Ellen DeGeneres got sick of dancing, and really, can you blame her?

She has to be the only 60-year-old woman in America who is expected to dance with total strangers wherever she goes. “There’s been times someone wants a picture, and while I’m doing a selfie, they’re like: ‘You’re not dancing!,’” DeGeneres said in her office on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif. “Of course I’m not dancing. I’m walking down the street.”

As she prepares to release her first comedy special in 15 years, DeGeneres is considering a much bigger change, retiring from the long-running hit show that bears her name. She’s been receiving conflicting advice from her wife, the actress Portia de Rossi, and from her older brother, Vance DeGeneres, a comedian, and has changed her mind more than once.

At a transitional moment in her remarkable career, DeGeneres agreed to sit for a rare series of interviews over two days. As much as anyone possibly could, she has taken on Oprah Winfrey’s mantle as the queen of inspirational daytime talk, providing an oasis of positivity and escapist comedy in a culture short on both. But with DeGeneres’s status as a sunny stalwart come certain burdens and constrictions, like the expectation to dance, which she finally stopped doing on her show two years ago, after some agonizing over how her audience would react.

In person, she is more blunt, introspective and interesting than she is on the show, willing to express mild irritation that might seem off-key in front of a national audience. She’s also much more likely to explore dark corners of her psyche, regrets, second thoughts, anxieties that linger. And DeGeneres is appealingly open about the tensions in her career between providing a cultural safe space and delivering laughs, and says she has learned to care less about being liked.

Spoofing her own approachable, down-to-earth image, her surprising new special, “Relatable” (available Dec. 18 on Netflix), doesn’t just reveal a refreshingly irreverent version of Ellen DeGeneres. It also provides a window into her state of mind.

In sharp contrast to her public image as everyone’s good friend, happy to listen, she presents herself — with tongue in cheek — as cartoonishly aloof and indifferent, stuck in a privileged bubble, cracking several jokes, for instance, about her fabulous wealth. (Forbes reports that she earned $87.5 million this year, making her the 15th-highest-paid celebrity in the world.) When she mentions a seat in the 10th row of an airplane, she admits, with practiced cluelessness, that the back of the plane is a mystery to her, asking if the seats even go that far.

 

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For a famously nice talk show host, this is risky stuff. Yet the most jarring jokes in this special are those that subvert her reputation for kindness. After a lifetime of clean comedy, she startles her crowd with a curse. The comic Tig Notaro calls it “a decades-long payoff,” adding, “Then you’re like: Ellen’s a real person with a foul mouth.”
Notaro, a friend who co-directed this special with Joel Gallen, said that while these are jokes, they are rooted in honesty. “Being trapped in the world of being asked to dance and expected to be nice, it’s real,” Notaro said by phone, after noting that, of course, DeGeneres is exceedingly grateful. “I’m sure there’s people who think she’s kidding. Or can’t have a bad day. But she does. It’s an interesting pickle she’s in.”
Asked why his sister returned to stand-up, Vance DeGeneres, a former correspondent for “The Daily Show” who helped create the “Mr. Bill” shorts for “Saturday Night Live,” said: “After doing the show for 16 years, it’s second nature. She wanted to break out of, not a rut, but a mold.”

DeGeneres put it another way, emphasizing the kind of expression stand-up allows. “I wanted to show all of me,” she said. “The talk show is me, but I’m also playing a character of a talk-show host. There’s a tiny, tiny bit of difference.”

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Because daytime talk shows get less attention than their late-night counterparts, DeGeneres is often overlooked in discussions of important hosts. But make no mistake: No other current daily host has been as successful or celebrated. Among her vast collection of awards are the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and 32 Emmys. And apart from Conan O’Brien, no one matches her television longevity (she’s been daytime host for as many years as Jon Stewart led “The Daily Show”) or her influence. Years before Jimmy Fallon turned games into standard elements of “The Tonight Show,” DeGeneres regularly invited guests to play them.

Fallon has become known for these segments, and they have been imitated on other shows, but they all clearly owe DeGeneres a debt. (Last year, she started a hit game show “Ellen’s Game of Games,” which returns for a second season in January.) “I’m flattered that he’s taken stuff,” DeGeneres told me, adding: “He said he was going to steal everything, so it’s fine.”

During an October taping of her show, what stood out was the stark contrast between the relaxed, low-key charisma of DeGeneres and the chaotic, charged-up energy of her audience. The crowd is encouraged to stand and dance, but they don’t need to be told; they are ready to party, while DeGeneres projects a seemingly paradoxical blend of warmth and reserve, actively engaging, waving at people, listening intently to guests, adding a quip here and there, but never pushing too hard.

 

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