Yep, She’s Nice

Ellen DeGeneres’ naive HBO special.

Ellen: Pleasant, PG-rated tonic humor

Ellen DeGeneres has a way with spoken punctuation, and she mashes the right words together. Consider the following run-on, which she delivers as she surveys her New York audience in her stand-up comedy special, Here and Now, which will air on HBO Saturday at 10 p.m.

“Some people here maybe are in a bad mood. Maybe you had a fight with your boyfriend or your girlfriend or your husband or your wife or your lover or your partner or your ‘roommate’ or your niece-the. Point is you’re in a bad mood, and now I’m going to have to work even harder to make you laugh because you have to have things your way and you won’t back down.”

At “niece-the,” the big room laughs, for real. But at what? Is “niece” a cover name (like “roommate”) that some people give their dates? Or could  uncle-niece even be meant to cap off a list of increasingly permissive romantic couplings? Though one can’t be sure, this easy portmanteau, which softens DeGeneres’ punch line, may be one of the few moments of innuendo in an otherwise strictly PG-rated hour of jolly remarks about middle-class existence. In any case, it’s funny.

DeGeneres successfully forgoes the customary skeptical posture of an “observational” (read: Seinfeld-y) comic. Rather, she’s happy to play the naïf in her comic scenarios. She keeps no what’s-the-deal distance from ordinary life, deriving humor instead by taking the world too seriously. Her eyes even turn shiny with tears at various points in the program. One nice line that came with especially shiny eyes: “Thirty seconds and we get invested in those characters on the commercials. That old man who can eat corn on the cob again? I’m happy for him.” Brave smile.

“He couldn’t eat it for awhile.” Tear.

“Now he can.”

Another joke in this tone concerned the music of Peter, Paul, and Mary. Initially, it seemed like a reprise of Carol Leifer’s pissed-off material from the ‘70s and ‘80s, but DeGeneres treated kook-folk lyrics with kid gloves.

” ‘If I Had a Hammer’ must have been written for people without hammers. Because before I had a hammer, I probably thought, if I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer in the evening, I’d hammer all over this land if I had hammer.”

Here she seemed to reminisce. “Once you have a hammer, you find you don’t hammer as much as you think you would.”

Disappointingly, DeGeneres does visit the tapped-out observational topics of call-waiting, CD packaging, people who eat bugs on television, and how people order fattening meals with Diet Coke. She also expresses nostalgia for a blurry, antique time when everyone was polite and pickles came in barrels; at 45, she can’t quite make these kids-today scolds believable. Still, she somehow manages to reinflate many exhausted comic subjects. How long has it been, for instance, since you found jokes about the proliferation of TV channels funny? You might finally get that old channel laugh on Saturday night.

As is eminently clear in Here and Now, everything about DeGeneres is pleasant—her athletic gait, her moppy haircut, her happy-sad eyes, her encouraging smile. DeGeneres has said she first started telling jokes to cheer her mother up during a divorce, and heartbreak-therapy is still an ideal application of her tonic humor. Here and Now apparently has no dark side. Thematically, it’s very tight. Whatever kind of divorce is afoot anywhere, DeGeneres seems to stitch life together again.