Ellen DeGeneres Riffs on Wealth and Fame in Netflix Special ‘Relatable’
Ellen DeGeneres may be rich, she may be famous, and she no longer has to carry the weight of having come out as gay when it was taboo for celebrities to do so. Yet she still deals with every day hassles like trying to be nice and making sure her butler has placed fresh towels in the shower. These and other observations make DeGeneres’s new Netflix special “Relatable” enjoyable in a light, tongue in cheek way. This is the famed TV host’s first venture into stand-up in 15 years and she hasn’t lost the touch. DeGeneres’s friendly, down to earth personality comes through in jokes that never get too edgy, but work like journal memories.
DeGeneres kicks off the show by riffing on her own wealth, bemoaning how difficult life can be when you’re sitting in your solarium with the help trimming your garden nearby. With her trademark goofiness, DeGeneres makes the case that great wealth doesn’t mean you can’t be relatable to the common folk. Of course in her case a walk down a hallway in her current pad means going “past the Medal of Freedom, past the Emmys, past the People’s Choice Awards, past the Kids’ Choice Awards, the Teen Choice Awards, the Mark Twain Prize, the Peabody, take a left at the gift shop, and that is the front door.” But there was a time when DeGeneres didn’t have such perks and she goes back into the past, reminiscing about growing up as a Christian Scientist in a family where vaccines and medicines were denied. She also recounts her first days as a starving, would-be comedian, living in rooms crawling with bugs, losing a lover for the first time and finally making it onto Johnny Carson. And yet, even after the fame, hard times can still drop on your doorstep. In DeGeneres’s case it was coming out in the 1990s that suddenly turned her into both a gay icon and a figure of controversy, keeping her out of TV for at least three years before launching the hugely successful “Ellen” talk show.
It is precisely the sections where DeGeneres puts aside the jokes about fame and fortune where the show becomes indeed, more relatable. The best moments deal with her discussing the perils of coming out in the entertainment industry, with jokes that are told with liveliness, but hide a biting sarcasm. Consider when she shares that when she decided to come out “everyone making money off of me” told her not to, from agents to publicists. Even when the furor somewhat died down, pitching her current TV show was a hassle because networks quite literally told her that no one would “watch a lesbian during the day.” There is no bitterness in her tone, or smugness, she shares this material like someone remembering an odd, irrational occurrence in their lives.
“Relatable” also basks in poking fun at the every day. DeGeneres makes fun of everything from aspirin commercials to the growing culture of service animals. “Now when you fly, you’re walking down the aisle to your seat, 10B or whatever it is, it’s like Noah’s Ark. There’s a woman with a ferret, there’s a man with a mongoose, there’s a lady with a donkey,” says DeGeneres, before throwing in a devilish bit of icing regarding her own status, “I say ‘10B.’ Does a plane go back that far? I’ve never been back there.” But can we blame her for reveling just a little in her success? Per her jokes, DeGeneres lives the kind of life where her wife gives her a birthday gift in the form of a foundation to preserve wildlife. Fame has also brought a funny curse in terms of her image. Known for her calls to “be kind to each other,” now she feels repressed when it comes to her own rages, whether in public or while driving. Her famous, quirky dancing style on “Ellen” has also tagged her to the point where even while getting a mammogram people will demand she dance. Of course DeGeneres will deliver even during her stand-up routine and does indeed dance for the cheering audience to Juvenile’s “Back That Ass Up.”
There is a kind of throwback feel to much “Relatable,” as DeGeneres never abandons the very nature of her humor. This is the kind of stand-up more common in the late 1980s, early 1990s. She never swerves into toilet humor and barely makes any political statements, except for one bit where she does confess that reading the paper these days leaves her in a fetal position. Most of the time “Relatable” has the feeling of catching up with DeGeneres. She’s been through some lows, and is now high on the perch of success, but we have a good time listening to her share all about it.
“Ellen DeGeneres: Relatable” premieres Dec. 18 on Netflix.