In high school, my friend Matty and I would drive around listening to a cassette of Comic Relief IV. I realize this is a very specific listening choice. Comic Relief was a massive telethon-like fundraiser event that enlisted comedians to help combat homelessness. The first one aired on HBO in 1986. The broadcast included hosts Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams (who would become staple emcees) and a heavy rotation of comedy royalty like George Carlin, Gary Shandling, Sid Caesar, and others. In 1986 I was an 11-year-old white, middle-class kid from a staid suburb whose grand gesture of diversity was the Chinese restaurant, Bob Loo’s, where the Asian wait staff wore Hawaiian shirts, just like they do in those countries far away! Homelessness was not on my radar. Comedy was.
Comic Relief IV aired in 1990. Dana Carvey, on track to become one of SNL’s comedy darlings, appeared on the show to do his “Choppin Broccoli” bit. Other stand-outs included the devastatingly deadpan Steven Wright, the always acerbic Joan Rivers, and the sweetly odd Ellen DeGeneres. Matty and I both had enormous crushes on Ellen. We memorized her routine and would pass bits and pieces of it back and forth at random times during the day in school like a secret language.
When Ellen began appearing on comedy showcases and late-night shows in the late-80s and early-1990s, I was instantly taken with her because she was so different than most of the other comics-male and female-rising through the ranks. She was smart and goofy and charmingly awkward. That last trait resonated deeply with me on a personal level. I was a teen taking a good look around and realizing that whereas the popular, well-liked girls resembled the friends hanging around the pool at Barbie’s dream house, I was more like one of those dolls you find at a yard sale: glued on hair, mismatched shoes, one arm shorter than the other because it came from some other doll entirely. At least that’s how I felt inside. Adolescence is a trip! Ellen was quirky and weird and she gave me hope.
Like Seinfeld, Ellen’s humor was centered on the quotidian—exploiting the strange, off-beat, even baffling aspects of everyday experiences that we all share. Just beneath the silly surface of Ellen’s comedy were sharp, witty perspectives about universal truths and frustrations. Her brand of humor, in general, tends to be more universal than others, for example, comics who work “blue” (heavy on vulgarity). It’s not particularly divisive or critical in the sense of speaking truth to power, it’s simply fun (though there isn’t anything simple about it either). Whether or not it was calculated, Ellen long ago staked a sizable claim on the feel-good comedy market, fusing a version of herself with humor designed to uplift, to be a welcome refuge from the messier, more harrowing realities of our lives. We’ve come to relish the message of this comedy as much as we’ve come to embrace its messenger.
That’s one of the things that makes the recent scandal engulfing Ellen so disheartening. BuzzFeed recently broke the disturbing story of sexual harassment and misconduct at The Ellen Degeneres Show. Dozens of former staffers have come forward to speak out against several executive producers who, they claim, engaged in inappropriate behavior and contributed to a toxic work environment. Ellen released a company-wide email where she expressed her alarm. She admitted, “As we’ve grown exponentially, I’ve not been able to stay on top of everything and relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I’d want them done.” Truthfully, this rings a little hollow. If you think that Oprah didn’t know how many Splenda packets were in the break room at Harpo Studios, I have some stock in a new retail venture called Block Buster Video that I’d love to sell you.
Leaving Ellen’s culpability aside, the allegations about the inner-workings of Ellen’s show have provided an opportunity to “out” America’s beloved, self-styled comedic “queen of nice” as a colossal douche canoe. On social and mainstream media, including an article in the Washington Post titled: “The downward spiral of Ellen DeGeneres’ public persona: a complete guide” (sidenote: yikes), people who have had dealings with Ellen characterize the comedian as churlish, difficult, and just mean.
A young woman I knew from the Boston comedy scene moved to L.A. to take a writing job on the show. A year or so later I ran into a mutual acquaintance and asked about her. She left the show, this person said. I could see her searching for a diplomatic phrase in the expectant pause that followed. “She found it wasn’t a very… collaborative place,” she eventually replied. I am a regular, far, far from the surreal galaxy of this industry, and even I knew there was more to that statement than this person would ever reveal.
There are too many voices in the chorus to ignore that something is not right in the house of Ellen. I can’t know her emotional or psychological make-up. I can’t know her motivations or intentions. I can only know her art. Reading through Twitter threads exposing one of America’s favorite comic girl-next-door, who presented her professional “brand” as indistinguishable from her personal ethics, as a stone cold trash bag, made me ask: Does this change her comedy? Does it change what she does and has given us?
No, nope, nah, c’mon now, give me a break! It’s comedy! the ding-dong pleasure center of my brain said. Yes, whispered my heart and conscience. Fork.
Here’s what I know to be true about comedy: Humor is intimate. It is an emotional contract we enact with the performer or creator of the funny material. That contract is about connection. Maybe we see ourselves or our experiences reflected in the person or the material; maybe we’re being asked to think about painful subjects; maybe we’re giving ourselves a way to escape in pure pleasure and fun. When we talk about favoring one comedy over another—“that’s just not my kind of humor—“ what we’re really saying is that I’m not open to that connection, I refuse that emotional contract, I’m not open to what this comedy or the person who makes it is about.”
I think it’s one of the factors behind the struggle over how to feel about the work of a comedian who falls from grace. It would be convenient to neatly separate the two, to hold the comic apart from her comedic craft, but that’s just not possible. Comedy feels deeply personal, even when we know the comic has created a layer of performance, of character, to manage the delicate interplay between stark truths and their comic exaggerations. It’s a little like hanging out with a friend who you know is going to slip twenty bucks out of your wallet when you’re out of the room, but, hey, you enjoy their company so, maybe you overlook it for a while? Or maybe you decide you don’t want to be complicit in your own exploitation and you tell that friend to delete your number, you’re out.
Do we hold Ellen to some kind of higher personal standard because of how she’s positioned herself through her comedy? I think we do, and I think that’s a tremendous responsibility that even Ellen underestimated, if she even grasped it at all early on. Nevertheless, here we are, which is where I will part ways with this artist. Because, how can I take pleasure from Ellen’s funny, irreverent take on things that are supposed to unite us, to remind us of our shared humanity, of our best impulses to tolerance and empathy, if when after the applause fades and the cameras stop filming, she leaves behind those same values like bits of left over confetti littering an empty stage.