The most sly, fascinating moment in Ellen DeGeneres’s Netflix stand-up special is just a simple list. It comes at the end of her opening sequence, an extended joke on the idea of the show’s title: Is she still relatable enough to be a stand-up comedian, she wonders? Can she still have a sense of humor with broad appeal now that she’s wealthy and famous? DeGeneres riffs on this idea, conjuring an image of herself puttering around her massive, luxurious home, fretting about relatability while her butler hand-feeds her pieces of pineapple for breakfast. It’s both joke and not-joke, a recognition of the elephant in the room. Yes, she tells her audience, I am now am wildly wealthy. But I can still giggle about the absurdity of living in a home so big, it has its own escalator. I can laugh at myself.
It’s goofy, and if there’s an edge underneath DeGeneres’s frustration with the complaint that she may no longer be relatable, it’s buried deep. Then, as she’s pondering how she can still connect with real people while living the lifestyle of the rich and famous, her imagined friend gets lost in her home and the steeliness flashes onto the surface. “How many times have I shown you the front door?” she asks, mock-annoyed at her fictional rube of a friend. “‘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.”
Ellen is flexing. Who can blame her? Why get tripped up on whether or not she’s still relatable when she is very, very good at her job, as demonstrated quite succinctly by her overwhelming résumé? It’s a masterful opening gambit for her first stand-up special since 2003: It begins with a simplistic image of her absurd affluence, and it ends with a finger in the eye to anyone who would suggest she’s no longer real enough to be funny. Why would I care whether you think I’m still relatable, she asks, when there is overwhelming, impressive proof that I’m amazing?
Not all of Ellen DeGeneres: Relatable is that sharp, carefully crafted, or, frankly, as interesting. As she moves into the middle of the hour, DeGeneres uses a few bits that feel directly imported from a monologue on Ellen, especially in a section that shows short clips of animals being goofy, or a riff on unnecessary pharmaceuticals. (“I saw an advertisement for a pill that stops headaches and migraines before they start. That’s some good marketing right there, isn’t it? ‘Are you in any pain?’ ‘No, not at all.’ ‘I’m gonna give you something for that.’”) There are also stories that will feel familiar to anyone who’s followed her long career, like her account of growing up in a Christian Scientist family. In moments like those, the special is still funny — who’s not going to laugh at a parrot dancing to Kendrick Lamar? — but it loses the wry, almost resentful precision of that opening joke. And it’s noticeable, too: When that opening joke occasionally returns, the relative lameness of noting that people bring weird service animals onto planes is punctured by the bracing ice of her self-awareness. First the fluff: “Now when you fly, you’re walking down the aisle to your seat, 10B or whatever it is, it’s like Noah’s Ark. There’s a woman with a ferret, there’s a man with a mongoose, there’s a lady with a donkey.” And then the ice: “I say ‘10B.’ Does a plane go back that far? I’ve never been back there.”
The sharpest, most deeply felt material comes when DeGeneres instead grapples with her feelings about her celebrity status, and the simultaneous gift and burden of her role as a daytime talk show host. She talks about feeling locked into her hosting identity as the most cheerful person on the planet, how it’s restricted her behavior in public, and how it’s become something of a millstone around her neck. But she’s still aware of that persona’s undeniable appeal, and she cannot deny either the fans of her daytime show — or how much she still wants to please them — even as she’s frustrated by their constant expectations.
Early in the special, DeGeneres is reflecting on the legacy of her daytime show and the pressure to always be cheerful. “That and the dancing,” she says. “That was a mistake, too … whenever people see me they’re like, ‘Dance, Ellen, dance!’ I’m like, ‘I’m getting a mammogram, I can’t move right now.’” Her frustration with the her icon status, the heavy lift of her representational burden, the strictures of being a friendly daytime talk show host, and the double bind of achieving celebrity through a mass appeal she both treasures and resents — the best moments of Relatable are the ones where those issues roil close to the surface. By the end, though, she seems to make a choice. The closing moments of the show are a swift turn toward intentionally unfunny sincerity, the kind of plea for humanity that has led to her ending episodes of Ellen with the request that her audience “be kind to one another.” If the opening is an extended joke on the lie of relatability, the end is a plea for us all to connect. The iciness melts away, leaving sweet, gooey warmth.
But the most telling choice in Relatable happens before the final turn into homily. DeGeneres is in the midst of a “we all have our quirks” bit, and pivots toward “there’s one thing that we all do.” (There it is again, that careful negotiation of being relatable.) The “have you ever noticed” kind of her joke here is that we all have a song we love, but when it comes on in a club, we won’t actually start dancing until we get into the designated dance floor area. She sets up the premise, and then the music kicks on. With a barely perceptible knowing twinkle, Ellen DeGeneres, who just 40 minutes earlier told everyone how much she resents having to dance all the time, acts like standing in a club, hearing “Back That Ass Up” come on. She walks calmly over to the dance floor. And then, yes, she dances.
She dances with verve. She mimics some ass slaps. As the music fades out, she grins to herself. Or at herself. Ellen knows she has becomes the subject of her own joke; she’s made fun of herself for needing to conform to limits of her sunny host persona, and now here she is, literally dancing for us. It’s a funny bit, mostly because she performs the slightly-too-explicit-for-daytime-TV dance so well. There she is, doing her utmost to be relatable. As Ellen tells us herself, she is very good at her job.