I was sitting in a staff meeting when the call came in. It was a 310 number, which is almost always more important than a 301 number, so I grabbed my BlackBerry and excused myself. Yes, BlackBerry. Don’t you judge me.
The person on the other end claimed to be the booker for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” She said that Ellen had seen me on “Last Comic Standing,” that she was a big fan and wanted to fly me out to Los Angeles to be on the show.
“Okay, but who is this really?”
Because it’s inconceivable that this woman I’ve idolized since I was in junior high – the woman whose voice I hear whenever I pass by a microwave (“Anything that gets that hot without fire is from the devil”) – knows who I am. I couldn’t possibly have made her laugh. By the time I’d processed the call and rejoined the meeting, my brain was on overload. Ellen DeGeneres wants to meet me! What am I going to wear?
The “Ellen DeGeneres Show” might have Disneyland beat in the “Happiest Place on Earth” category. By the time my guests — two Los Angeles-based comedian buddies — and I arrived on set for the taping, the pre-show dance party was in full swing. The guys were invited to join the studio audience, but in an act of machismo, chose to watch from the greenroom so they wouldn’t be seen dancing next to each other on national TV. When Ellen gave an iPod Touch to each member of the audience, they felt like idiots. I thought it was hilarious.
I felt like I had prepared well for my performance, but I was still super nervous. Although stand-up performances are usually just four or five minutes long, most comedians you see on TV have worked for months — even years — perfecting their sets. I’d gone back and forth for weeks with the producer about my set. I’d practiced it, timed it out. I had it down pat. But 20 minutes before I was to go on, he came into the dressing room and told me I had to change my closer. Now, for all you non-comedians out there, that’s a huge deal. Your closer is the biggest joke of your set. It’s the one that’s supposed to garner you the biggest laugh, the standing ovation. It’s the joke you blow kisses and bow after.
We had initially agreed on a bit about a friend who gave her kid a ridiculous amount of money for a lost tooth because “it’s gotten expensive.” My punch line was: “You do realize that, as the Tooth Fairy, you control the market?” But they thought that would ruin the Tooth Fairy myth for the millions of kids who watch the show with their moms. I was perfectly fine with being the person who ended that sham, but it wasn’t up to me, so I decided I’d end with a bit about my unemployed cousin who lives with his mom and has four kids with three different women, but won’t eat fried chicken around white people because it’s stereotypical.
Just before I went on, Ellen came backstage to chat with me. And she was as awesome as I’d imagined. She told me she thought I was a great writer, and that she was impressed that I worked clean. “Please don’t be nervous,” she said, which only made me more nervous. And before I knew it, she was introducing me:
“After seeing our next guest perform this past summer, I knew I wanted to share her with all of you . . .”
The set had a few bumps; seeing Ellen out of the corner of my eye while I performed didn’t exactly settle my nerves. But people laughed and clapped, and when I was done she called me over for the panel segment. We talked about my day job at a D.C. trade newspaper and the time I got booed off the stage at the Black Family Reunion Celebration on the National Mall. And when she called me “smart” and “hilarious,” I kinda died.
The whole thing lasted just 61 / 2 minutes. But it completely changed my life.
I’d been doing stand-up a little longer than four years at that point. I wanted nothing more than to be a full-time comic, but I had nowhere near the amount of work I needed to support myself. I wasn’t able to go out on the road much, and I’d appeared on “Last Comic Standing” but tons of comics with way more experience and name recognition had that same credit. In the eyes of most comedy bookers, I was way at the end of the line.
An endorsement from Ellen DeGeneres, though? That was “capital B-I-G” big.
It was big professionally because she has so few comedians on as guests; at a minimum it earned me a second glance from club and college bookers. But it was even bigger for me personally because it gave me confirmation that, although I was still going to work and sitting in a cubicle each day, I was on the right path.
If the woman sitting on top of the comedy game saw something in me, then all the hard work, late nights, and long drives were worth it. It was an opportunity for which I’ll be forever grateful. About a month after it aired, I was invited to perform at the largest college and university programming conference in the nation. I booked a ton of colleges for the upcoming year, and three months later, was able to resign from my job.
I sent Ellen a thank-you letter. I don’t know if she ever received it.
I headlined the DC Improv recently and the club ran a promotion where every person who bought a ticket to my show was entered into a drawing to win two passes to see Ellen receive this year’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Cheap-seat tickets to the Kennedy Center event run $1,000. I’m a full-time comedian now. I can’t afford that. But I did buy a ticket to my show.
Who knows, maybe I’ll win the drawing and get to thank her face-to-face.
Jackson, a former District resident, is based in Hampton, Va.