From working on stage, Ellen DeGeneres has been able to translate her success with live performances into a television and a budding movie career. She was born in Metairie, LA, the daughter of two devoutly religious Christian Scientists. Her older brother, Vince DeGeneres, is a screenwriter. Her parents split up when she was 13. Shortly after the divorce, she and her mother moved to New Orleans. It was while trying to ease her mother's depression that DeGeneres discovered a talent for funny business. Following high school graduation in 1976, DeGeneres spent a semester at the University of New Orleans, but dropped out to hone her comedic skills. She won Showtime's Funniest Person in America contest in 1982, then moved to San Francisco, one of the centers for standup comedy. Her signature routine was a telephone call to God that had been inspired by a close friend's accidental death in New Orleans. She used the piece during her debut on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show in 1986. Deeply impressed, Carson invited her to sit upon his couch, an honor that he bestowed upon only the most gifted comics; she was the first female comic to be so honored by him.
Afterward, her career exploded with a cross-country tour and a few specials on cable television. In the early '90s, DeGeneres had offers to star in several new sitcoms, including Friends, but she declined and chose to join the cast of the ensemble sitcom These Friends of Mine. It was unsuccessful, but parent network ABC saw potential and overhauled the show, re-naming it Ellen. Largely based on DeGeneres' comedy, the series ran for four seasons, during which time she garnered two Emmy nominations.
In 1997, DeGeneres created a stir with hints that her character on the show was gay and would come out of the closet later that season. As by this time the show's ratings were flagging, it was a gutsy move, one made even more titillating to audiences by rumors that DeGeneres herself was gay. Ellen, the character, did indeed come out of the closet at the end of April 1997. The episode generated high ratings and considerable controversy, for it was the first time an openly gay character starred on a television show. At the same time, DeGeneres herself admitted that she, too, was gay. The show centered on gay themes from then out and was cancelled (the network execs blamed low ratings, but DeGeneres supporters suspected other motives) in 1998. DeGeneres would soon be on TV in an even bigger way, however, hosting the massively successful daytime talk show Ellen beginning in 2003. The upbeat show would become well known for its effervescent style and humorous interviews with celebrities, who famously enter the set while dancing. The show would prove a hugely popular staple of daytime TV, and would run for many seasons.