Relatable review: Ellen DeGeneres' Netflix comedy special is a warm bowl of soup on a cold December night
Ellen DeGeneres' comedy special is no Nanette. Relatable is classic old school escapist comedy, observational and confessional.
We are not even 10 minutes into Relatable, her first comedy special in 15 years, and Ellen DeGeneres has already given us a verbal tour of her sprawling Santa Barbara home. Should we ever find ourselves inside, we will find the front door. “It’s down the hall, past the Medal of Freedom, past the Emmys, past the People’s Choice Awards, past the Kids’ Choice Awards, the Teen Choice Awards, the Mark Twain Prize, the Peabody, take a left at the gift shop, and that is the front door.” Past the Emmys, she says. That is 40 of them. Ellen is 60. While we attempt to do the math there, Ellen has already addressed the elephant in the room. World’s second highest paid television show host, next-door neighbours with Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, multiple butlers at her service, 15th highest paid celebrity in the world according to Forbes, talking of being relatable. Are we being Ellen-ed?
She sets the tone from the word go. Ellen has no intention of shying away from the extravagance that is her life. But the special constantly teeters between Ellen, the relatable and Ellen, the ridiculously not. Her meals may cost more than our salaries, but she still frowns upon the term “fine dining” – “how is the dining? Fine,” she jokes. She is also mortified by bathroom attendants, waiters who insist on memorising and, get this, she squeezes her toothpaste out, down to the very last squeeze. She may use her American Express Black card (an invite-only credit card for the uber rich) to flatten it all out, but squeeze out she must. “It’s not about the money. You know that. It’s about winning”. Now who on earth would not relate to that? And before you think how Ellen and you could be friends, she talks of not being sure if airplanes have seats beyond the first ten rows.
This is classic old school escapist comedy, observational and confessional. It is not all escape though. Ellen talks of growing up in a Christian Science family where even aspirin was forbidden fruit, her accidental journey into comedy after she lost her first girlfriend at 21, hitting the bull’s eye with her first standup show and later, a full-blown sitcom, before losing it all when she came out of the closet, following which her sitcom was cancelled. She does a mock infomercial on being gay, whose side effects include loss of family, friends and unemployment. But, this is no Nanette. Ellen does not make you shift in your seat. Her comedy is a warm bowl of soup on a cold December night. In her low-key style, she shuttles, but not seamlessly, between torn socks and holiday packing, slow driving and Instagramming, junk drawers and existence of ladders and more.
Sometimes the jokes do seem abruptly stitched together. But then, when she starts dancing, nothing else matters. Even as she talks about being this accidental dancer, who now gets asked to dance [by fans] “more than Baryshnikov”, Ellen does a sweet jig to Juvenile’s raunchy rap number, 'Back That Azz Up'. But that is not the high point. The 60-year-old does an encore as her 85-year-old self, with the same mock a** slaps and the works, to give us what is very likely to be an immortal moment in standup. Multiple rewinds guaranteed. While a lot of the special reminds us of talk-show Ellen, we get a peek into the person beyond. “When I do something stupid, it’s a story”. Yes, Santa Clause Ellen can and does get tired of being nice sometimes. The person who would sign off her show with “be kind to one another” cannot possibly honk even when someone cuts her off, for instance. These are things she does not get to tell her viewers on her show, but she does in the special. The New York Times article 'Ellen DeGeneres is not as nice as you think' quotes her saying, “The talk show is me, but I’m also playing a character of a talk show host. There’s a tiny, tiny bit of difference.” Relatable walks that thin line.
Fifteen years after her last comedy special on HBO, Here and Now, this one was performed before a live audience in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle over a week in August. Directed by Joell Gallan and Tig Notaro, the Netflix special has been recorded live from Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. It is one hour, four minutes long. The penultimate moments are not quite in the comic vein. As she veers into deeply confessional territory, DeGeneres talks about the importance of finding one’s path, and recalls the moment in her life that prompted her to come out. Against everyone’s advice, she came out at the prime of her career because she realised that it was more important for her to live her truth than to stay on top. Three years of unemployment later, when she returned to television, she even had to “tone it down a little” by wearing necklaces. Clearly, Ellen was not made in a day. And we get an abridged but engaging version of that journey, from being unemployed because of being gay to reaching a point where “it’s finally working for me”.
In one of the best moments in the special, Ellen shares an anecdote from the days when she was trying to sell her daytime show. A station master had told her, “No one’s watching a lesbian during the day.” Ellen goes, “They sure weren’t watching me at night. What time of day is good for a lesbian?” Well, aren’t we blessed that it is Netflix-o-clock now, which has nullified for good the difference between day-time and night-time television. While announcing the special on her show, Ellen gave us the option of watching one minute every day, or binge-watch all 64 minutes. The latter worked for me.
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