If there’s a best-ever Kate McKinnon impression, her Ellen DeGeneres might be it. Apart from mere mimicry, the best impersonations incorporate something deeper in the soul of the impersonated, and the Saturday Night Live star’s uncanny Ellen found its truth in a placating coda to any joke that verged on actual edginess or in any way deconstructed her cuddly, audience-pleasing brand: “Just kiddin’, I’m Ellen.” Naturally McKinnon then guested on The Ellen DeGeneres Show—with Ellen, as Ellen—and was irresistibly subsumed into the host’s chummy embrace.
In Relatable, DeGeneres’ first stand-up special in 15 years, the comic does her own impression of herself: the stand-up star she once undeniably was. While she was never Richard Pryor or anything, DeGeneres was a groundbreaking comedian, emerging from the 1980s comedy boom as one of the most reliably funny headliners in the country, and, paralleling the career track of peer Jerry Seinfeld, vaulting into her own, self-titled hit sitcom. Her pre-talk show material wasn’t confessional—it was observational. Like Seinfeld, she goggled at life’s smallest absurdities and escalated them into big laughs, albeit with a more amiably self-effacing whimsy. But that innocuous image was an act in itself, as DeGeneres’ talent and ambitions belied any “aw shucks,” accidental-stardom illusions. She was a major star, and a major talent.
Partway through Relatable, DeGeneres tells a story about being 21 years old, living in a flea-infested basement hovel of an apartment and imagining a phone call with God—an idle musing that became her first piece of stand-up material. That she was moved to craft the bit because she’d wound up in that crappy place after her first girlfriend died in a car crash (complete with the sort of sick-joke detail seemingly designed by a particularly malicious deity) is a side of the story—and of herself—that the old Ellen never told. Not even six years later, when—as she claims she predicted in that itchy personal hellhole—she did the bit on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and (again, as she’d vowed to herself she would) became the first female stand-up comic to get the coveted invitation to join Carson on the couch post-set.
Relatable sees DeGeneres shifting back and forth like that. Her Tonight Show story is illustrated by a projected onstage clip of her big moment, a device employed throughout the special—sometimes for emotional effect, but more often for daytime-flavored laughs like the montage of adorable cat and bird videos she and wife Portia de Rossi send to each other. Relatable is very much about Ellen revealing things about herself in ways her old persona never did, but it’s also about how that original, inoffensively observational persona wasn’t as much a persona as a part of who she is, too. She addresses how her coming out, which was once a career-threatening revelation, has been transformed over 16 years as America’s comfiest gift-dispensing daytime pal, by impersonating an Ellen DeGeneres Show viewer delighted that she “got a TV from the gay lady!”
DeGeneres incorporates some unaccustomed heaviness into Relatable, edging toward a more revelatory, one-woman show model at times. And those parts can be quite affecting, as when she talks openly about how the initial goodwill surrounding her coming out almost instantly evaporated, and the pain it left behind. “I’m still gay, by the way,” is how she offhandedly opens up the subject, receiving an enthusiastic swell of applause, before expressing how, when she announced her sexuality during the run of her soon-after-cancelled sitcom, “for five minutes it was really celebrated, and then everyone changed their minds.” Coming from the notoriously private DeGeneres, the stark statement that her “worst fears came true” is striking, as she details the three years of depression and mockery that preceded her return to TV. That she can look back in indisputable triumph now—she jokes in mock-humble passing about her Mark Twain Prize, Presidential Medal Of Freedom, multiple Emmys, and Peabody Award, among other accolades—doesn’t completely sap the vigor from a bit about endorsing gayness like a prescription drug pitch person. “Side effects may include loss of family, loss of friends, unemployment…”
Ellen is still Ellen, and if her occasional feints toward soul-baring comedy give way more frequently to innocuously amusing bits about shoe shopping, toothpaste, bathroom attendants, and the like, it’s not inconsiderable how the comic broadens her trusty stand-up palette. Indeed, the special is funniest and most biting when DeGeneres combines her two comic modes, peppering her set with airy asides about how she—one of the richest and most popular entertainers in the country—is “just like you.” In her opener, DeGeneres explains how she chose the title of her special as a riposte to a friend who dared doubt she could connect with the common folk of a paying stand-up audience again, drawing out the bit with details of her supposed daily life (butlers, gardeners, breakfast in her solarium, all those awards), and concluding by discovering that her friend has gotten lost on the way to the front door of her mansion. (He may have made a wrong turn at the escalator.)
There’s not so much risk involved in this sort of material as a puckish confidence that her audience will incorporate this new, slightly more open comedy into their bottomless love of all things Ellen. She drops one, calculated “fuck” into an otherwise inoffensive bit about socks that elicits shrieks of delighted laughter. (You can practically hear murmurs of, “Oh, Ellen’s so bad!”) And while DeGeneres’ jokes about why she wishes she’d never started dancing on her talk show similarly walk the line between deconstructing her image and relishing in it (“Dance, Ellen, dance!”), she also incorporates the unedited version of Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” into a bit about how long it takes her, at 60 years old, to get to the dance floor.
Relatable is like that bit. A little bit of “just kiddin’” naughtiness folded into the fuller version of herself that DeGeneres wants to present as she moves forward into whatever shape her career takes after her long-running talk show gig finally closes. And it’s not a bad move, even if some of the segues into feel-good platitudes near the end of the special aren’t especially graceful or revelatory. From the start, Ellen DeGeneres has been a wryly original stand-up comedian. A joke about being asked to “tone down” her gayness at the start of her talk show yields the ticklish observation that she initially wore a lot of necklaces. (“Is Ellen wearing a necklace? It’s very delicate…”) And some of her more personal material—like the dream, of a pet bird with its cage facing a window, that she says was instrumental in her choice to come out—finds the storytelling sweet spot that marks the best one-person show-style specials. After all this time away from the stage, Relatable a promising new beginning for an old pro.