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 worked a variety of low-paying jobs. She 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. She even managed to land small roles on two short-lived television series, Duet and Open House, in the late '80s. In the early '90s, DeGeneres had offers to star in several new sitcoms, including Friends, but she declined and chose to take a bit part on an extremely short-lived series, Laurie Hill (1992). Two years later, she was the star of an ensemble sitcom patterned after the wildly successful Seinfeld called These Friends of Mine. It was unsuccessful, but parent network ABC saw potential and so engaged in a massive overhaul that resulted in the sitcom Ellen. Largely based on DeGeneres' comedy and somewhat unfocused in regard to storylines and character development, it was popular enough to remain on the air for four seasons, during which time she garnered two Emmy nominations.
DeGeneres had made her film debut in 1993, with a tiny role in Coneheads, but she did not land her first starring role until the romantic comedy Mr. Wrong (1996) opposite Bill Pullman. Though generally critically panned, DeGeneres received some praise for her own star potential.