January 16, 2019

The Trap of Trying to Be Relatable

“The term “successful comedian” has always been something of an oxymoron—there’s nothing funny about a rich entertainment icon. This is the premise of Ellen DeGeneres’s new, decorous Netflix special, “Relatable.” It’s DeGeneres’s first taped standup set in fifteen years, a period during which she’s been the host of one of the most-viewed daytime television shows in history—a savvy, cheerful jester tasked with surveying the fast-paced world of celebrity culture and translating it for a mass audience. Along with success, of course, comes wealth, perhaps the unfunniest subject of all. DeGeneres knows this. At the beginning of the set, she recounts a conversation that she had with a friend about returning to standup. “Your life has changed so much,” he told her. “I know, but I still think I’m relatable,” DeGeneres replied. “Anyway, just then, two of my butlers stepped into the library and announced that my breakfast was ready. And I said, ‘We’ll continue this conversation another time.’ ”

Wealth is not the only force that has threatened to undermine DeGeneres’s comedy. There’s also the treacly sensibility of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” which she acknowledges has turned into a trap—particularly her tendency to dance on air, which, over the years, went from a gimmick to a prison of her own making. “There’s been times someone wants a picture, and while I’m doing a selfie, they’re, like: ‘You’re not dancing!,’ ” DeGeneres told the Times recently, in an article titled “Ellen DeGeneres Is Not as Nice as You Think.” “Of course I’m not dancing. I’m walking down the street,” she said. Two years ago, she decided to axe the dancing segment from her show altogether, a move that presented a real risk to her relationship with her fun-loving, all-ages audience.

Theoretically, “Relatable” is meant to offer a course correction, or at least an alternative, to DeGeneres’s reputation as a family-friendly gimmick queen. But, if DeGeneres has seemed to lose her edge over the years, she also struggles to relocate it in the special. Once the well of jokes about how rich she is has run dry—and it happens quickly—there is only a thin layer of material, most of it extremely breezy, to use. DeGeneres recalls the familiar ritual that she and her wife, Portia de Rossi, have of sitting on the couch, each sucked into her respective Internet hole, exchanging cute videos and memes rather than speaking. She brings up a video of a yellow bird dancing to Kendrick Lamar’s “humble.” and envisions a geriatric woman hearing Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” sometime in the distant future. And then she dances, seeming jubilant and defeated at once. This is DeGeneres falling back onto the shtick that has defined her career for the past fifteen years. And it’s not for a lack of material—she’s a woman working in the relative ghetto of daytime television, where she’s taken less seriously than the men doing the same routines on late-night TV. That’s a tension that I would have loved to hear DeGeneres explore.”

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