I’ve noticed so far my choices of favorite jokes have been only men. Uhm, er.. I mean they’ve been written and performed by men, not that the men are jokes.. I’ll come in again.
The past few jokes I’ve blogged about were by male comedians. In interests of equal time, I explored Wendy Liebman’s jokes to compensate, and couldn’t decide on one. So instead I picked Abbott & Costello yesterday. I’m still planning on picking one of Wendy Liebman’s someday. I just. really. can’t. decide. Every joke is awesome, but she’s gonna have to wait. I wanted to pick a woman today though, cuz I feel less chauvinistic than usual, and Ellen Degeneres’ Phone Call to God bubbled to the surface of all the jokes my mind has been exposed to all these years.
These jokes are not in any particular order, by the way. I’m not saying Ellen Degeneres is better than previous comedians, or worse for that matter. I’m not counting down to the absolute best joke I’ve ever heard. I hope I’ve yet to hear the greatest joke i’ve ever heard, but in my ongoing journey to someday complete Gene Perrett’s Comedy Writing Workbook, I’m amassing a list of my favorite jokes, and I don’t really know where I’m going with this I’m just making a list. Actually, this is turning into my favorite comedy routines or favorite comedians cuz I can’t just pick one joke. I mean “Take my wife! ..please!” is no better or worse than “..The Aristocrats!” I’m trying to list jokes (or routines, rather) that I wish I had written. I hope to someday write a joke that lights a candle to these. Without further ado:
Wow. She looks like she’s 12, doesn’t she? I tried to tell YouTube to jump ahead three minutes into this routine to get straight to the “Phone Call to God” bit I’m talking about today, but if it doesn’t do that, you’ll wonder what the hell I’m talking about. The entire routine is amazing. Playing Carson was at one time the Olympics of stand up comedy. If you could get on Johnny’s show you made it you were on top of the world. She killed that night. I rather imagine there’s a thousand things she probably wishes she could have done better, but objectively speaking this is an amazing first time appearance on Carson’s show. Not shabby. She should just be proud of herself and not nitpick.
And now I’m gonna start nitpicking. This was back in the 1980s, when Johnny Carson was still alive, and everybody assumed Ellen was straight. Looking at her outfit and that mullet now I can’t imagine what ever put that crazy thought into our heads. Twenty twenty hindsight gaydar. Anyway, here’s the premise:
Life is very precious. It’s very special. We’re here for such a short time and everything on this Earth should have a reason; should have a beneficial purpose, and I feel like everything does.. except for fleas.
Okay so that’s half of the premise. The other half is below. Again what is a premise? It’s one or more statements the comedian presents to the audience in order to set up the jokes that are to come. The first statement is that life is special and precious. Most of your audience will agree with you on that one, except for really cynical bastards, and screw em. The next thing Ellen does is do the very risky thing of sounding almost spiritual for a second but not in a way that’s gonna turn off most of the audience. Again, you’ll lose a few people here but screw em. Everything in the world is here for a reason. This brings to mind the cerebral argument of destiny versus free will, but most people who come to a comedy club don’t go there to have philosophical arguments with the comic, and Ellen is such a sweetheart that no one stands up in the middle of her gig and storms out because she chooses Ecclesiastes 3:1 and Descartes and Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle over common sense.
There’s actually a joke embedded into this setup which itself turns into a part of the premise. Ellen proffers that everything in the universe makes sense to her subjectively, except for fleas. She could have chosen anything really but for purposes of this joke she picks fleas cuz she knows where she’s going, and also she’s calculated that most of her audience will join her on this assumption too. Cuz really, what good are fleas? No one really knows but Ellen is banking on the fact that practically no one ever thinks about it.
Fleas do nothing at all beneficial. I always thought wouldn’t it be great if at times like this when we can’t figure it out for ourselves, wouldn’t it be great if we could just pick up the phone and call up God and ask him these things? Just pick up the phone and call up God..
..then she does, and we’re off to the races.
So she’s established the parameters of her joke. We live in a world of predetermination, where everything has a purpose, except for one thing (fleas), and we need to check in with the almighty creator to set us straight. Why do fleas exist? She lets us forget this is why she’s calling by sidetracking the gag, padding for time and milking the bit, but then she comes back to the flea thing for the pay off.
This in itself is a brilliant premise, but how she gets us here isn’t just in what she says but in the nonchalant way she turns a seemingly casual hand gesture (picking up an imaginary phone and putting it to her ear) into a subtle mime that pulls us into her imaginary world of prayer. Whenever I watch her do this I can almost see clouds fade in behind her and an extra spot light on her face. In my mind’s eye I mean. I’m not actually seeing these things. I’m not hallucinating, and those aren’t spiders, either.
The actual phone call seems set up to remind her audience of phone calls each person in the audience has probably had with a distant family member who knows you from a shared past but hasn’t necessarily thought about you much recently. Like a grand parent or uncle. Someone maybe you call close to the holidays and try to be polite too but they’re a little off center & their emotional states are unpredictable. Her actual inspiration is probably personal phone calls she’s made to loved ones in her life that are older than her and forget which of their many grand nieces Ellen is. Note to self: personal past relationships are fodder for comedy bits. Just don’t use real names.
Now where Ellen’s going with this routine is tricky. Religion is actually a very dangerous topic to enter into when doing stand up cuz everyone’s very opinionated about where they stand regarding beliefs, except for the agnostics, and screw em. If Ellen paints a god character to whom the audience members can’t relate, she will lose her audience. I haven’t taken a poll, but chances are this bit works better on a judeo-christian audience than it would on muslims, hindus, or pagans. She does make reference to “The Gate” which presumably is The Pearly Gates common in protestant and catholic versions of the god myth. She also alludes to the chorus of angels singing praises to the Lord in the background.
Onward Christian Soldiers. Marching– Yeah? No I was just singing along to your tape! ..Oh, that’s not a tape? They’re good!
We interrupt this blog page about Ellen DeGeneres’ Phone Call to God to present a vaguely related video. The YouTube link below (for however long it lasts) is the last 8 minutes or so of her comedy special titled “The Beginning” and you might wanna dig up the previous part too (or go buy the whole darn thing it’s great) because she’s talking about actually visiting god this time not just calling god up on the phone. But I wanted to include this to give some contrast to young Ellen and how she’s changed and blossomed as a comedic writer (and also as a lesbian. not ashamed to say the end of this special made me tear up a little bit. there’s a little lesbian in all of us.) I also wanted to put a video of some sort about here on the page cuz it balances out the other two. I’m very feng shui when it comes to web page design.
And now back to our regular programming, already in progress.
In Ellen DeGeneres’ Phone Call to God routine, she specifically calls god “God” and not Yahweh or Jehovah or Allah. I don’t know Ellen’s actual upbringing or current belief status but being an American and playing mostly American venues, she’s playing it safe. Her audience relates well to this version of the god persona. However she only gets specific where it’s required for the bit, allowing the audience to fill in the gaps. Note to self: less is more. Don’t describe the joke too much. Keep it simple and trust the audience to do the rest.
That brings me to another tricky thing about this routine. It’s a one sided conversation, so Ellen has to write and perform the gag in such a way so that the audience can again fill in the gaps. Unlike Bill Cosby’s “Noah” routine, Ellen can’t pretend to be God while she’s pretending to be herself. So she has to trust the audience will know what God just said to her, provided she lets us in on the conversation by how she responds to what he says. For example when she explains to god why she’s calling him, mentioning insects, she pauses for a beat and then says “no bees are great. the honey. That’s clever.” So when she mentioned insects we can almost hear God say “you mean like bees?” even though we never actually do hear him speak. Another example is towards the end of the bit where she responds as if she just sneezed, by saying
god bless you – bless yourself!
Yet another example is the knock knock jokes. Of course we never hear God talking, but because of Ellen’s carefully orchestrated behavior both in terms of word choice and in physical mannerisms, we never feel like we wanna grab the phone out of her hands and listen to him for ourselves. We’re there with her through the call. I can only think of one other comedian that is this clever at pretend one-sided telephone conversations, and that’s Bob Newhart. It’s a lot harder to do than it looks.
Wouldn’t it be great if I could just pick up the phone and call up Ellen DeGeneres and ask her if she had Bob Newhart in mind when writing this routine? Y’know just pick up the phone and call up Ellen… Damn. Busy signal. Maybe some other time.
There’s a moment in this comedy routine where the storytelling aspect has been completed. She still has jokes after this but she’s paid off what she promises in the premise, and the punchline is almost not verbal. When Ellen mentions fleas she suddenly stops and has this look on her face as if she’s a little girl being told by her grandfather why she should not ever have opened the secret compartment in his liquor cabinet and wrote all over his porn collection with crayons. After an intentionally uncomfortable pause, she says
no i had no idea so many were employed by the flea collar industry.
That can be arguably the punchline, but the real humor is her silent humility just before that. Ellen is not being chastised by her god. She’s being chastised by your god; the god you imagine on the other side of that phone. This is both funny and absurd on more levels than I know how to count. Ellen DeGeneres takes a pie in the face for you in this instant, for your amusement, using a character you are familiar with that you have invented in your mind so when your god gets the final word on fleas, it’s almost like trumping the comic. Your god just heckled the little lady holding the microphone. Don’t you feel special? All the rest of this has been leading up to that instant.
Her final end is another punchline of sorts but it’s just a bow on the gift. “I’ll see you – I’ll talk to you later!” It’s not as funny as the flea collar industry line but it’s a sweet way to wrap up the bit, playing on the fact that God is all knowing and all seeing but we never actually get to see him, even in the afterlife.
I love this bit cuz it’s so finely crafted. Ellen is aware not only of the importance in word choice when writing comedy, but she’s very visually astute too. She takes into account who her audience is going to be and writes the entire bit with that in mind, being careful to give the special guest funny moments and a chance to outdo her. What god worth his salt wouldn’t get a few laughs in himself?
One more thing: this is totally unrelated to Ellen DeGeneres’ Phone Call to God but I want to end today’s installment of favorite jokes with Casey Desmond’s song Talking To God, cuz I like both Ellen & Casey, and I think it’s funny.