First person to star as an openly gay character on prime-time TV
‘I wouldn’t change anything, including the way I came out.’
When I first started doing stand-up, I was writing from the perspective of a human being, observing how we all act—it had nothing to do with a female perspective. It was just a human one. I don’t know if that’s because I’m gay and I just didn’t really identify with men and women being so different, but I didn’t consciously think, I’m not doing female material.
Comedy is a very political world. You’re supposed to work your way up, especially in San Francisco. There was one night in particular when I was the headliner. I had just moved there and had just been named Showtime’s “Funniest Person in America.” There were two guys opening for me who were angry that I was headlining and had been on Showtime. No one knew that I was gay necessarily. But their stuff was very homophobic, and it slammed women in every kind of way. By the time I got onstage, it was a very angry, testosterone-filled crowd. And I just bombed. I was doing a phone call to God. God’s talking, and I’m listening—there are spaces for people to yell out. The entire front row of guys turned their chairs around and faced the audience. Every-one laughed. The whole audience was against me. So I walked off the stage.
One of the guys came back onstage and said, “That was the funniest person in America, ladies and gentlemen, the funniest per—” He kept saying it over and over. It was a horrible, horrible night, a night when I thought I would never do comedy again. I don’t know where those guys are now, but they didn’t get the Medal of Freedom.
I didn’t really come into my own power and understanding of who I am until probably the last 10 years. I was very shy. I was insecure. I needed to feel liked and loved, which is why most people go into this business. I wasn’t ever motivated to say, “I’ll show them.” I kept doing comedy out of love—when it works, there’s nothing better than making people laugh. There’s no better feeling.
Everything in my life is exactly perfect in the good things, and especially in the bad things—they made me who I am, and they’ve made me a more compassionate person. So I wouldn’t change anything in my life, including the way I came out. I was carrying this fear around that if people found out that I was gay, I would lose everything. I didn’t want to have a secret. Straight people don’t say, “My private business is my private business.” They don’t not answer the question. There was something wrong that I was so filled with shame about my sexuality.
When I came out, it made sense that the character on my sitcom Ellen would come out too. I thought it was a really interesting story to tell. To have Laura Dern play my girlfriend, and to have Oprah Winfrey be my therapist. I made a call to Oprah and said, “I’m going to come out on my show. Would you please play my therapist?” It was the greatest thing in the world. It was everything that I wanted it to be, as far as the way the show turned out. And it was everything that I feared that it would be, which is that I would lose my show and my career. And it was also the greatest thing that could have happened, because it sent me on a different trajectory, and here I am now.
Everybody said, “You’ll destroy this whole show.” And I was like, “Yeah, but it’s my life.” I was warned by my publicist at the time. I was warned by Disney. I was warned by everybody. But there’s nothing better than realizing that everybody knows exactly who I am. I wasn’t trying to be political. I wasn’t trying to do anything other than get that out of the way so I didn’t have to worry about hiding.
It was a long process trying to sell [my current] show. There were station managers who thought, No one’s going to watch a gay woman in daytime because everyone at home is a housewife with kids. But then we did sell it. To be sitting here 14 years later…I wouldn’t have believed it. All I did was get back to what I started out doing, which is wanting to make people happy.
DeGeneres, an Emmy-winning TV host and comedian, has hosted her eponymous talk show since 2003.