LONDON — Comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres is this year’s recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. To which I do my own version of Ellen’s signature happy dance.
DeGeneres is not the first female to win the prestigious award, which has been bestowed by the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts annually for the last 15 years. Tina Fey, Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg are all past winners. But it’s always great when another woman makes it into the traditionally male pantheon of comedy.
Let me say up front that I’m not a huge fan of Ellen’s day-time talk show, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” To my taste, it’s too sweet, too schmaltzy and too, well ... safe.
But I’m a huge fan of Ellen. For starters, she’s funny as hell. She started out as an emcee at a local comedy club in her native New Orleans. In 1982, a video of her stand-up routine won her Showtime’s “Funniest Person in America” award. In 1988, she became the first female comedian summoned to Johnny Carson’s desk to chat about her performance on “The Tonight Show.”
And if you’ve never seen the episode on the erstwhile Garry Shandling Show where Shandling – in his role as a (fictional) talk show host – tries to persuade Ellen to “come out” on his show (and then ends up sleeping with her), it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious.
DeGeneres also has great acting chops. In the children’s animated classic “Finding Nemo,” she voiced the role of Dory, the neurotic Blue Tang fish. I don’t know about you, but I’m Dory through and through. When Dory stresses out about finding Nemo, we all do. It was one of the first films to win me over to animation, largely because of her compelling performance.
Sure – it’s an era in which Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Sarah Silverman have become household names – we hear a lot about this being the “age of female comedians.” But as Alessandra Stanley notes in an insightful Vanity Fair feature on this topic, most of today’s successful female comedians are physically attractive . They need to be, Stanley argues, to appeal to the predominantly young, predominantly male movie-going demographic that so often makes or breaks a film’s popularity.
Ellen is cut in an entirely different mold. I think she’s lovely to look at, but that’s neither here nor there. What makes her different, in part, is that she is openly gay. One of the biggest pop culture moments of the 1990s was when her eponymous character on the hit TV series, Ellen – and the actress, Ellen – simultaneously came out both on the TV show and on the cover of Time magazine.
In a day and age where we now — according to Newsweek, anyway — have our first “gay president,” it’s worth remembering that Ellen was one of the people who got that ball rolling, back when it wasn’t so acceptable to push gay rights, especially on television.
After DeGeneres came out on “Ellen,” the show began to lose viewers. It was canceled a year later. She questioned out loud whether ABC was too fearful of the whole topic, telling ABC’s Diane Sawyer: “When I’m accused of being political, I’m showing love. How is that political to teach love and acceptance?” But she was subsequently redeemed when shows such as “Will and Grace,” “Glee!” and “Modern Family” all featured gay characters.
And of course – although this has absolutely nothing to do with being funny – DeGeneres has been a huge advocate for social issues. It’s hard not to watch the video she did in the wake of the Tyler Clementi suicide without tearing up. More recently, she’s jumped into the fray about the movie “Bully,” arguing that it needs to be rated PG-13 so that it can help save lives.
So rock on, Ellen. And please keep it coming.