Ellen DeGeneres revealed her big break in comedy was inspired by one of the most tragic losses in her life.
Years before coming out on her TV series and the subsequent success of her daytime talk show, the star was struggling to make ends meet in New Orleans. As DeGeneres recalled to Dax Shepard in his Armchair Expert podcast Tuesday, a relationship early in her life heavily impacted the trajectory of her career.
“My girlfriend was killed in a car accident when I was like 20 years old. And I wasn’t doing comedy, I think I was probably waitressing someplace at the time. I was living with her when she was killed,” DeGeneres said.
“I couldn’t afford to live where we were living together and so I moved into this tiny little basement apartment,” the 10-time Emmy winner remembered. “I moved into this basement apartment and I was sleeping on a mattress on a floor and it was infested with fleas. And I used to write all the time, I wrote poetry and songs and stuff, and I thought, ‘Why is this beautiful 21-year-old girl just gone and fleas are here?’ ”
The death of her then-girlfriend resulted in material for her first-ever stand-up performance that would eventually become her life-changing and most memorable joke.
“I just thought it would be amazing if we could just pick up the phone and call up God and ask questions and get an answer,” DeGeneres recalled about her famous “Phone Call to God” bit.
“It just unfolded, I just wrote the entire thing and when I finished, I read it and I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s hilarious. I’m going to do this on Johnny Carson and I’m going to be the first woman in the history of the show be asked to sit down.’ ”
After her prediction, DeGeneres appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in November 1986 and became the first female comedian to be invited to sit down on Carson’s couch after a stand-up routine.
Shepard noted that DeGeneres’ wife Portia de Rossi proudly played the Carson episode during the star’s 60th birthday party in February for all their famous friends and guests.
Back in October 2015, DeGeneres talked about the death of her girlfriend in an episode of Oprah’s Master Class.
Explaining how the pair had broken up due to a big fight, DeGeneres recalled how she ignored her girlfriend when she attempted to reconcile their relationship when they went out to support her older brother’s music gig.
“She was trying to get me to come back home. I acted like I couldn’t hear her because the music was too loud. I was being really … dismissive of her,” she remembered.
The pair went home separately with DeGeneres driving back with her friends and passing an accident in which a vehicle was “split in two.”
It wasn’t until the next morning that she learned that her girlfriend had died in that very same wreck. “That, of course, made me feel like I should have gone home with her that night,” DeGeneres said, adding that she felt “a lot of guilt.”
“In an instant, she just was gone. It shifted my entire focus,” she said.