DeGeneres Got Her Comedic Start in the Upper East Side of Texas
Once named the Funniest Person in America, Ellen DeGeneres says it was during her years living in Atlanta, Texas, that she realized she might be funny, and that inspiration took her well beyond her dreams.
Ellen Lee DeGeneres was born January 26, 1958, in Metairie, Louisiana. At age 16, her parents divorced, and she moved with her mother to the tiny rural Cass County community of Atlanta in the Upper East Side of Texas.
It was a rough time for the family, but it is here where DeGeneres learned the power of comedy.
“My mother was going through some really hard times and I could see when she was really getting down, and I would start to make fun of her dancing,” she recalls in an interview with the New York Times. “Then she’d start to laugh and I’d make fun of her laughing. And she’d laugh so hard she’d start to cry, and then I’d make fun of that. So I would totally bring her from where I’d seen her start going into depression to all the way out of it. As a kid, I learned I could manipulate people that way. That’s a really powerful thing.
“But also I saw I could make somebody happy. And my mother was someone whom I idolized. She’s my mother, yet I’m changing her.”
During her school years in Texas, DeGeneres was a reporter for the high school newspaper and on the varsity tennis team. By all accounts, and not surprisingly, she was fun and outgoing. She enjoyed playing tennis and was “Outstanding Tennis Player” of 1975 among other awards she garnered during her high school years.
She graduated with the class of 1976, and after holding a wide variety of jobs over the next few years, she turned to stand-up comedy, performing at small clubs and coffeehouses.
By the early 1980s she was touring nationally and was named the Funniest Person in America after winning a Showtime competition. This led to her first appearance on The Tonight Show in 1986.
Today, DeGeneres is enormously successful with her own Emmy-winning TV talk show still going strong since 2003; more than 70 awards for comedy, acting, and entertainment; earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; and hosting the Oscars in 2007 and 2014. She has written several books, including The Funny Thing Is… and Home. She’s also an active animal advocate. In 2016, President Barack Obama bestowed to her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
In 2006, DeGeneres treated her Atlanta High School graduating classmates to a trip to see and be part of her very special 30th High School Reunion Show. In her opening monologue she intertwined her Texas-born humor with genuine appreciation for the 66 classmates sitting in the audience that day.
“The class was less than 100 — 100 is not a lot of people. Our team was called The Rabbits, so you’d think we’d have more of us,” DeGeneres jokes. “Oh, they were scared of us,” she laughs. “We’ll nibble the grass so low, you’ll slip.”
Degeneres told her audience of classmates that a lot of people don’t remember their past and some want to forget it and not look back.
“But I’m looking forward to hearing stories and listening to stuff and if it’s good, I’m glad, and if it’s bad, it’s not true,” she says, blue eyes glaring straight into the camera.
DeGeneres recalled memories of one Home Economics teacher, Mrs. Woods, “a little old lady who lived in Atlanta all her life.” DeGeneres says she was working on the hem of a tennis skirt one day, when Mrs. Woods looked over her shoulder and said, “Why that hem is as crooked as a cat’s tail.” Another time when she was cutting something with dull scissors, Mrs. Woods said, “Well those scissors couldn’t cut hot butter.” DeGeneres can easily call up her old teacher’s southern accent when needed.
Some of her classmates still visit her show from time to time and DeGeneres continues to mention her days in Atlanta, Texas, sometimes poking fun of her plaid prom dress or other photos that pop up regularly from those years.
She ends each of her shows with a phrase that’s become synonymous with her, “Be kind to one another.” Perhaps she learned that in Atlanta, Texas, too.
See a clip of the 30th High School Reunion Show at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vA43zH3AReo