The Tragic True Story Behind Ellen Degeneres’ Most Famous Joke

We all know and love Ellen DeGeneres as America’s favorite daytime talk show host. She’s silly, she’s funny, she can dance, and she’s charitable. It seems crazy to think that people used to hate her for being exactly who she is.

When the public first encountered Ellen DeGeneres, she told a funny and moving joke on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Years later, she’s revealed more about how she came up with that joke, and the tragic story behind it will leave you breathless.

The Beginning

Photo by Joan Adlen/Getty Images

Ellen DeGeneres was born on January 26th, 1958 in Louisiana. Her mother was a speech therapist and her father was an insurance agent. She has one brother, Vance, who’s a musician.

Ellen was raised Christian Scientist, which is the branch of Christianity most well known for refusing to use modern medicine (although not all Christian Scientists are that extreme). Her parents got divorced in 1973. Ellen stayed with her mother after the divorce and Vance stayed with his father.

Odd Jobs

Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage

You know Ellen as a successful TV star and comedian, but she wasn’t always a big name in Hollywood. Before Ellen ever picked up a microphone, she worked a whole bunch of odd jobs to make ends meet.

Ellen worked at J.C. Penney and TGI Fridays. She was also a house painter, a bartender, a waitress, and a hostess. She used all of that work experience as material for her early comedy sets.

Stand-Up Comedy

Photo by John Shearer/WireImage for Entertainment Industry Foundation

Ellen started doing stand-up at small comedy clubs and coffee houses in the late ’70s. By 1981, she was the emcee at Clyde’s Comedy Club in New Orleans. At the time, Ellen cited Steve Martin and Woody Allen as her greatest influences.

In the early 1980s, she began to tour around the country. In 1984, she was named Showtime’s funniest person in America. Ellen had a real talent for making people laugh.

The Johnny Carson Moment

Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Only the very best comedians got to sit down and talk with Johnny Carson after doing a set on his talk show. If he really liked a comedian’s set, he would wave them over and ask them to join him on the couch.

Over thirty years ago, Ellen made her first appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Her set was so good that she became the first female comedian who got called over to sit next to Johnny.

The Famous Joke

Photo Credit: Getty Images

While on the show, Ellen told a joke about what it would be like to call up God on the phone and have a conversation with him. The joke involved lots of long pauses and God putting Ellen on hold.

The set was a smashing success. The audience absolutely loved the concept of the joke, and Ellen delivered it perfectly. Although the joke was hilarious, the inspiration behind it wasn’t all that funny.

Keep reading to find out more about the tragic circumstance behind Ellen’s “phone call with God.”

The Tragedy Behind The Comedy

Photo by M. Caulfield/WireImage

Ellen wasn’t yet “out of the closet” to the public when she delivered the “phone call with God” joke on The Tonight Show. She was, however, out to her family and friends. Ellen was dating a woman at the time who tragically died in a car accident.

That car accident was the inspiration behind Ellen’s famous comedy routine. Ellen turned the most tragic event in her life into a bit that made millions of people laugh.

The Gritty Details

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Ellen’s girlfriend was just 21 years old at the time. The two women were living together in a very small one bedroom apartment. One night, they went to a party. They had gotten into a fight, so Ellen’s girlfriend drove home early with some friends.

On Ellen’s way home, she saw a car smashed on the side of the road. She said that the car looked like it was split in two.

How She Found Out

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Ellen didn’t find out that her girlfriend was in that smashed car until the next morning. After she learned that her girlfriend had died, Ellen felt incredibly guilty.

Her girlfriend had wanted Ellen to go home with her but Ellen refused because they had been fighting. After she found out about the accident, Ellen thought that the tragedy could have been prevented if she had just decided to drive her home.

How The Joke Came About

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Comedy and tragedy really aren’t opposites. They’re just two versions of the same thing. After Ellen’s girlfriend died, Ellen started contemplating how harsh and unpredictable life can be. During a guest appearance on Dax Shepard’s podcast, she said,

“I couldn’t afford to live where we were living together and so I moved into this tiny little basement apartment. I moved into this basement apartment and I was sleeping on a mattress on a floor and it was infested with fleas. And I used to write all the time, I wrote poetry and songs and stuff, and I thought, ‘Why is this beautiful 21-year-old girl just gone and fleas are here?'”

She Wanted To Ask Why

Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

Ellen couldn’t wrap her head around what had just happened to her girlfriend. She wanted answers. She wanted to know why bad things happen to good people.

Ellen told Dax, “I just thought it would be amazing if we could just pick up the phone and call up God and ask questions and get an answer.” She began thinking about what a phone call with God would be like, and that’s how she wrote her set for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

Nobody Knew

Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage

Of course, nobody knew that Ellen was gay at the time. She wouldn’t come out publicly for another ten years. There was no way that Ellen could tell the story behind the joke without telling the public that she was a lesbian.

She had to keep all of her complex emotions hidden while audiences laughed at a comedy routine that they could never fully understand. In some ways, the laughter helped. At least she was able to voice her frustrations in a way that everybody could relate to.

Moving On

Photo by Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images

After becoming a successful stand-up comedian, Ellen was given an opportunity to star in her own television show. She played a fictionalized version of herself (a character named Ellen Morgan) in a sitcom called Ellen.

The show started airing in 1994 and was quickly called the female Seinfeld. It reached peak popularity in 1997. The show was mostly about Ellen’s daily life with her quirky friends in Los Angeles. The show was originally called These Friends of Mine, but producers changed the title to avoid confusion with NBC’s Friends.

Coming Out

Photo credit should read HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images

In the late ’90s, people were starting to suspect that Ellen may not be entirely straight. Ellen decided to come out publicly on her television show as her character, Ellen Morgan. Ellen and Ellen Morgan would come out as gay together.

The episode in which she came out was full of innuendoes. Towards the end of the episode, Ellen Morgan accidentally says “I’m gay” into a microphone and everybody hears her.

All Of The Backlash

Photo by Michael Caulfield/WireImage

The episode of Ellen in which Ellen comes out got very mixed reviews. Some people were proud of Ellen’s bravery, but most people reacted with outrage. After that episode aired, the show had to include a parental advisory at the beginning of every subsequent episode.

The show’s ratings started to decline and ABC decided to pull it from the air in May 1998 after five seasons. Everyone (including Ellen) thought that Ellen’s career was over.

Public Relationships

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Now that Ellen was out to the public, she could date women in the public eye. In 1997, the year she came out, Ellen began a relationship with Anne Heche that lasted until August 2000. From 2000 to 2004, Ellen had a close relationship with actress, director, and photographer Alexandra Hedison.

The couple appeared on the cover of The Advocate after their separation had already been announced to the media.

The Love Of Her Life

Photo Credit: Getty Images

In 2004, Ellen began dating actress Portia de Rossi. Portia was not out to the public at the time, and she was unsure about how dating the most famous lesbian in the world would affect her career. Portia took a leap of faith, and the two women have been together ever since.

After same-sex marriage was legalized in 2008, Portia and Ellen got married at their home in Beverly Hills where they still live with their many dogs and cats.

Her Own Talk Show

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Ellen thought that her career had been irreparably damaged after she came out on national television. In 2001, she returned to television with a new CBS sitcom called The Ellen Show. That show was canceled after 13 episodes.

In 2003, she gave it one more try, this time with a daytime talk show called The Ellen DeGeneres Show. To say the show was a smashing success would be an understatement. The Ellen DeGeneres show won 11 Daytime Emmys for its first season.

Voice Acting

Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Against all odds, Ellen’s career completely took off in the 2000s. It was a new millennium and people were ready to embrace a gay icon. Ellen lent her voice to some super successful animated features, most notably Disney’s Finding Nemo in which she played a forgetful blue tang named Dory.

She also provided the voice of the dog who narrates the prologue of Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Dolittle film. These roles helped people see her as someone with a family-friendly image.

She’s An Animal Rights Activist

Photo by C Flanigan/Getty Images

Both Ellen and Portia are passionate about animal rights. Ellen has previously described herself as a vegan and a “big animal lover.” The site for The Ellen DeGeneres Show contains a section called “Going Vegan With Ellen” that promotes “Meatless Mondays” and features vegan recipes.

Ellen has supported numerous animal sanctuaries and charities on her show, and for her 60th birthday, Portia gifted a campus with her name on it at The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

She’s In A Disney World Ride

Photo by James Devaney/GC Images

Ellen has her very own ride at Disney called Ellen’s Energy Adventure which is a popular attraction at the Epcot Future World park. The ride involves a screen that moves around a huge circular theater. At one point, Ellen ends up in the jungle with Bill Nye the Science Guy.

The audience is then taken back to the Jurassic era as they glide through scenes of animatronic dinosaurs. There’s even an animatronic version of Ellen that pops up from time to time.

She Hosted The Oscars

Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images

In 2006, Ellen Degeneres was selected to host the 79th annual Academy Awards. She became the second woman to host the Oscars after Whoopi Goldberg hosted in 2002. Ellen’s performance was viewed as a fantastic success even though she had the difficult job of hosting just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit her hometown in New Orleans.

Regis Philbin said of the award ceremony, “the only complaint was there’s not enough Ellen.”

The Presidential Medal Of Freedom

Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

In 2016, President Barack Obama named Ellen DeGeneres as one of the 21 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The awards are given out to people who have used their distinct talents to change the world for the better.

The White House released a statement about Ellen that read, “In 1997, after coming out herself, DeGeneres made TV history when her character on Ellen revealed she was a lesbian. In her work and in her life, she has been a passionate advocate for equality and fairness.”

She Knows Her Real Estate

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Ellen may have made a healthy sum of money from movies and television, but she’s also managed to make a large profit from her real estate ventures. She purchased her former home for $17.4 million and sold it for $21 million, making a hefty $4 million in profit.

Her latest LA mansion is valued at $40 million, and it’s just about the most gorgeous and luxurious property you’ve ever seen. The property includes a pool, gym, spa, and tennis court.

Perfectly Punctual

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Even though Ellen is a huge star now (by anyone’s standards), she never acts like a diva when she’s at work. Ellen’s professionalism is part of the reason why she’s as successful as she is.

Ellen certainly does not have the celebrity complex. In fact, she is know for always being on time. Interviewers at magazines like Good Housekeeping and O, The Oprah Magazine said she always arrived early for interviews and for photo shoots.

Easy, Breezy, Beautiful

Photo by Albert L. Ortega/WireImage

In 2008, Ellen DeGeneres became a spokesperson for the makeup brand CoverGirl. CoverGirl has made it their mission to show people of diverse backgrounds in their commercials in order to spread the message that looking beautiful is for everybody.

Ellen has been featured in a series of commercials with fellow CoverGirl, Sofia Vergara. The two women have such an easy (dare I say, breezy?) chemistry on screen. Ellen proves that you can be beautiful at any age.

What Can’t She Do?

Photo Credit: Getty Images

In addition to being an actress, model, talk show host, award show host, humanitarian, activist, and comedian, Ellen DeGeneres is also an author. How can one person be this good at so many different things?

Ellen DeGeneres became an author for the first time in 1995 when her book “My Point… and I Do Have One” was published. The book climbed to the number one slot on the New York Times bestsellers list. It also stayed on the “Publishers Weekly” bestseller list for 24 weeks.

A Scary Apartment

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage

Back in her early stand-up days, Ellen actually lived in the apartment that was used as a set in the horror movie Annabelle which came out in 2014.

While promoting the movie in her show she explained that: “The apartment in the movie was my first apartment that I moved to in L.A. That was the building I lived in; where they shot the movie. I was watching it going: ‘That looks familiar’ and it was my building. It was scary back then too.”

A Woman With Influence

Photo by PG/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

In 2015, Forbes estimated that Ellen DeGeneres had earned US$75 million that year alone. In 2010, Forbes named Ellen the 10th most powerful woman in the world.

In 2015, she was named the 50th most powerful woman in the world and also number two on the World Pride Power list. This is a woman with a lot of influence. Basically, you don’t want to get on her bad side, or her followers.

Her New Stand-Up Special

Photo by Philip Ramey/Corbis via Getty Images

In 2018, Ellen released a new hour-long stand-up special on Netflix called Relatable. The last time she released a stand-up special was fifteen years prior. She’s been out of the game for a long time, but her jokes are as fresh as ever.

In the special, Ellen talks about her unlikely rise to superstardom after her sitcom ended, and what life is like now that she’s as rich and famous as she is.

She’s A Huge Football Fan

Photo by Mathew Imaging/FilmMagic

Ellen loves football and she’s a huge fan of the New Orleans Saints. Recently, Ellen has expressed that she’s proud of certain NFL players for standing up (or rather kneeling down) for what is right.

In September of 2017, Ellen tweeted, “As a football fan, I am proud of the NFL players today. Nothing is more American than the right to peacefully protest.” As an influential public figure, Ellen understands how much a statement like that really means.