Iwas sick of Ellen, and I had never even met her.
She was everywhere you looked. Television. Newspapers. Magazine covers — all because she was about to declare her homosexuality.
You remember that, don’t you?
“Only two more weeks until Ellen comes out.” “Only four more days until Ellen comes out.”
Ellen — comic Ellen DeGeneres — was the star of her own TV sitcom, which, in 1997, had begun to dip in the ratings. This raised speculation that the
“coming out thing” — to be revealed in the last episode of the season — was a desperate grab for viewers.
Well, the program got viewers. More than 35 million watched — making it the top-rated show for the week. Viewers saw Ellen the character declare on television what Ellen the person had long ago declared to herself: She was gay.
For a fleeting moment, it was big news.
And then a funny thing happened to the funny woman. She stopped being funny. The new season arrived, and every episode seemed laden with gay issues. Without the hype, this simply became weight.
The show sank beneath it.
By 1998, Ellen, the TV show, was canceled. And Ellen the person? She became a buzzword for every gay joke. She was parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” Her show’s demise was hailed as a victory for anti-gay forces in America.
I remember hearing a voice say: “Who cares? You want to hype yourself like that, be prepared for the consequences.”
The voice was mine.
In her own words
And then last week, a funny thing happened between the funny woman and me. I talked to her.
She was planning an HBO special — a comeback of sorts — and I agreed to do an interview. After a few perfunctory questions, I got to the obvious one:
“With all that has happened, are you sorry you came out the way you did?”
Here is what she said:
“It was supposed to be a surprise in the last episode. But it leaked. Someone called and said, ‘Turn on the radio; they’re talking about you coming out!’ And suddenly it seemed like everyone in America was talking about it. I thought, ‘How can I live up to this?’
“And when we did the show and it came out well, and I thought: ‘That’ll be it. It’ll go away now.’
“I was so naive….
“The show got canceled, and I fell into a deep depression. There was such a backlash, and it seemed like I was the butt of every gay joke on television.
“It sent me spiraling down as far as a person can go. We’re all filled with shame one way or another. And being gay you’re filled with more of it because of how society treats you.
“I let the shame get to me. Every article that was written, every sketch on
‘Saturday Night Live’ — every single mean-spirited thing — tapped right into that wounded place in me.”
I listened to the pain in her voice. I had used many adjectives over the years to describe Ellen. “Wounded” had never occurred to me.
Right from the heart
She talked more, about growing up in a conservative, Christian Science family in New Orleans, about being taught “not to be different.”
She joked about renaming herself “the artist formerly known as a lesbian” because she had become more a symbol than a person.
She was forthright and modest. And somewhere in the conversation, I remembered something. That before people are gay or straight, black or white, famous or infamous, they are human beings.
In the culture of celebrities, we can forget that. I think I forgot it with Ellen. I let that huge spotlight blind me to the idea that she had feelings, too.
She is doing this HBO thing, which airs at 10 tonight, and in a world where comedy has become vicious, Ellen has vowed not to make fun of people. Mostly because she remembers how it felt.
“Hey,” she said, “if bell-bottoms can come back, then nice humor can come back, too, right?”
I hope so. I hope people watch her. I hope they laugh. I think laughter breaks down barriers. And obviously, if I am any example, Ellen has become pretty good at that.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).