Day 15: Ellen Degeneres

I’m sharing stand up comedy sets that I really like each day this month. Today’s set is older than I am, but would still do well if it came out tomorrow. Here’s the 1986 Tonight Show with Johnny Carson performance by Ellen Degeneres and some reasons I’m still laughing:

• PATTERN BREAKS. Once something happens two or three times, I think it’ll happen again the next time. That’s where Ellen gets me. She’ll break the pattern I anticipate and get me to laugh in that unexpected moment. For example, in the fire drill, she lists three normal duties for her three family members. Her duty comes last, is completely inconsistent, and gets me to laugh. She does this also with God telling her jokes: the first two times, she accepts, but the third time, she feigns an appointment.

• FILLING THE SCENE. The conversation with God is riddled with hilarity. I laugh so much in part because Ellen adds in all the elements of a phone call: a pause when someone’s at the door, hold music, the friend who won’t hang up. She’s able to give these elements added oomph by thinking how’d they’d play out in this celestial context: someone at “the gate,” choral singing, God telling knock knock jokes. In this way, she’s able to turn a single funny idea into laugh after laugh.

• THE UNSPOKEN WORDS. When Ellen is speaking on the phone, she doesn’t tell us what God says. She just speaks herself. But I laugh because, when she answers, my brain solves the equation to figure out God’s line. In that reveal lies the joke. Ellen also pauses while God’s speaking, these silences essentially becoming the set up, and I laugh just in the quiet anticipation. It’s so cleverly performed and written, and one of the reasons Johnny Carson gave her the rare opportunity to chat on the couch with him on TV right afterward. (See also: “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue” bit from The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart.)

I don’t know where Ellen Degeneres ended up, but I hope she’s still in comedy and doing well.