Comedy, like drawing with cheese or playing the zither, is essentially an outsider art. It is best practiced by those who feel undernourished by human regard. This would include such admiration-impoverished individuals as a skinny, neurotic young Woody Allen; a homely, heavy Roseanne; a plain-weird Andy Kaufman and a vast number of Canadians. Nothing kills comedy quicker than acceptance.
And few comics are as adored by their constituents as Ellen DeGeneres. She winds up a 36-city tour this week with an HBO special (July 23, 10 p.m. E.T.). It's the first stand-up the comic and actor has done in seven years, having been otherwise engaged in a sitcom, Ellen, that was by turns successful and amusing, then controversial and very funny, then adrift and not funny, then canceled and controversial again. This tour is being touted as the comic's return to her just-me-and-the-microphone roots, albeit a return that's augmented by a retinue that includes her partner Anne Heche (who's making a documentary) and, on a night this writer saw it, a goat. "My comedy got lost, and my sexuality overshadowed it," said DeGeneres. (Alan Greenspan faces this problem every day.) She was afraid to do stand-up again until Chris Rock told her to "get [her] ass back out there."
Clearly, Ellen is a richly gifted comedian. Her timing, pitch and pacing are unimpeachable. Her physical antics are extremely cute. Her infectious sense of random joy never wanes. But she no longer needs to be funny. Her audience already worships her. Fans bake her elaborate cakes. They cheer and laugh and whoop at every bon mot. They cry when asking her questions, and they come to the stage for hugs.
And why not? When she came out, DeGeneres whisked herself to that undiscover'd country, into whose bourn few actors are willing to venture. With one Ellen episode (and perhaps a TIME cover), this funny, attractive, famous woman, who happens to be gay, inspired thousands of funny, attractive people who also happen to be gay. "I think after people see this special, they'll realize they can come and see me and they won't feel left out," she says. And it's true. Her material is about the same goofy stuff it's always been about.
But an Ellen DeGeneres audience is no longer one that has come to see comedy. People have come just to see her and offer up worship. That's not to say her HBO special is rigidly unfunny. She has a free-form routine about meeting God, in whose living room she sees many pictures of Jesus, one in which he's wearing a T shirt that says, MY PARENTS CREATED THE UNIVERSE AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T SHIRT. She does a hilarious bit about why she thinks people videotape themselves making love (they think they're really hot, or they need work). And there's a winning spiel on being the person at the other end of the 800 advice-line on shampoo bottles: "Did you wet your hair first?...Glad I could help."
But the comedy is just a touch limper, fluffier. Gone is the economic clarity of early stand-up routines like her phone call to God, what you can tell about people by their groceries (whipped cream, lawn chair, douche) and how toilet seats get wet. Ellen, at her best, is a comedian who could make doubters like Jerry Lewis, who says women aren't funny, curse their Y chromosomes. But in her new routine, God turns out--ooh, novel!--to be a forty-sevenish black woman.