Interview by James Sullivan
April 10, 2002, by phone
Article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle
James Sullivan: Hi.
Ellen Degeneres: Hi! How ya’ doing?
James Sullivan: Hi, I ‘m James.
Ellen Degeneres: Hey, James, I’m Ellen.
James Sullivan: You’re Ellen. You certainly are.
Ellen Degeneres: I’m Ellen. Let’s establish that right off the bat, because it gets confusing for me after we start talking.
David Gerlach: That’s Ellen DeGeneres. She’s an actress and her talk slash variety show is one the most watched on TV. And she did something groundbreaking ground in the 1990s by declaring she was a lesbian both publicly and in the sitcom she was staring in. But before all of this she was just girl in New Orleans, growing up and looking for laughs.
[CLIP FROM STANDUP ROUTINE IN 1984]
Ellen Degeneres: My parents were extremely cruel to me when I was growing up. I remember one day I was coming home from kindergarten. Well, they told me it was kindergarten. I found out later that I had been working in a factory for two years.
David Gerlach: Ellen Degeneres there doing standup in the 1980s and our contributor James Sullivan spoke with her nearly 20 years later. It was right before the launch of her soon-to-be hit daytime show. And James says it’s often the simplest of questions that brings it all home.
James Sullivan: That’s almost like an interviewer’s cliche, obviously: “where did you come from? How did you get interested in your field?” And that stuff sort of sounds paint by numbers, sometimes, but yet the fact is everybody is a product of who they were when they were younger and what they dreamed about being and what they aspired to be and what intrigued them when they were kids. And there’s no getting around it. That’s absolutely part of everyone’s story. So I find that endlessly fascinating.
David Gerlach: I do, too. So let’s get to the tape. Here’s Ellen Degeneres speaking on a less than crystal clear telephone line. This is Blank on Blank.
Ellen Degeneres: You know, I was born and raised in New Orleans.
James Sullivan: Right.
Ellen Degeneres: We moved every two years within the city. Just far enough away for me to start a new school, you know? I was just trying to find friends at school. And I didn’t know any different. Now that I’m out of there I see what a different kind of city it is. Growing up there, I thought everybody drove around with to-go cups of liquor.
David Gerlach: Ah giant to-go cups filled with booze. But while drinking behind the wheel may have been standard in New Orleans, comedy clubs weren’t. So Ellen had to search for her first paying gig in comedy.
Ellen Degeneres: I’m driving down the street in the French Quarter and there was a sign that said “Opening Soon: Clyde’s Comedy Corner” up on this banister. And I went inside and I asked if the owner was there and he happened to be there. I told him that I was a comedian and could I be the MC every night. Then he hired me and every single night, six nights a week, I became the emcee of Clyde’s Comedy Corner. I had my ten minutes that I worked on and changed constantly and every night was there until 1:30 in the morning and watching all these people come in from other parts of the country. And I kind of studied them. And I think at the beginning I started kind of emulating them and trying to sound or change or be a little more like them. But I quickly realized that I didn’t want to be like them. I was going to stick to who I was. But at Clyde’s there was an X-rated show at midnight every Saturday night. And he said in order to host it, you have to start being dirtier. And I said, “I don’t want to be dirtier.” He said “you have to. You have to start cursing, it’s an x-rated show.” And I just refused to do that. That was sort of my start of standing firm and saying I’m not going to change just to be on stage. But yeah, they were drunk and they were rowdy, but again I didn’t know any different. I thought that’s just what comedy is. But I loved the outlet of it. And I did a lot of really stupid, really corny stuff in the beginning. I would go up on stage with a huge amount of fabric and say “I thought I’d try out some new material.” [laughter] and gesture towards the audience and just put it away. There were always these ridiculous… I said I wanted to be a ventriloquist, but I didn’t think… I wasn’t sure if I would be any good, so I didn’t want to invest in a dummy, because they’re very expensive. So I had a head of lettuce that I would put a wig on and I’d just start talking with the head of lettuce. It was fun. And I was getting $50. It was great.
David Gerlach: That’s Ellen Degeneres on how she got her start in comedy in her hometown of New Orleans Thanks go out to James Sullivan for adding this conversations to the archive. This interview was produced by me and Dave McGuire. Jeffrey Alan Jones brought us our sound logo. You can discover more lost interviews. Interviews you can’t hear anywhere else at Blank on Blank dot org. I’m David Gerlach. Keep listening.
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