A clue to Ellen’s unstoppable charm and likeability might come from a very early moment in her career, when Johnny Carson compared her to Bob Newhart. Now, this was long before Ellen actually started dressing like Bob Newhart full time. What Johnny C was comparing was their comic super power — that deadpan “Who? Me?” hilarity that sneak-attacks you with its honesty and buries controversy into a deceptive layer of harmlessness.
It’s easy to forget how remarkable it is that Ellen’s long lulled a country that is still waging a battle over gay rights into nearly forgetting the chain reaction she ignited when she not only came out herself on national television, but also brought the lead character of her hit television show out of the closet. Nowadays, almost every show on television has an LGBT character, most of whom are engaging in all the same hijinks and soap-operatic dramatics as their hetero costars without even bothering to have “coming out drama” plot lines. Would this be the case if one incredibly brave, deceptively unassuming young comedienne hadn’t had the guts to stand up and be counted? So why is it, then, that it’s so easy to think of Ellen as the successor to Oprah, the figure most likely to stand in for the definition of non-controversial pop culture? Sure, Oprah talks about tough subjects (including a young comedienne named Ellen DeGeneres coming out of the closet, by the way), but everyone — from your anarchist, punk-rock-loving roommate to your 90-year-old, inadvertently racist republican grandmother — loves Oprah. And everyone loves Ellen too.
Does being the comfortable lesbian who is welcome on the televisions of even the most conservative of homes make Ellen a sell-out? Decidedly not. Even if she’d chosen to keep her life choices on the back burner and out of the public eye after stepping bravely onto an empty stage and changing the landscape of American television forever, Ellen would still be a card-carrying member of the fearless elite. But Ellen has never hidden the fact that she’s happily married to a woman (and if your wife looked like Portia Di Rossi, neither would you). No, Ellen isn’t a sell-out; she’s just Jedi-mind-tricked the world by never once seeming to question whether she is accepted and acceptable. She’s just Ellen, and that, in itself, is remarkable.