. My brain just works a certain way. I don't really have a button that I turn on and off. It just is there. And it happens or it doesn't. My humour is... Sometimes I write it, sometimes I sit down and I write a long rambling story, sometimes I'll see somebody doing something, and I just make note of it, kind of a mental note and I'll remember to try that on stage. The theme of this show is basically there's going to be a lot of stuff that maybe people have seen before. It's like really older stuff that I haven't done in a long time that I really missed doing. So a lot of it is best of. Some of it is stuff they've never seen because it was never on TV. Some of it is brand new. The whole first part of the show is new. And the theme of it is just sort of what's happening and the pace of life and my take on what's happening, especially the change since I was growing up and what's happening in the world. So that's sort of the theme.
GM: So you really are like a rock band. You're playing your hits and you're doing some new things.
ED: Yeah. And that's always been a scary thing for me because you're not supposed to go out, if you're a comedian, you've gotta have brand new stuff all the time, which is some kind of unwritten rule that I don't know who made that up. But it's so unfair because musicians can go and not only can they play... They're expected to play their old stuff. But they can play other people's stuff, too. I'm not allowed to do that! (laughs) I can't do Jerry Seinfeld's material.
GM: You should!
GM: Throw one in there and see who catches it.
ED: No. See, but the thing is, that's the thing, it's like, some people do steal and do that. But I'm proud of the fact that I write all of my own material. But anyway, it's great because I was a little nervous about it but a lot of the stuff I'm finding that some people don't even know stuff that is my older stuff. They think it's all brand new because they haven't seen it. It's because I'm really not doing anything from the last HBO special.
GM: Right, since you have so many new fans, as you say, you have gay fans who come out, since you came out, to see you and that maybe they weren't watching you when you were just a standup.
ED: Right. They didn't like me until I was gay.
ED: But then... See, those are the people... I don't know. It's not that I don't want them. I just want people that have a good sense of humour and that are smart and want to go and think about stuff. Because I don't spoonfeed my audience. I avoid the lowest common denominator stuff because I just feel like the audiences that I like to have anyway like to think. They don't want to be hit over the head with a joke. So I like people to come out and see me because they get it. And I think if you see me even hosting the Emmys or doing anything where you see who I am, that's my humour, that's who I am. I don't want people to come just because I'm a celebrity.
GM: Was Bob Newhart an influence?
ED: Huge. Yes.
GM: Yes, because I saw you here the last time you were here and I was thinking that, not that you were doing things on the phone like he did, but your one-sided conversations...
ED: Yeah, I actually do have a phone-call to God. That was the first thing I ever wrote was A Phone-call To God. And so a lot of people compared me... Johnny Carson compared me to Bob Newhart the first time I was on the show. That kind of was a subconscious thing because mainly I was influenced by Woody Allen and Steve Martin. Those were my two models. And I love Bob Newhart and to this day I still love Bob Newhart. He's just fantastic. But the Phone-call to God just kind of, you know, was what I was really compared to him for.
GM: Who do you like now in comedy? Or do you hear that much?
ED: I don't pay attention. Now that I have this talk show that I'm going to be doing a year from now, I think I'm probably going to have to start paying attention and I'll have my talent coordinators doing all the booking, but I really, hopefully, will give a lot of comedians... Because talk shows for a lot of reasons don't really have a lot of standups anymore. And it used to be that's how you got your break is doing Johnny Carson. And you don't really see them on Letterman or Leno anymore. So I'm hoping that I'm gonna a lot more attention to who's out there and try to get them on the show.
GM: So tell me about this show.
ED: It's TelePictures, who are the same people who did Rosie O'Donnell's show. And it's going to be a talk show and it's going to be on during the day but I don't know what that means yet. It means it's just a show that's on during the day. I would like to think it's the same kind of show that I could have at night time. I hope it has the feel of just a really entertaining hour of me talking to interesting people. And I have a whole year to put it together and make it the most spectacular thing that anyone's ever seen on television.
GM: Excellent. And are you going to do comedy bits? Or more just interview guests?
ED: I'll probably come out and start with a monologue. It'll probably start that way. I may try to do some man on the street stuff because I love stuff like that. I mean, everyone's telling me, 'You have no idea how gruelling the schedule is. It's every single day, five days a week.' And so, depending on how I feel, I'll get into a rhythm and figure it out. I'd like to do some stuff that's on the street.
GM: When you were here last, Anne Heche was filming a documentary.
GM: Did anything come of that?
GM: (pause) Okay. (pause) Nuff said.
ED: Yeah. (laughs)
GM: Now, you're playing 24 cities. I imagine you do hundreds of these types of interviews – unless I'm getting a scoop here.
ED: (laughs) It's only you!
GM: Really! I was just wondering if most are more about the celebrity, the love life, than the work. Do they get pretty serious?
ED: Um, sometimes. There was a woman I just talked to right before you who was really great. I mean, sometimes it's interesting. It's like, I'm sure you talk to people sometimes and you hang up thinking, you know, that was just the worst interview ever because they don't give you anything or for whatever reason. It's a two-way thing.
GM: It is.
ED: But I talked to this guy that was just... I don't remember the interview per se, but I just read the article. They sent it to me. And it was the worst thing I've ever read in my entire life and I feel like calling and saying, 'You should do something else for a living. You are the worst writer I've ever read in my life.' It was nothing, basically. There weren't even full sentences that I said, and it had nothing to do with anything. In the conversation I had mentioned my 13-year-old Lab had just died, so I was very upset about that because he was my, you know, dog for 13 years. And so somehow that was a sentence in there. But it wasn't even a full sentence. And then there was really nothing, and then it ended. It was just nothing. It wasn't like it was negative or anything. It was just the worst thing I've ever read in my life.
GM: But your conversation was great?
ED: No, the conversation was horrible. But it would have stood out if it had been that bad, that I would have said, 'Ooh, I'm worried about this guy.' But it didn't. But I don't know. I think my point is...
ED: I'm gonna try to find one now, that everybody does something different. The woman I talked to right before you was great, and she asked some really kind of interesting questions and she was kind of all over the place and she sounded like she was just going to piece together a profile on me as a comedian and comedians as a whole. Like, she wanted to know about the whole laughing on the outside, crying on the inside thing that people have the opinion of. And then, some people just kind of want to get to the tabloid-type stuff. And, you know, I just don't talk about it. It's something I just don't talk about.
GM: Good. There's enough talk about it.
ED: Yeah, there's enough other people talking about it. And if I wanted to clear it all up and talk and tell my side, I guess someday if I feel the need to do that, I will. But, you know, I feel that it's a private thing that I'm processing on my own.
GM: Good. Because not all of us care about it.
ED: (laughs) Yeah, I look back to the whole beginning of all that and I have some perspective on it now, and I'm like, 'God, no wonder everybody hated me. I'd hate me too!' (laughs) It was just too much. It was like everything. It was all too much.
GM: No, it had nothing to do with you. It has to do with the whole media frenzy.
ED: People are like, it's just too much information, too much in your face, too much everything.
GM: Were you happy with the last series? And did you think it was given a chance?
ED: Um, no, I don't think it was really given a chance. But I think it had potential. I feel like it fell kind of in the middle. It was neither/nor. It either should have been a little bit edgier and smarter or... It just kind of... You know, I'm never going to get the Everybody Loves Raymond audience. I'm not going to get the families. I think there are people that are still unfortunately still holding on to some old baggage. I think I'll get them. I think people will kind of let go of all that, and if something's funny and if something's good, they will come back eventually. But I think there was still... And also the time of, you know, what you were just talking about, as far as that person, the name you just mentioned, had a book coming out right before my show debuted. That didn't help. I think there was a lot of stuff that people were still holding onto. And I think that the cast was great and we had great potential. I think the writing could have been better. And I think Friday night was a hard night for it. But you know, it doesn't devastate me. I don't take it personally. I look at it like, 'Okay, I came back, I tried to do another show, and it just didn't work.' Whereas, had I not been in a good place, I think I would have taken it personally. Like with the last show. The last show was cancelled and I felt like that was a hard thing because it felt personal to me because I was gay and the character was gay, so I just thought, 'Well, they don't like me, then.' Instead of realizing it just didn't make it. It was kind of a tough subject for everybody to digest all at once.
GM: Right. Although if you look at TV shows now, you really paved the way.
ED: Well, I'm glad for that. I mean, you have shows like Six Feet Under, which is just a brilliant show, and Will and Grace is on. That's fantastic. I think it really is just about people giving their own time to process, their own time to digest and go, 'Okay.' It was just too much, I think, that I came out and the character came out and the show changed and went in a different direction.
GM: When you started out doing standup, I guess your goal was to get a show one day.
ED: No, it really wasn't. I started out before all the that started happening. Somewhere in the middle when I was doing that, all of a sudden Roseanne got a show and somebody else got a show that I knew that was a standup, and then I thought, 'Oh, that's a possibility.' It really wasn't my first... When I first started doing standup, I was just like... Because I had so many different jobs. You know, I was painting houses, I worked for a landscaping company, I shucked oysters, I was a waitress, I mean I did so many things, and I had no idea...
GM: While you were a stand-up?
ED: No. I didn't know I was going to be a comedian. I didn't know that was even an option. I thought being funny was just a personality trait. I didn't think it was a career option. And then I stumbled into this club that had opened because I had done something at a friend's function, you know, just being funny in front of my friends. They thought I was funny, which doesn't mean anything.