Ellen DeGeneres’ Relatable, her first stand-up special in fifteen years, is an immensely enjoyable, goofy and insightful foray into the minutiae of her life as a celebrity and her reflections on her prominent role as a gay icon. Throughout the special, there was rarely a moment I didn’t enjoy, and I believe this attests to DeGeneres’ uniquely likeable status as an American comedian.
Set fifteen years since her last foray into stand-up, DeGeneres begins Relatable by questioning whether she is still relatable to the average American. While working through this premise, she brilliantly mocks her wealth by describing her extravagant household in Gatsbyish descriptions and the numerous maids and butlers who wait on her. However, in typical comic form, she voices her annoyance at one of her butlers forgetting to leave her towel next to the bath, causing her to have to do a “bathmat scoot” to reach it, which develops into a key call back later on. DeGeneres reminds us of her comic chops by making the question of relatability the key theme of her special. The oppositional nature of comedy to power is often exaggerated, but it still has an effect on how we view comic performance. So it’s a credit to DeGeneres that when she does refer to her immense wealth, it does little to diminish her jokes and comic effectiveness, perhaps because she still can’t get her butler to leave that damn towel next to the bath.
A hilarious element of Relatable discusses DeGeneres’ annoyance at having acquired the reputation for being immensely kind and approachable, as she jokingly laments her description as “the be-kind girl” since she finished her last special by emphasising the importance of being good to one another. Whether she’s at a gas station, or stuck in bad traffic, people find it difficult to be cross with her. And they usually ask her to start dancing. DeGeneres’ ease on stage demonstrates her extensive experience and professionalism onstage, and as she ponders for, example, why restaurants have bathroom assistants (“I want someone to be in there before I arrive, listening”) or on the weird workouts we do when we’re trying on a pair of shoes for the first time, the quality of her special rarely dips. I felt some of the video segments were a little silly, but I also have to remind myself that this is part of what makes DeGegeneres so loveable. Even when she’s showing dorky videos of cats and dogs, it’s hard not to enjoy it. Especially when she does start dancing.
However, she goes into deeper material at times. A crucial element of Relatable revolves around identity, and the struggle so many of us experience to accept ourselves, and feel accepted by others. Reflecting on the controversial reaction she received from coming out in the late 90s, and charting how she came to accept herself for who she really is, is beautifully done. Describing the negativity she encountered as she attempted to get back on TV with Ellen, with one producer telling her that, “No-one’s gonna watch a lesbian during the day”, she narrates her development as a celebrity, comedian and overall human being to great effect. As she recalls how she was warned by every financial and business advisor against coming out, that DeGeneres’ decided to do so is a is a testament to how her own need to accept herself for who she was trumped any financial or commercial considerations. Furthermore, her jokes about having to wear more conventionally heterosexual, feminine clothes when she first started Ellen are very funny (“My hair was different, I had to wear necklaces, crazy things – [Laughter.]”, and demonstrate the incremental development of her publicly-accepted gay identity. While her remarkable story helps to remind her audiences of the substantial progress that has been made in U.S gay rights in the last two decades, her pleadings for undisclosed gay celebrities to come out and help demystify homosexuality for wider audiences, makes it clear there is still work to be done.
As a piece of stand-up, Relatable is an eloquent reminder of why DeGeneres is so respected within stand-up circles, particularly through her legacy in promoting alternative discourses within mainstream comedy. Her material is polished, down-to-earth, and at times poignant in re-establishing her considerable status as a gay icon within mainstream American culture. It’s also pretty funny, with some brilliant moments, like DeGeneres’ bit on bathroom assistants, or when she starts dancing to Juvenile’s Back That Ass Up. While a little dorky at times, I really enjoyed Relatable, and it’s a remarkable testament to her warmth, generosity and amiability as a comedian that I hope she continues with future stand-up productions.