It’s easy to forget that Ellen DeGeneres is indeed a stand-up comedian. This is no knock on her wildly successful daytime talk show, one that has millions of avid fans and has cast a large shadow of influence across the entire genre (Jimmy Fallon surely owes her royalties for the sheer amount of ideas he’s ripped off from her series). Rather, it’s a sign of how far DeGeneres has come since the days when she went from beloved sitcom star and Johnny Carson favourite to social justice icon to pop culture pariah. Yet in-between the political furore, the Pixar voice-work, the Time covers, and the entertainment revival of a generation, Ellen was praised for her perfectly pleasant stand-up. Her observational humour and Bob Newhart style skit of a phone call with God got her invited onto the couch with Johnny Carson. At one point, she was voted the funniest woman in America. Two solid decades of her career are defined by stand-up yet it only makes up five lines on her Wikipedia page.
DeGeneres has returned to stand-up for the first time in 15 years with Relatable, a Netflix special filmed at the Benaroya Hall in Seattle. The mullet is gone, stand-up has come a long way, and DeGeneres has absolutely nothing to prove. She’s beyond rich, mega famous and has fans who clamour to their feet in standing ovations the moment she walks into a room. That situation is impossible for her to avoid, and she doesn’t try to with Relatable, a title that deliberately draws attention to how laughable that concepts seems for her nowadays. Her opening plays around with her eagerness to still be identifiable as one of the crowd despite her opulent lifestyle and comfort with it.
Of course, for someone like DeGeneres, being relatable isn’t just a frivolity. She’s become beloved for her niceness, her endless joy, her dancing and gift-giving and her position as one of the good guys. Being relatable is part of her career’s lifeblood, and the most interesting parts of Relatable come when she confronts that. Her now iconic dancing is mocked, as is her reputation as a perpetual sweetheart and how it boxes her into impossible situations. Yet she still dances in this special, as part of one of the funniest moments in the hour. It’s a fascinating dichotomy between honesty and branding: DeGeneres may feel constricted by these expectations but she knows what the people want.
Relatable feels retro in comparison to much of what Netflix has released in 2018. This is the year of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, of Ali Wong’s follow-up to Baby Cobra, of John Mulaney’s Emmy winner Kid Gorgeous, and much more. Outside of Netflix, we heard Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes special. People like Trevor Noah, Demetri Martin, Tig Notaro, and even Russell Brand were upping their game in a highly competitive market. DeGeneres cannot help but feel analogue in comparison, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. She’s an old-school observational comedian who has become defined by digital savvy and a simple promise of big smiles all round.
Simple charm is the name of the game with Relatable, and there is plenty of it here. DeGeneres hasn’t lost her good sense of timing and she can still deliver a deadpan zinger like the best of them. There’s nothing here that’s politically radical, although hearing DeGeneres recount her darker past and her much-talked about coming out are sharp reminders that she has earned her softness in that regard. Those autobiographical elements are still where the special soars. The more familiar observational gags have their moments but don’t push any buttons. You eagerly want her to go further, to dig deeper, to let out that humanity she talks of frequently throughout.
She seems genuinely delighted to be on stage with few frills and a captive audience. However, that audience may be hindering the true potential of the special. The venue seats about 2500 people and it’s a sold out event packed to the gunnels with DeGeneres’s most avid fans. Anyone who has ever watched her show will know that Ellen commands impressive loyalty with seemingly no effort. This crowd came ready to laugh and ready to worship. From the moment DeGeneres steps onto the stage, they are on their feet and heralding her arrival. Almost every joke gets not only big laughs but whoops and cheers and moments of ‘I get it’ recognition. For a back to basic kind of show, it feels like a missed opportunity that DeGeneres didn’t go for a smaller venue where she and the set could truly breathe.
Your enjoyment of Relatable will almost entirely be tied to your expectations and desires. Do you want something sweet and easy that’ll fill up the hour with no fuss? Then this is for you. But stand-up went so far in 2018. Hannah Gadsby demanded more from us. Ali Wong went raw and gross. John Leguizamo’s latest one-man show combined personal vulnerability with socio-historical pain. Cameron Esposito harnessed her past trauma to take on one of the biggest questions in comedy. Even the usual jokesters just sharpened their tools and focused their aim, like John Mulaney’s elegantly written Kid Gorgeous, which flowed expertly from joke to joke and was some of the year’s most expertly constructed stand-up. Ellen DeGeneres’s special is looser and more disconnected, with its targets easier for the expected punchlines. Once again, there’s nothing wrong with that and if you go into this knowing what you want and what you’re going to get, there’s much to appreciate.
But as Hannah Gadsby said, comedy is all about tension and release, and while amazing things can happen when you refuse to let up on that tension, the effect is less impressive when the room and the act are utterly tension free.
Ellen DeGeneres: Relatable is now available to watch on Netflix.
Header Image Source: Netflix