What do you do when you’re already a multimillionaire daytime talk-show host beloved by legions? What challenge is left for you when you’re the person that celebrities and presidential hopefuls seek out?
For Ellen DeGeneres, you go back to where you got your start. Netflix’s “Relatable,” which premiered before Christmas, is her first stand-up special in 15 years. She joins several big-time comics (Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle) who have put out new specials after decade-or-more breaks.
Although being super-famous guarantees you’ll receive loads of attention and money in exchange for a new hour of material (especially with those multimillion-dollar Netflix payouts), fame can also create some weird dynamics for a comic. Audience members predisposed to thinking you’re wildly funny might either give you more leeway or hold impossible standards. But there’s one particularly distracting audience response that I’ve noticed in watching DeGeneres and comics of her caliber perform: the random, wild screaming.
Doing a stand-up special after a comic has grown wealthy and moved beyond stand-up itself has always brought creative challenges, especially when the performer’s thing is “did you ever notice” jokes. How can you still tell relatable quips about your life when your life is insane by normal-people standards? “You know how in St. Barts,” asks “30 Rock”’s Tracy Jordan, “people be eating their lobster like this?”
Instead of ignoring that conflict, DeGeneres makes it the premise of her special, as she delivers the same kind of observational humor that propelled her career decades ago while acknowledging her riches and making fun of herself (like when she mentions seat 10B on a plane. “Does a plane go back that far? I’ve never been back there.”)
Just as DeGeneres’ life has changed, so has her audience since her last special in 2003. Most people who watch her are now accustomed to seeing DeGeneres in her daytime environment, where the crowd audibly going bananas is part of the show. Some of that vibe is in her special; you can hear individual audience members scream as DeGeneres mentions giving away free stuff, a Sofia Vergara dandruff commercial and how she’s “still gay, by the way.”
It’s not just DeGeneres’ crowd, though; such behavior during live comedy shows feels like it’s more common, from the yelling crowd that wouldn’t quiet down enough for Dave Chappelle to finish his infamous 2013 Oddball Festival set to the lone, intermittent screams heard during Trevor Noah’s 2018 special, “Son of Patricia.”
Perhaps we’re trained to respond this way because of the ubiquity of politically charged late-night jokes that spark constant cheering. Or maybe it’s just a symptom of culture evolving to be more participatory.
What’s the point of going to a museum exhibit if it’s not great on Instagram? Why simply watch a game show when you can play it with a million others? What’s so exciting about being an anonymous chuckle in a sea of laughter when you can be a solitary, long “wooo!” captured on a special, for everyone to hear forever? Laughing at a joke feels like a fave on Twitter; yelling during a joke is the equivalent of retweeting with a comment that simply reads “THIS” or “->.” Basically, it’s inserting yourself into a dialogue to signal agreement without providing any meaningful contribution.
In comedy, earning an applause break has long been accepted as a sign of a good joke; now it can feel like “I agree with the opinion within this joke.” There are way worse responses to comedy than genuine excitement: boos, heckling, silence when there should be laughter, talking when there should be silence. Still, shouting unintelligible “woos” as a comic sets up jokes can also be disruptive.
Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” argued that comedy needs tension, as humor comes once it’s released. But what happens when there’s no tension at all? A few audience members screaming as a comic performs takes us away from focusing on one person, and lessens the pressure that helps a joke succeed.
There is a bigger audience for comedy than ever before, and some fans probably just want to feel like they’re at a raucous concert where they get to be a part of the show. Apparently being passively amused isn’t cathartic enough. But for the majority that isn’t screaming as a comedian performs, there’s no need to signal something greater to the world than offering laughter when a joke is funny, and silence when it isn’t.