The 60-year-old talk show host got her start in comedy after suffering through a painful tragedy. She opened up about the experience on Dax Shepard’s podcast Armchair Expert.
“My girlfriend was killed in a car accident when I was like 20 years old. I wasn’t doing comedy,” she explained. “I was probably waitressing some place at the time. I was living with her and when she was killed I couldn’t afford to live where we were living together and so I moved into this tiny little basement apartment that I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor and it was infested with fleas.”
DeGeneres noted that her circumstances inspired her first bit as a stand-up comic.
“I thought why is this beautiful 21-year-old girl gone and fleas are here?” she recalled. “And I just thought it would be amazing if we could pick up the phone and call up god and ask questions and actually get an answer?”
From there, DeGeneres wrote the bit about a phone call to god that eventually landed her on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson – a move she predicted as soon as she put pen to paper.
“It just unfolded. I just wrote the entire thing,” she said. “And when I finished I thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s hilarious. I’m going to do this on Johnny Carson and I’m going to be the first woman in the history of the show to be called over to sit down.’ And I’d never done standup.”
Four years later, DeGeneres performed the bit before Carson, who was famous for asking comedians he liked to sit down on the couch with him after their set.
“Roseanne was on The Tonight Show and she killed and he didn’t call her over. Carol Leifer was on, Paula Poundstone was on, everybody I would watch,” DeGeneres said. “When he retired, I was the only woman he called over on the first appearance. It was like five men and me.”
These days she’s a household name, but DeGeneres never thought she’d amount to as much as her brother, writer Vance DeGeneres.
“My brother at that time I think he was already on Saturday Night Live. He created Mr. Bill so he was Mr. Hands,” she said of her stand-up days. “He was the talented one. He was a musician and he was funny and creative and I was just around.”