So, I watched Ellen Degeneres’ new Netflix special, Relatable, a few nights back. Relatable is her highly-publicized return to her roots: the stage as a stand-up comedian. Ellen is such a huge part of our media and public consciousness, it may seem difficult to remember there ever was a time when she was an unknown face and voice struggling for both recognition and a career that would pay the bills.
But there indeed was such a time, and she revisits it rather touchingly in the special. The title itself stems from a question she was asked by a friend (and which makes up the basis of the start of her routine) when she told him she was going to do a stand-up show again. That being, “will people still find you relatable?” With her being a multi-millionaire, corporate spokesperson and internationally-recognized celebrity, could she still “relate” to ordinary peons? Could we still relate to her?
The answer, coming from the Netflix show recorded in Seattle, is yes. She is still relatable. However, that’s the good news. The bad : she’s not all that funny anymore. It doesn’t feel right to criticize Ellen. It’s like kicking a muppet or pouring a pail of water on a kitten. Nasty. Not right. Ellen Degeneres is nice. Everyone says so, and she seems to be one of the kindest-hearted people in the Hollywood establishment. But the fact is, that as comics go, Ellen may be nice but she’s not all that amusing these days.
Which isn’t to say the show was horrible. It had funny bits, and other parts were heart-warming or interesting… ((SPOILER!)) the part about her first girlfriends’ death and her move to a flea-infested apartment for example, are touching and tell us a good deal about her but don’t induce laughter. In general, think of it as being in the room with Ellen as she has a lengthy, meandering conversation on the phone with a good friend.
The problems with the show are well…numerous. The better bits run on too long. The opening bit, about the question of whether or not she is still “relatable”, for example could’ve been a truly funny, snappy little joke but gets dragged out to minutes of her beating the concept (she’s rich and lives in a big house now) into the ground. She says being gay isn’t anything much more important than the dry eyes Jennifer Aniston suffers from, and she might be right. But for a trait that’s not that important, she sure does go on at length about it.
Her observational humor is very relatable – everyone has a junk drawer that probably has some rubber bands and a random AA battery or two in it, for instance – but again, so what? It’s true but it’s kind of irrelevant. Nobody’s going to be falling off their chair, rolling around on the floor busting a gut from laughing “Oh my God, that’s so true…I have a dozen elastic bands in my kitchen drawer too, guffaw!” or “I never noticed there were a lot of side effects listed on medicine commercials before! What a hoot!”. And while for most of the show, she stays very clean and family-friendly, the few spots where she tries to be shocking or raunchy seem just inappropriate and forced. That’s not necessarily something lost on her, when after saying how she never really wanted to be typecast as a “dancer” and then having a lengthy skit of her dancing to a rap song with about half the lyrics being ones which would be censored by network TV, she shakes her head and says “I’m 60 and dancing to ‘Back that ass up.’” Someone thought that was a good idea; you don’t necessarily get the idea that Ellen herself was that person.
That said, she might not have had an enviable task going back to her roots. A quarter-century or so back she was unknown, now we feel like we know everything about her, so there’s less she can tell us that will take us by surprise. And while her first sitcom was being canceled because not everybody was ready for a lesbian on prime time, another comic was taking over the TV with his own, more cynical “observational humor” which produced a “show about nothing”- Seinfeld. Since then, we’ve had twenty years of comics talking about things like junk drawers and the frustration of getting out of the shower and having forgotten to have a towel ready. Last but not least, while people can be funny and nice too, it’s a challenge.
In this day and age, it seems it’s a lot easier to draw laughter, applause and fans by merely being loud, having expletives make up about half of your dialog and ranting about who you hate. And that goes for everything from the Twitterverse to Washington’s hallowed halls to the “Just For Laughs” floors. I applaud Ellen for trying to take the high road. Yet while she made me and my parents alike all laugh in the ’90s, now she had me looking at my watch to see if it had stopped 45 minutes in. Maybe I’ve changed. Maybe Ellen has. Maybe society has…well, no maybe about that one. Either way, I think I like those old days a little better.