(Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Ellen DeGeneres’ career has been full of highlights, but having both Barack and Michelle Obama bust a move on the set of her hit talk show has got to be right up there.
The moment with the president-elect and future first lady, taped last month, was equal parts goofy and historic, which is par for the course for the 50-year-old Metairie, La., native. She’s been making history through her comedy for years.
In 1986, she became the first female comedian summoned by Johnny Carson to sit down with him after a stand-up set on “The Tonight Show.” Eleven years later, during the fourth season of her eponymous hit sitcom, DeGeneres announced on the cover of the April 14 edition of Time magazine that she was gay. Weeks later, her TV character also came in an episode watched by more than 40 million viewers.
These days, she’s found a home in the daytime arena with her syndicated talk show. Now in its sixth season, the program has earned a total of 25 Daytime Emmy Awards.
DeGeneres recently spoke with the Banner about “Ellen’s Really Big Show,” a one-hour variety special filmed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and set to air Saturday night at 9 p.m. on TBS. She also weighed in on the Obamas’ dance moves, the presidential election and the passage in California of Proposition 8, a measure banning gay marriage in the state.
You danced with both Barack and Michelle on the show. Who’s better?
Well, I think that we agree that Michelle was. But I think that’s good. I would be worried if he was a good dancer because that would mean he’s not spending enough time working. I always worry when someone’s a good golfer, too. It’s like, you shouldn’t have time to be good at anything. You should just be a politician and you shouldn’t have time to practice golf or dancing. So I am thrilled that Michelle’s a better dancer. Although he is a good dancer, better than a lot of people that I have seen on the show.
Were you surprised at how much play the dance clips from your show got on all the cable news channels?
No, I wasn’t that surprised about that. I guess when you get the political candidates to dance — well, actually only one danced — that’s going to get some play. I have the picture of Barack and me dancing right outside of my dressing room door, I see it every single day, and it makes me very happy.
Have you heard from Sen. John McCain since his appearance on your show, since your awkward exchange?
No. I don’t think we’re going to keep in touch anyway. I mean, I would be glad to take a call from him. He seems like a nice guy.
That was a moment that was an obvious question for me to ask, if he doesn’t really agree with equality, and that’s what it really boils down to is equality. I wasn’t going to give him too hard of a time because I understand that that’s what he believes and I wasn’t going to change anything. I wasn’t there to change his mind, I just wanted to present a very obvious case that we are all the same and we all deserve to have equal rights. But I am glad people watched it and, like I said, I didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable. That’s not my job. It’s not the kind of show I ever want to do.
Do you care to comment on the outcome of the election?
I was thrilled, and really proud as a lot of people are about it. It was energizing that Obama got in and I felt excited about that. But the next day, especially because Obama got in, there was a big loud voice [in California] saying, “You were not equal to us.” And that feels bad. That feels really, really bad. And if anybody could put themselves in that situation, of feeling a giant, loud voice saying you don’t deserve the same rights, you are different and you are not equal, it feels really bad. So it took a little bit of air out of me from the excitement from the night before. I do feel hopeful and excited. But certainly that was an emotional day for me.
Did you see the article in the Los Angeles Times by Steve Lopez where he said that what the gay movement needs is a black Elton John, a black icon?
I don’t understand that statement about a black Elton John, but [the movement] needs for people to not be ignorant. It needs for people to open their minds and understand. It is a fundamental right for people to be allowed to love who they want to love and marry who they want to marry, and stop holding on to some form of discrimination that … just isn’t fair. And if you look back, as you know if you watched what Keith Olbermann talked about, this happened to black people. It’s crazy that we’re still holding on to some form of this. So I don’t know what it is going to take, but I do have faith that people will realize that this is wrong.
What the writer was suggesting with that “black Elton John” comment was that, although the African American community is generally liberal, it tends to be somewhat anti-gay marriage, and it would help if a black superstar would come out.
Well, I think unfortunately it all comes down to certain cultures [being] just more accepting or less accepting. I understand what you’re saying about that stigma and unfortunately there are a lot of very well-known black people that are gay but unfortunately closeted.
And that doesn’t help things, that people are not able to live their lives honestly. Do you come out and just force people to deal with it, or do you wait for it to be accepted and then people get to live their lives honestly and openly? Which comes first? It’s a big risk for people to have a big career and come out. And that’s because of what’s going on, but it would change things if people would live their lives in a way that’s healthier for them, really. It’s not really helping anybody to live a life that isn’t true to themselves. But I don’t know, I have faith that people will, even without some type of a symbol, open their minds and their hearts.
Have you gotten any negative feedback about your marriage [to longtime partner, actress Portia de Rossi]?
I think I am probably protected from a lot of stuff that would be negative. I know there’s always going to be feedback, no matter what the subject. I mean, I am shocked by somebody commenting on my shoes or my clothes. Everyone has an opinion and especially now, more and more, everyone is logging about everything and has an opinion. So I can’t possibly pay attention to that.
Listen, I am sure that there are station managers that carry the show in certain markets that aren’t really thrilled with it because they probably are the people that would vote yes on Proposition 8. They don’t agree with gay marriage, they don’t understand it, and probably were a little fearful in the first place of an openly gay person. So I am sure people have opinions about it and I am sure they don’t really love me anyway, any which way I go. So I can’t really pay attention to that. I just have to speak from my heart. I don’t really ever get political on the show. But to me, that was not political. To me, this is just about equality and about something that is way, way overdue. But to answer your question, I am sure some people don’t like it.
What can we expect from this year’s special?
Well, as the title says, it’s even bigger. And I think that says it all. Last year it was really, really big. This year, even bigger. …
I think it’s going to be the same kind of excitement, the same kind of acts that you have never seen before. We brought in people from all over the world that are fascinating to watch and I think most of you are going to just sit there and wonder how they even thought of this idea that that would be a possibility as a talent. That’s what I’m going for.
Do you miss doing stand-up?
I don’t miss traveling and sleeping in a hotel every night. I mean, that touring got really old. I did it for 15 years and I had no idea I was going to be a talk show host, but I used to joke with the audience at the end of my set that someday I am going to make you come to me, and I’m not going to come to you anymore. And now they do come to me. So I still get to do stand-up every single day. I love that live energy exchange between the audience and myself, and to get to say the things I want to say and comment on.
What is your process when you are trying out new material?
I am the opposite of Chris Rock and Seinfeld and Leno and everybody — I never try out material. When I did the Oscars, when I do anything, I write it and I just have a gut feeling, and I just keep tweaking and tweaking and tweaking until I think have the wording right and know what I want to say, and I just say it. I don’t ever go to clubs and try it out.
I have writers here with the show and we collaborate on that, and the same thing with this special coming up. So I just have a feeling of what I want to say and what is the right wording, and I don’t ask anybody. In the very beginning, I made lots of mistakes. I did some stuff on stage that clearly didn’t go over. But you know, you just keep trying, and I think part of the fun, especially early on, is letting the audience see the mistakes. They love to see that. They like to see the process.