Ellen DeGeneres wants us to think she’s just like you. This is a surprisingly complex desire: On one hand, as a radical foremother of LGBTQ acceptance, much of her career has been devoted to queer visibility and showcasing that people across the spectrum of sexuality and gender presentation are just regular people. On the other hand — the more calculating hand — it’s just plain good business to appeal to folks on your squeaky-clean likability.
As funny as her new Netflix comedy special Relatable is (and it is), it’s impossible not to observe the evident calculations in its architecture, from the structure of DeGeneres’ jokes to her positioning with viewers. Acutely aware of her perch as one of the most successful comedians of all time, her primary goal here is to make light of her wealth and status, thus keeping her within arm’s reach of a loving audience. Her first stand-up special in 15 years, you almost forget that this practice is exactly how the Queen of Daytime made her bones. (Early on, she proudly streams through all the awards she’s won, from Emmys to the Mark Twain Prize. I’ve always been fine with bragging as long as one has earned their hubris, and DeGeneres has.) Her comfort on an auditorium stage and ease with the audience is based on 40 years of this work: The woman knows how to control a room and relax her viewers. But DeGeneres keeps herself at such a distance from us, even while discussing vulnerable topics, that it’s hard not to feel actively manipulated while laughing along.
She starts the show, filmed at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, using pleasant sarcasm to dissect her own relatability, constructing a scene in which she’s pampered by an imaginary butler. “I’ve lost my appetite. My friend has really upset me by what he said,” she reports to the butler. “He said, ‘Well, then I shall draw you a bath, ma’am,’ And I said, ‘You don’t have to announce it all the time. Just draw the bath.'” This chasm is the thesis of her special, which speculates just how much you can inflate a snobbish persona while also maintaining (or feigning) middle-class sensibilities.
DeGeneres peppers the show with progressively funnier references to this gilded throne, which the hall’s audience laps up and whoops at with increasing mirth. After all, didn’t they build her palace? She drolly complains about not packing properly for a birthday trip to see gorillas in Rwandan mountains and talks about carefully squeezing every last drop of toothpaste out of the tube with her black Amex. However, when she tosses in a line about using gold bars for this same action, she popped my balloon, reminding me that by exaggerating her own wealth to Scrooge McDuck proportions, she was actually coercing me into envisioning the realities of her fortune as, well, cartoonish. Hyper-real. Non-existent. She was disarming me through embellishment.
DeGeneres is at her best when she dives into her autobiographical material, but you sense a barrier here. For the first half of the special, she invitingly scratches at the surface of what makes her tick: growing up in a religion that didn’t allow for medical intervention, the death of her first girlfriend, poverty in early adulthood, the illusion of safety in the closet, coming out and the near-destruction of her career. (Using video projection of wildlife footage, she amusingly visualizes the “meerkat closet,” the phenomenon of other gay celebrities peering out from their dens to see how well her coming out went, and then burrowing back into their safe zones right after.) But she describes all of this with overly measured and intellectualized clarity, like a narrative she’s honed in therapy over decades.
After witnessing the gutting rawness of Hannah’s Gadsby’s Nanette, it’s hard not to view DeGeneres’ jokes about lesbian stereotypes as being part of the self-effacing “model minority” clownishness Gadsby rejects. Gadsby’s ultimate refusal to turn her truth into fodder makes Ellen’s funky-white-woman-dancing-to-Kendrick-Lamar schtick feel stale, a dichotomy I think we’ve outgrown at this point. She jokes about being tired of people asking her to dance when encountering fans in real-life (especially when she’s getting a mammogram), but when she still manages to bump a little to Juvenile’s “Back That Ass Up” toward the end of the show, I could sense the tears of a clown spilling out. The rest of her set becomes a mushy casserole of yesterday’s observations: the annoyances of driving, awkwardly interacting with waiters, the pitfalls of relying on phones to communicate, how people typically use socks, the linguistic oddities of idioms and the strangeness of pharmaceutical commercials. You’ve heard it all before.
Most egregiously, however, she dips into straight-up ableism in a bit about “emotional support animals,” rehashing every grouse you’ve heard in your life about the subject while sounding like your liberal aunt who still thinks the world is changing too fast for her. Speaking as someone who works closely with disabled people who thrive thanks to their relationships with assistance animals, I see her words as not only passé from a comedy perspective, but just plainly ignorant.
DeGeneres has made a career of being herself, an enormous feat. In a crewneck navy velour sweater, gray chinos and nurse-white sneakers, her shorn blonde faux-hawk and bright blue eyes indicate a person much younger than her 60 years. This avuncular ensemble puts you at ease, but reminds, too, that she has come a long way just to even be able to wear something that doesn’t overtly feminize or sexualize her. (As she reminds us, the powers-that-be tried to make her wear necklaces in the first seasons of her talk show.) “I’m a human being,” she says within the first five minutes of the special, a surprisingly powerful four words. I just wish she gave us more of her own visceral humanness and trusted us to receive her with a little more darkness than her brand typically allows for.
Writer: Ellen DeGeneres
Directors: Joel Gallen, Tig Notaro
Premiere: Tuesday, Dec. 18 (Netflix)