The dilemma that motivates Relatable, the first stand-up special from Ellen DeGeneres in 15 years, turns out to be a false dichotomy. In one of the clearly fictitious, story-shaped jokes that form a signature part of her routine, DeGeneres recalls telling a friend her plans to take up the microphone again. But, he asks, does she think she’s still relatable? “Just then, my butler stepped into the library and announced my breakfast was ready,” DeGeneres says, smirking.
Such is the challenge DeGeneres lays out for herself, to both her massive audience at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall and the millions of Netflix subscribers who can watch the 68-minute performance starting Tuesday. Now that DeGeneres is massively famous and successful, can she still form the connection with fans that leads to empathy, and therefore laughs? Now that she’s spent a decade and a half translating viral memes for Midwestern moms, can she revert to the fine-tuned skill set she’s mostly let sit on the self?
Based on DeGeneres’s previous stand-up alone, these questions seem slightly irrelevant. DeGeneres’s stage comedy has long been drawn not from life’s larger problems, but the picayune ones forever associated with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, though these men are less DeGeneres’s influences than her peers. (Her episode of Seinfeld’s semi-talk show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, is a portrait of two people reveling in their mutual success, down to bonding over how to appease their wives.) She doesn’t talk much about her childhood or, for more understandable reasons, her dating life. DeGeneres talks about the instructions on a shampoo bottle, or gum disease, or the embarrassment of having to silence one’s phone in a movie theater. These aren’t life-or-death struggles. Nor are they the kind of inspiration that suddenly disappears when you own an eight-figure piece of real estate on the California coast.
But Relatable is not a mere retread. Money and fame really have changed DeGeneres’s comedy—not by depriving her of personal material, but by giving her free rein to delve into reserves of it that she’s been sitting on for a good, long while. Those tapped into celebrity gossip are aware of the longstanding rumors that DeGeneres is a demanding and unkind boss, a notion established enough for DeGeneres to adamantly deny it in a recent New York Times profile. Publicly, however, she is known as an inoffensive people-pleaser. Or, as DeGeneres herself puts it midway through Relatable: “I’m the be-kind girl.” Relatable suggests that she finally feels established enough to be a little less affable and a little more candid.
Relatable is not DeGeneres’s first special since coming out on an episode of her sitcom in 1997, to initial praise and then panicked cancellation. The Beginning, her 2000 hour for HBO, is positioned as something of a comeback after three years out of the spotlight. In it, DeGeneres does talk about her experience as a gay woman in the public eye, but always deflects to a joke before things get too serious: a promise to express her feelings turns into a slapstick interpretive dance; a heartfelt conversation with God turns into a callback about Gloria Estefan. Here and Now, from 2003, treats DeGeneres’s sexuality more like background information, an approach that was groundbreaking in its own way.
But this latest hour is the first time DeGeneres allows herself to express the fear, hurt, and even anger that surrounded her decision to come out of the closet and its aftermath, a full 21 years after the fact. There’s a palpable tinge of resentment to the analogy she draws between other closeted celebrities and meerkats, scared back underground by the consequences she suffered for being herself. (The comparison is illustrated via meerkat footage on an overhead screen, a device DeGeneres turns to for visual aids throughout the special.) DeGeneres had hoped for allies and ultimately suffered alone, a wound soothed by her subsequent vindication but by no means completely healed. “It would help if more people came out,” she concludes. This isn’t the most controversial opinion in a post-marriage-equality America, but it is exponentially bolder than the what’s-the-deal-with observations DeGeneres is otherwise known for, and not a position entirely in keeping with current liberal orthodoxy.
The deliberate inanity is hardly gone, though its context, and purpose within the act, has notably changed. A surprise “fuck,” still a shock coming from America’s Dance Craze Instructor, slips into an otherwise PG bit about wearing socks with holes in them. (This device isn’t new, either: A story about daydreaming mid-conversation in Here and Now includes a similar strategic F-bomb.) The phrase “fine dining,” emotional support animals, and preventative headache medicine all take turns getting the ain’t-it-weird treatment. This isn’t fashionable comedy, entering a landscape where personal confession is now the norm, from Ali Wong’s graphic descriptions of motherhood to Hannah Gadsby’s dissection of her own trauma. But it does position DeGeneres’s newer additions as a smooth, organic extension of her preexisting persona—an evolution, not a reinvention.
They also cushion the impact of the stuff that really isn’t relatable, and wouldn’t be no matter how hard DeGeneres tried to sell it as such. So she doesn’t, opting for a different, equally vital building block of the comic-audience bond: disarming, refreshing honesty. “I can never do anything unkind, ever, now,” she says. “I can’t do the things you do.” Then, lest she wear out her welcome, DeGeneres frames her complaint in terms of road rage. When she points out that Prius drivers tend to be infuriatingly slow, the audience roars in recognition, tested but not too much. Later, DeGeneres goes even further: After embarrassing herself in front of some vaping teens at a gas station—“When you do something stupid, you’re just a person who did something stupid. When I do something stupid, it’s a story”—she brushes it off by shrugging, saying “I don’t care, I’ll buy a new car.” In the face of such hard-earned arrogance, the audience roars.
Relatable is the work of an entertainer who has given herself permission: to admit just how awful it felt to be rejected by people she loves because of who she is; to complain about being asked to dance wherever she goes; to not be relatable. This is not a special that will suddenly win converts out of the snobs, myself included, who roll their eyes at cutesy viral animal videos, which DeGeneres deploys here as readily as she does on her show. It may, however, prompt a grudging respect from them, and maybe even a consideration. Ellen DeGeneres is spikier, and angrier, and maybe even more vulnerable than you thought. Just don’t call her humble.