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'Relatable' review: Ellen DeGeneres' return to stand-up is enjoyable, congenial

Ellen DeGeneres is "Relatable" in her debut Netflix

Ellen DeGeneres is "Relatable" in her debut Netflix original comedy special premiering December 18, 2018. Photo Credit: Netflix

THE COMEDY SPECIAL "Relatable"

WHEN|WHERE Starts streaming Tuesday on Netflix.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Ellen DeGeneres' first stand-up special in 15 years was based on material from the August tour in San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle. This one was taped at Seattle's Benaroya Hall.

MY SAY DeGeneres is not about to use this Netflix special to prove that four best-sellers, a pair of sitcoms, 16 years on a talk show (plus that one on "American Idol") and the handful of Oscar and Emmy host roles were all part of a grand and elaborate fiction.

As if to say, "Look at me now! I was really Richard Pryor all along!"

As if.

Ellen is as Ellen was and presumably as Ellen always will be: Congenial, observational and self-deprecating. Oh, right, also relatable. Mustn't forget that one.

There's a time-capsule quality to this special, as though pulled from an era (the early '90s) when the stand-up world had split into two separate and irreconcilable camps, or, broadly speaking, the irony of Jerry Seinfeld camp vs. the fury of Sam Kinison one. The wiser comics (Seinfeld) recognized that fury had a brief shelf-life while irony was forever. As Ellen gently reminds fans in this special, she could have easily gone the fury route, too. She emerged from the closet 20 years ago and was then rewarded with cancellation, widespread condemnation and unemployment, while suspicion followed that. She recalls that that one station manager declared " 'no one is going to watch a lesbian during the day.' This is a quote! What time of day is good for lesbians?"

The line gets a big laugh which you can also rightly interpret as the last laugh. Irony wins and Ellen rules. Fury has had nothing to do with DeGeneres' triumph or enduring appeal.   

The key to this lies in the title. To be relatable (of course) means to relate, or to feel as someone else feels. Punchlines pivot on recognition, because everyone knows what it's like to have a hole in their sock, or why that's both funny and aggravating. But fully aware that comics of vast wealth left their "relatability" in the dust along with their frayed socks and beat-up Chevy Vega after the first million, DeGeneres also knows she needed to address the disconnect. She does, in the opening seconds:  

After a friend of hers wondered whether she was still "relatable," she replied, "yes, I'm still a human being' [and] just then two of my butlers stepped into the library and announced that my breakfast was ready . . ."

The joke's effectiveness turns on the phrase "two of my butlers," suggesting there are more lurking somewhere else in the palace.

What follows is not all that radically different from what viewers of "Ellen" get every weekday. Fans like to think they know the object of their adoration and DeGeneres has always given them the impression that in her case, they do. There are segues to her early days as a comic, the appearance on "The Tonight Show," her upbringing as a Christian Scientist, all interlaced with amiable evergreens about slow drivers, Instagram pictures, medication side-effects, toothpaste, and junk drawers. The best bit has to do with the old hip-hop song, "Back That Azz Up" — another economical joke because the title and lyrics do most of the work for her.

But good comics have serious intentions, and Ellen DeGeneres is a good comic. Her best line is saved for last: "We are the same and all relatable." Maybe, maybe not, but at the end of an hour this cordial, about all you can do is nod.

BOTTOM LINE Relatable, but especially enjoyable.

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