Ellen DeGeneres: My job's to make you happy

Ellen DeGeneres left, and Portia De Rossi, right, on CBS' "Sunday Morning," October 9, 2011. CBS

Although she never fails to make it look easy, Ellen DeGeneres's rise to fame was anything but. Mo Rocca has our Sunday Profile:

What is special about Ellen?

"Her energy, her dancing," says one fan.

"I think she's hilarious," says another.

"I love Ellen! I love her!" says another.

"What is your job when you step out onto the stage?" CBS' Mo Rocca asked DeGeneres.

"It is to make people happy," she says.

In a culture that's often mean, Ellen DeGeneres sees herself as a crusader of kindness.

"Most comedy is based on getting a laugh at somebody else's expense. And I find that that's just a form of bullying in a major way," she tells Rocca. "So I want to be an example that you can be funny and be kind, and make people laugh without hurting somebody else's feelings."

DeGeneres knows hurt feelings. And she has a knack for spinning pain into comedy gold. Beginning with the routine she developed when she was in her early 20's:

"My girlfriend was killed in a car accident. And I was just in the lowest place in my life. And this comedy came out of this moment of real searching, like I want to be able to pick up the phone and call God and get answers," she says.

She turned that phone call into a monologue, and six years later made history on "The Tonight Show."

In those days there was no bigger deal in comedy than having Johnny Carson call you over to the couch. And no female comic had ever been summoned.

"I was so nervous that when it finished, I didn't look at Johnny, even though my goal was to be called over by him, obviously," says DeGeneres. "I looked at everybody but him. And finally, I looked over, and he was like, telling me to come sit down."

Ellen DeGeneres had come a long way from Louisiana, where she grew up. Her parents were Christian Scientists. Many in that faith reject modern medical treatment.

"When you were a little girl, would you take aspirin if you needed it?" asks Rocca.

"Oh God, no. I didn't have a vaccination," she says. "I didn't have aspirin. I didn't have anything until I was like, 14 years old, maybe. A chunk of wood got stuck in my foot, like, was inside of my foot. And my very first shot ever was about 15 shots to numb my foot so they could cut the piece of wood out. That was my first experience with a doctor, my first experience with a needle, with anything. I didn't have--"

"A tetanus shot?"

"Oh never."

"And did that sort of turn you off of it and say, 'Look, this is extreme?'" asks Rocca.

"I didn't have that kind of say at that age. I still was living at home. I didn't join the circus till I was about 16," she laughs. "That's when I was on the road. My mother and father divorced and when they divorced I lived with my mother and then, kind of, we were not Christian Science anymore.

"And I took aspirin all the time. I was wild!" she said. "I'd just drink Pepto Bismol and it was like, 'Look at me!'"

But something else she learned at home would stick with her and propel her toward Hollywood.

"When we were growing up our parents somehow made it clear that being famous was good," she remembers. "And I mistakenly thought that if I was famous then everyone would love me."

By the mid-'90s she was famous, with her own sitcom. The show was a hit, but she was unhappy.

"I was saying, 'If anyone knew you were gay, they would hate you.' And it was just this shame I was carrying around for so long that I just decided I didn't wanna live with that voice in my head anymore."

So in her fourth season, she and her character decided it was time to come out of the closet. Forty-two million people tuned in.

She was out, proud ... and misquoted.

"I never said, 'Yep, I'm gay,'" she says. "That was a writer that decided to put that on the cover of Time Magazine and then I was like, 'Okay.'"

"I wonder who says, 'Yep'?" says Rocca.

"The guy that came up with it. But clearly he's very proud of himself. I mean, that became a big thing," she laughs.

She laughs now, but at the time she wasn't prepared for the backlash.

"If I'd opened a magazine, it was something mean about me. If I'd turn on the TV and watch a talk show it was somebody was making fun of me."

Her ratings slumped, and after one more season her show was cancelled. Her highly publicized relationship with actress Anne Heche fell apart. DeGeneres says she was alone and out of a job. And the phone wasn't ringing.

"In the beginning I thought, 'Well, this can't last forever,'" she remembers. "I mean, yes, I lost that job, but there'll be another job. And then it slowly dawned on me, like 'Oh nobody wants me. Nobody wants to work with me anymore.'"

So she went back to stand up. But things had changed.

"The only people that came to see me when I toured were gay people," she says. "I think straight people were scared to go because, you know, they just thought, 'Well, I'm not going to understand any of it. It's going to all be in gay talk.'"

What helped her break through again to a mass audience was hosting the Emmy awards just after 9/11. On treacherous comedic ground she had just the right light touch.

DeGeneres was back - and since then it's seemed like the "Ellen era."

By 2003 she was on the small screen with her talk show - and the big screen as the voice of Dory in "Finding Nemo."

She became the face of American Express, and Cover Girl.

And she met actress Portia De Rossi. Together they're one of the most famous gay couples in the world.

A favorite cause of theirs: "The Gentle Barn," a sanctuary for abused animals.

De Rossi says that DeGeneres has taught her about self-acceptance.

"She seems to like the person that I really am," says De Rossi. "So that kind of gave me the courage to think that maybe other people will, too. And that includes being gay and being very open about it and having had some struggles in the past."

De Rossi's struggles have included a serious eating disorder.

"Yeah, I know you've talked about at one point being 82 pounds then going up to-"

"168" interjects De Rossi.

"And that's when you met Ellen."

"Yes, yeah."

"And that was significant because?" asks Rocca.

"Well, it was significant because I instantly adored her," says De Rossi. "But I was very closeted and very heavy. And I thought that no one would ever love me if I-- if they knew I was gay and especially if they saw that I was fat. So the fact that she noticed me at that point, and liked who I was, was kind of significant, yeah. It was great."

"What did you see when you saw her?" asks Rocca.

"A really fat girl," DeGeneres jokes. "She was fat. I mean, that's the first thing I thought. I was, like, 'Wow, she's fat! Lemme talk to her. Lemme see if she's a good personality.'"

DeGeneres came around. They were married three years ago, when same-sex marriage was briefly legal in California.

De Rossi is featured prominently in a new book by DeGeneres - mostly humorous essays, mixed with a little self-analysis.

"You say in the book that you don't want to be labeled as a gay talk show host," says Rocca. "Do you feel like you've gotten beyond that?"

"I think so," she says. "I don't think it's the first adjective people think about when they think about me. I think-- you know, almost, my dancing has overtaken the gayness."

She laughs. "I think it's gonna be dancing talk show host, you know, who's gay."

Right now DeGeneres has a golden opportunity to introduce herself to a larger audience -- now that the reigning queen of daytime, Oprah, has stepped down.

"There are all these Oprah audience members wandering around," says Rocca. "How do you scoop them up?"

"Like the walking dead," she jokes. "Where's Oprah? Just walking around the streets. We want our stuff! "

So we had one last question.

"Can I ask you, are you the next Oprah?" asks Rocca.

"Yes."

For more info:

  • Mo Rocca

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