Ellen Degeneres is a woman of many hats. Whether taking a seat as host (or dancer) on her Emmy Award-winning talk show “The Ellen Degeneres Show”, offering musical insight to hopefuls on “American Idol”, or lending her voice to the LGBT community, Degeneres has become a trailblazer of the entertainment industry. She now returns to Chicago for TBS Presents “Just For Laughs” with her fourth variety show spectacular, “Ellen’s Somewhat Special Special”, packed with performances by Lady Antebellum Nick Cannon, and a slew of acrobats. The funny lady recently caught up with Alissa Norby to discuss her much anticipated return to the Windy City.Interview by Alissa NorbyShowBizQ:
What [aspects of] Chicago will you incorporate into the show and what do you like to do on your own in Chicago?Ellen:
Well, I don't get a chance to do too much because they keep me pretty busy getting this thing together. I can't reveal where but I will be breaking into a major building in Chicago after hours and shooting a taped piece that will air on the special. That’s my Chicago-esque bit there.ShowBizQ:
It's not the Tribune Tower is it?Ellen:
I'm not going to tell you. Because then they'll be ready for me and they won't let me in.ShowBizQ:
What else are you going to have happening on the show?Ellen:
Personally, I think, this is the best one so far as far as interesting acts. It is a jam-packed show and [with] some really cool [acts], the Kabuki act is really cool. The flagman is great, the magician is incredible, he was on my show and I was just blown away by – I don't know, I have no idea how he does that trick, that's called [King Street]. [There’s] Lady Antebellum, there's more comedy than I've done before because I'll be just kind of in between each act and then trying to do probably whatever just happened, I'll try to reenact some of it. It's hard to keep it fresh but being able to do just one a year, I'm able to really focus and do as many unique things as possible.ShowBizQ:
Variety shows used to be a TV staple, now they are very rare. Do you see yourself as sort of a champion for the format?Ellen:
Yes., I grew up watching Carol Burnett and you know Smothers Brothers and Donnie and Marie. That was sort of the TV show that everybody had when I was growing up. So I've always loved it and I've tried to do it before I did my second sitcom. I did a pilot for CBS, that was a variety show and it was sort of a Larry Sanders. It was me as a host of a variety show. It was the behind the scenes and then it also on onstage. So I've been wanting to do a variety show for a long, long time and this is just so much fun that I get to do this when I have my spare time. I think there's more “America's Got Talent” [programs] and a lot of people are enjoying this and people are looking on the Internet for all kinds of interesting things that you don't normally find. So yes, I'm a huge champion for this kind of show.ShowBizQ:
When you were coming up at a comedy business, what's one of your most memorable gigs in Chicago you know playing standup?Ellen:
It's actually – it's not a pleasant one. It wasn't on stage but it was when I was doing "Women of the Night" and it was, I think, Judy Tenuta and Paula Poundstone, and Rita Rudner and myself, and it was kind of my first big time on stage with HBO Special, I've never even had my own. And the woman doing my hair got – it was like a curling iron/brush that she got tangled up, up against my scalp and the more she tried to undo it, the more my hair tangled in that curling iron slash. She was burning my scalp and they thought they were going to have cut my hair and I was supposed to be on stage in 45 minutes. And I'll never forget that night waiting to go on stage in Chicago, my big break and my hair almost being burned, singed off. That's my most memorable moment in standup.ShowBizQ:
Is doing this kind of show and the fact you only have to do it once a year a nice break or just a different muscle than you use in your many other jobs?Ellen:
Well, yes, I always like using different muscles, you can take that however you want. But doing something once a year is fantastic, I highly recommended it if you can do it. It's a wonderful thing, it's very freeing and I can put a lot of energy and attention onto it and it's something I love doing. It is sort of why I took on “American Idol” and when I have a full-time gig of my own with the talk show, I like stretching myself, I like challenging myself and I think it is important to, as you say, use another muscle.
It's just, you can get very complacent if you do the same thing all the time and especially [comedy], it gives me different things to react to and respond to, and it stimulates me, and I love Chicago. I don't really get to travel unless I'm working. So this is a a fun excuse to go to Chicago and it's a fun job that I have.ShowBizQ:
One of the staples in your variety shows is the the question and answer session with the audience. What excites you most above doing that segment each time you do a performance?"Ellen:
I do it occasionally also on the talk show and I do it sometimes before or after and sometimes it ends up in. I always did it when I did standup, if anybody went to see me when I was on tour doing standup, that was what I always ended the show when I came back. It gives us a chance to really talk to one another instead of me talking at them and I get to hear what's on their minds, and they get to know me a little bit more and hopefully get some answers whether some are honestly answered or some are just funny.
I think it's important to do, I think it's important to have that connection which is why I started out in standup in the first place, to have that connection with the audience [because] it's live and it's immediate and it's unpredictable and it's everything that I loved about standup. And I think the more famous you get, the more detached and isolated you can become and you're just pulled further and further away from your fans. And I don't like that separation, I really like to have – besides the wall around my estate, of course, that's important - but I like to have that, that camaraderie with the audience.ShowBizQ:
Can you tell talk a little bit about what goes into preparing for some of these specials and what your life is like leading up to it?Ellen:
Well, I'll have a smoothie in the morning and then I'll do some jumping jacks. It's kind of the same as doing my show. I have a group of people that scout, like some people went to Chicago to look at the best place for us to shoot our tape piece and we had about five different ideas, we have meetings about what we want to do and we come up with some really good ideas. And, once they get their returns out, some are as good as others.
So it's lots of meetings and conversations about what will make it different this time and once we narrow down the acts we start it with looking at just about every act we can find that seems interesting and we just keep whittling it down until we get to the strongest. It's like doing my show but it's a lot more time, it's a lot easier for us because it's just this one time and we have more days to do it. So this is an easy gig as I have it.ShowBizQ:
Can you talk about how filming in Chicago is different than filming your normal show? You said a couple of times you love it in Chicago, why do you like it so much?Ellen:
Well, what's not to like? I mean, it's a great city, I don’t know what’s different about it, well, I don’t know. You can't really answer that without alienating other people and other cities, but Chicago really is a very special city and the people are nice, and I have found – every time I've done standup there, they're smart and they're polite, and for the most part, sober which is important to me. And it is windier, it's a Windy City.
I just love, I love the architecture, I love the art, I love everything. Really, and I've said it before, it's just the winters would get to me. I couldn't live there because of the winters, but I do love the city very much.ShowBizQ:
Are there up and coming comics that you've been excited about the last couple of years?Ellen:
I think this kid that we have on the show, this John Mulaney. John Mulaney is a standup that we have on the show this year who's also a writer for “Saturday Night Live” and he is really, really funny.
And I'm always looking for writers too for my show, but I do want to have more standup comedy on my show next season and I said it – I said it in the last season but we never somehow got around to it. But I would like to find some really funny, smart, clean comedy out there to showcase because I think that's getting more and more rare, and people that make you think instead of just hitting you over the head with an easy joke. But I think you're going to like this guy, John, a whole lot.ShowBizQ:
What is the possibility that we will see Greyson Michael Chance on the show, and if it's nothing, why or why not?Ellen:
He’s getting ready for whatever's going to happen to him. There's a lot that's about to happen and we're trying to do it the right way. And the most important thing is what's best for him, I mean, if it was just what's best for me, yes, you'd see him on the show.
But I just want him to be ready. A lot has happened to him and he's about to go into the studio and start recording, and there's some other things that we're thinking about. But yes, that's all I can say about that. I mean, yes, everybody is expecting that I would just put him on anything that I do, but I want to do what's best for him and set him up in the in the right way and prepare him.ShowBizQ:
What do you look for in a variety act that is going to mesh well with this particular kind of show?Ellen:
Well, you want something that is really good live. Some things are really impressive but they may not be as good live. We want exciting and these acrobats are very exciting. The flagman is very exciting, the Kabuki is really cool to watch and very funny. And you're trying to find something that you're not going to see anywhere else, that's our hope anyway. Just entertaining and fresh, and fresh and clean; so fresh and so clean, clean.ShowBizQ:
We see you doing standup on your TV show everyday. Is it a challenge coming up with longer length, totally new material for this kind of special?Ellen:
It's actually refreshing for me to do something that I have more time [to focus on]. You know when you're doing the talk show, it really is about showcasing. There's a reason someone's on the show, if it's to promote a movie or to promote their new show or the season finale.
And so, it's more about them and this is more about hosting and keeping something going, and having fun and being, and because it's not live we can really play with it and go longer in some parts and respond to the acts without being disrespectful but at the same time, playing more with it.
So it's just a whole different animal and that's what I like about it. I like that I get to play more and it's a little closer to doing standup for me than doing my show.ShowBizQ:
What are the chances of Chicago’s Crystal and Lee appearing on the show, to sing a duet?Ellen:
What a good idea, why – where were you before that you would suggest that now? I'm making a phone call to see if Mike and Crystal can come and perform. I bet they're both very, very busy. I bet they already are off doing their own things. But I think it's a really good idea.ShowBizQ:
Last year you briefly talked about an experience you had traveling with your parents to the Warner Brothers Studio to see the set of “Gilligan's Island”. How did that and other early experiences affect your interest in working with live audiences?Ellen:
Well, actually, it made me want to live on an island and call someone Skipper. I didn't think that was going to be the direction I'd go in as a talk show. I think that [it’s] everything that we're all exposed to. I mean my parents were clearly very impressed with show business and everything about show business was important to them. So when I saw that, obviously as a kid, I think, well, that's what I'm going to do, I just didn't have any talent, so I didn't know how that was going to happen. I didn't really want to be an actor and I didn't know until I became a standup comedian that you could make a living just making someone laugh.
And I didn't even know I was funny when I was younger. So that seed was planted early on that I would be in this business and somehow end up doing what I'm doing. But yes, that was our only vacation as going to the set of “Gilligan's Island” and then, I guess, whenever they saw anybody that came into New Orleans. I think my dad put me on his shoulders so that Charlton Heston could see me when I was like 5. And that was very impressionable too that my dad wanted Charlton Heston to see me. He never did call though.
“Ellen’s Somewhat Special Special” takes place at the Chicago Theatre Wednesday, June 16, at 7:30 p.m. (CT). It will be taped for a one-hour special that will premiere Sunday, June 27, at 9 p.m. (ET/PT) on TBS.