Ellen DeGeneres was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her courage, candour and comedy. Kate McCabe might never stop applauding.
For many LGBTQ people of a certain generation, they can envision their lives split into two eras: BE and AE.
That’s Before Ellen and After Ellen (there’s even a website, After Ellen, which charts lesbian representation in pop culture). Such was the impact that Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out had on queer people and, more importantly, the heterosexuals in our lives.
But DeGeneres was my hero long before that. Because she’s more than just that one courageous moment of truth. She’s a brilliant comic. She’s also a humanitarian and animal rights activist, often dedicating regular show time to raising money, awareness, or awarding money and/or prizes to people in need.
I fell in love with standup as a little tomboy growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania, a medium-sized town whose industrial boom had passed a few decades earlier. I must have been about 11 or 12 when I started recording A&E’s Evening at the Improv and watching them on a slavish loop. Emo Philips, Judy Tenuta and Paula Poundstone were all titans in my eyes. But my absolute queen was DeGeneres. A master of mixing everyday observations with innocent but pointed facetiousness, I couldn’t get enough of her comedy.
After her performance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, she was asked to sit on the couch – which is a much bigger deal than it sounds. He hardly ever called comics over, but when he did, it was a glowing endorsement. DeGeneres was the first female comic he’d invited for a post-set chat. Watch her here talking about being a woman in comedy with him after her five-minute clip. (Marvel at how we have the SAME frustrating conversation today about women in comedy).
I kept up with her work as I grew older. I watched Coneheads at the cinema (she plays a small role). I tuned in for her HBO One Night Stand special (brilliant). In 1996 I ran out to buy her first and only comedy album, Taste This. I kept a copy of it in my car up until a few months ago when I got some modern wheels without a CD player. Then came These Friends of Mine, her very own sitcom. Within a year it had been rebranded as simply Ellen.
Ellen was OK as far as sitcoms went. She played a version of herself – a likeable everywoman finding humour in the minutiae of life – and the show was often viewed as a ‘female version of Seinfeld‘. Personally, I don’t know that her sitcom was ever THAT iconic… at least not until early spring of 1997 when ABC confirmed that the rumours were true: DeGeneres’s character, Ellen Morgan, was going to come out of the closet.
It was set as the season finale with a two-part episode, called ‘The Puppy Episode’, but they had spent the whole year teasing with innuendo. The IRL Ellen DeGeneres came out simultaneously in Time magazine with a cover story that read simply, “Yep, I’m Gay”.
I came out of the closet near enough at the same time DeGeneres did. It wasn’t planned. It’s just how things fell into place and it felt intensely personal that my hero was holding my hand while I did it.
Though it all feels so easy to talk about in 2016, it felt like a full-on ice-cold bucket challenge to my very soul in 1997. I don’t think I can explain what it meant to someone like me better than America’s current best orator, Barack Obama. So, here he is, explaining the significance of what she did while awarding DeGeneres with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
DeGeneres’s career took a bullet after she came out. Her show tanked in the ratings. Even though I found the ‘out’ version of Ellen Morgan enthralling and her adventures more entertaining than ever, people didn’t want to know about the life of their lesbian bestie anymore. They liked it better when she was pretending.
Ellen was cancelled and she didn’t work for what felt like eons. She weathered a mighty backlash led by America’s religious right and the sexually squeamish. When Jerry Falwell name-checked her in a sermon by calling her Ellen DeGenerate, her perfect response was: “It’s nice coming from a minister. That’s the Lord’s work – name-calling.”
Then, in 2000, she got back up, dusted herself off (because that’s what heroes do) and put on a new hour of standup. The Beginning, it was called. I was there for it and she was so heartfelt, so funny, so perfect. My now-wife was at that taping too, although I didn’t know it at the time – just one of those weird coincidences in life.
It was in 2003 when people, all of a sudden and en masse, remembered that actually, they LOVED Ellen DeGeneres. This was, of course, the year Finding Nemo came out. DeGeneres imbued the forgetful blue tang, Dory, with an endearing humanity. It’s like people forgot (haha, just like Dory forgets!) to hate gays for the day. Thanks, cartoon fish!
Since then, she hasn’t left our public view. With her long-running daytime talk show, she’s a ray of sunshine, dancing even though everyone is watching. She’s stronger, braver, and funnier than most of us and I’m so grateful she’s here.3834 Views
Kate McCabe is an American comic living in Manchester. When not gigging as a standup, she improvises with ComedySportz Manchester, and contributes to local TV and radio including The Gay Agenda on Fab Radio.