Every afternoon, Ellen DeGeneres dances into homes across America, but it was taking a seat in an armchair that got her to reveal a tragedy from her past. In the latest episode of her friend Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast, DeGeneres opened up about the death of an ex-girlfriend, who died in a car crash when they both in their 20s. It’s that loss, she now says, that helped her kickstart her career.
When Shepard interviewed DeGeneres on his podcast last
DeGeneres was in her 20s when her girlfriend was killed, and she wasn’t doing comedy at the time. “I think I was waitressing,” she said. And when she died, DeGeneres explained that she couldn’t live in the New Orleans apartment where they were both staying together anymore. Instead, she was forced to move into “this tiny little basement apartment that I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor infested with fleas.”
At the time, she told Shepard:
In that moment, DeGeneres said she wrote the whole joke and knew when she was done that it was going to be a life-changing kind of joke.
DeGeneres even predicted that she’d perform it on Carson’s show. Funny really, since she told Shepard she hadn’t even started doing stand-up yet when she wrote the joke, but she just had a good feeling about it. And, she was right — it helped her become one of only a handful of comedians that Carson asked to sit on the couch, one of the highest honors a comedian could receive. She also made a bit of history with the joke, becoming the first female comedian invited to sit down with Carson following her stand-up performance.
In 2015, when appearing on Oprah’s Master Class, DeGeneres told the story about her girlfriend, who was the first person she ever lost. “I mean, my grandfather died when I was a little girl,” she said, “but I didn’t really know him. I wasn’t close.” But, with this loss, DeGeneres admitted she felt like it was her fault because she had fought with her girlfriend over the phone and the next day she was gone.
“We were living together at the time, and my brother’s band was performing. We had broken up, and we had fought a lot,” DeGeneres said. “She was trying to get me to come back home.” She said she pretended not to hear her over the music, but “I was planning on moving back in — I just was trying to teach her a lesson.”
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When driving home that night, DeGeneres said she passed a car that had been “split in two” and heard sirens on their way to the scene. “It had just happened and nobody was there yet, and we just kept going,” she said. “I found out the next morning that it was her in the car.”
After that, DeGeneres said she couldn’t stop thinking that it was her fault, that if she had just agreed to come back she wouldn’t have gotten in that car. “I think it made me realize how easily you can lose somebody,” DeGeneres said. “I mean just, literally, in an instant, she just was gone,” adding, “It shifted my entire focus and my life.”
DeGeneres’ honesty when talking about losing the person she loved so young is inspiring. It’s hard to look past the grief of loss, but she used her pain as inspiration. Now, when you hear DeGeneres’ phone call to God you might laugh, but no one would blame you if you also cried a little, too.