I first met Ellen in 1994.
The New York Times had a feature in those days called “At Lunch With,” and a publicist I knew at ABC suggested Ellen would be a great person for this feature. She was in New York — I think to be a guest on David Letterman’s show — and her new sitcom on ABC, called at that time “These Friends of Mine,” was off to a good start in its first three episodes on the network.
I had no great idea who Ellen DeGeneres was. And from what I had seen of the show, it looked to me like ABC’s attempt to answer the exploding popularity of “Seinfeld” on NBC: a group of quirky friends — three women and a man in this case, the inverse of “Seinfeld” — hanging around aimlessly, involving themselves in each other’s inconsequential, often frustrating lives.
But lunch was on The Times’ dime; and I thought she might be fun.
She was. We met at the midtown restaurant, B Smith’s. I liked her instantly, not because she came in performing mode, but because she didn’t. She was just herself, a young comic who recognized, intensely, that this show was her break and she fully intended to ride it to the top.
Literally, Ellen talked about being as big as Jerry Seinfeld — both his show and his career. It was ambitious for sure, but honestly so.
This was not a callow performer thrown into a TV starring role, as so often has happened in the medium’s history. Ellen was 36 at the time, a very experienced stand-up comedian, who knew it was time to get off the road and onto television.
Ellen came to the lunch with her then-manager, a guy named Arthur Imperato. I liked him, too. They seemed to have a real bond. He didn’t have a stable of big clients. Ellen was his main, and virtually entire focus. She obviously relied on and trusted him.
What made the lunch more than a routine interview was Ellen’s willingness to open up about her career to that point. No, she did not discuss her sexual orientation, and it never crossed my mind. About as personal as it got was when I asked her what else she might have been if comedy hadn’t entered her life. She said she had once thought of playing professional golf.
Throughout the lunch, my impression of Ellen deepened; she was an intelligent, appealing person, with a bit of smart-alecky wit. I liked her.
She told me the story of having a brutal baptism in stand-up. She had won a contest on the Showtime channel to be declared the “Funniest Person in America.” But she only had about five really funny minutes in her repertoire at that point, so when she made a tour introduced as the “FPA,” she told me, other comics began to question that designation. On stage. Loudly.
Ellen hung in there and found her performing legs — and style. She also dug into some reserve of self-confidence. She knew if she could get booked on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show, she had honed a bit that would slay the audience, and would probably get Johnny to offer the ultimate compliment: inviting her to come sit beside him and chat after her set.
All of that happened. And though that was itself a great story, the source of her comedy bit, in which Ellen makes a phone call to God, was tragic, not funny. Her girlfriend was killed in a car accident. That sent her into a spiral of depression, as she described it to me, and she ended up alone, in a flea-ridden apartment. In despair, she started writing about phoning God in anger to ask what exactly the purpose of fleas could possibly be?
Great comics know a great premise when it hits them. Ellen began seeing that phoning God could be more than a cry of despair; it could be a ticket to ride.
And that ride has taken her a long, long way. She asked me at the end of the lunch if she could occasionally call me to talk about how things were going, and she did that for a while. We talked about the state of TV and comedy, never on the record. She was frustrated with the show; it wasn’t measuring up to her standards (or “Seinfeld’s” standards), and she was unhappy.
Her decision to stop pretending and announce herself — and her TV character — as gay was clearly torturous. The ferocious blowback had to leave her shaken. She was denounced in right-wing religious circles as anti-family. It’s hard to imagine now how a decision to live your life as who you are could come so close to totally ending a talented person’s career. But it did. By the next season she was forced to threaten to quit the show because ABC insisted on putting “advisories” on shows concerning Ellen’s romantic life.
The show foundered and was canceled after five seasons.
Ellen returned to stand-up, embraced as a role model for the LGBTQ community. I ran into her a couple of times and we had good conversations, though she was certainly concerned that she might not have a chance at that big career she had so ardently pursued. Then the talk-show opportunity came up (“The Ellen DeGeneres Show” is produced by Warner Bros. Television, which is owned by WarnerMedia, CNN’s parent company). I didn’t talk to her about it but when I heard about it, I knew it was the perfect fit for her. Because of the books I’ve written on late-night television, I was often asked if any woman could ever work as a late-night host, and I would always mention Ellen’s name. She was as consistently funny as anybody of any gender, and so likeable on camera.
Of course, she later hosted the Oscars successfully, and that made me surer. But daytime was obviously a better choice: not so cutthroat; a bit more welcoming.
The talk show was a consistent hit for almost two decades, in a field where most talk shows now sink quickly. And of course, liberated from having to hide who she really was, Ellen was able to have open discussions about her life as a gay woman, something that the LBGTQ community could celebrate.
I’m sure this is not how Ellen expected her career highlight to end — with stories about her show becoming an ugly, hostile workplace. Ellen has said that she is “taking responsibility” for what happens at her show, and that she “learned that things happened here that never should have happened.” A perfect show-biz ending would be Ellen regaining her footing as an appealing, engaging personality.
That’s the Ellen I met in 1994. I really liked that person. I still do.