In 1980, a young Ellen DeGeneres was devastated when her girlfriend was killed in a car crash. Losing someone she loved while in her twenties awakened DeGeneres to the fragility of life. It also resulted in her famous “Phone Call to God” routine, as she wanted an all-knowing deity to explain why her girlfriend was gone when fleas were still around. When she wrote the bit DeGeneres was a fledgling comic living in Louisiana, but she was certain the material would provide her with a breakthrough moment in her comedy career — and she turned out to be right.

The night of her girlfriend’s death, DeGeneres ignored her at a concert

In 1980, a 22-year-old DeGeneres was living in New Orleans with her 23-year-old girlfriend, Kat Perkoff. When their relationship hit a rough patch — reportedly due to Perkoff’s infidelity — the younger woman moved out. Though DeGeneres didn’t want to end things for good, she needed some time before reconciling. So when Perkoff asked to talk when they met at a performance of DeGeneres’ brother’s band, DeGeneres pretended she couldn’t hear her.

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A rebuffed Perkoff left the venue. A little later, DeGeneres headed home as well. On the drive, she saw a car that had broken apart in a crash but didn’t stop at the accident site (sirens indicated emergency personnel were already on their way). The next day, DeGeneres learned that Perkoff had been a victim of that accident.

The loss was ‘devastating’ and DeGeneres’ grief inspired her first comedy monologue

Perkoff’s death upended DeGeneres’ world. In 2015, she explained on Oprah’s Master Class that she felt guilty wondering if her girlfriend’s deadly ride could have been prevented if the two had been together, or if she should have stopped at the scene of the accident. DeGeneres was not public about her sexuality in 1980 (she came out in 1997). Talking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2002, she said of the situation, “It was hard also because I didn’t really get to grieve or acknowledge how devastating that was for me.”

In addition, DeGeneres soon had to move, as she couldn’t afford rent for the place she’d shared with Perkoff on her own. She ended up in a rundown basement that had been colonized by fleas. “I’m laying on the floor, wide awake, thinking, ‘Here’s this beautiful girl, 23 years old, who’s just gone,” DeGeneres told The New York Times in 1994. “So I started writing what it would be like to call God and ask why fleas are here and this person is not.”

Though DeGeneres had never written a comedy skit before — her early comedic forays focused more on brief jokes and props, such as when she displayed a piece of fabric onstage because she wanted “to try out some new material” — the sketch flowed out of her. In 2018, on Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast, DeGeneres said, “It just unfolded, I just wrote the entire thing and when I finished, I read it and 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.’”

Ellen DeGeneres on Johnny Carson

Ellen DeGeneres on ‘The Tonight Show’ in February 1987; Photo: Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank

‘Phone Call to God’ earned her a coveted seat on Johnny Carson’s couch

In her “Phone Call to God” sketch, DeGeneres got placed on hold (God had multiple matters to attend to; the wait music was “Onward Christian Soldiers”) and heard the downsides of a world without fleas (“No, I didn’t realize how many people were employed by the flea collar industry”). She’d been right about its appeal — audiences enjoyed and related to the routine.

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“Phone Call to God” helped DeGeneres win a Showtime contest in 1982 that awarded her the title “Funniest Person in America.” In 1986, she got to perform the skit as part of her stand-up routine on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. At the time, a spot on Carson’s show was the best way for a comedian to take his or her career to the highest level. And to be one of the few comics invited by Carson to join him on the couch, instead of having to retreat backstage after the set, was a particular honor.

When DeGeneres finished her act, she looked over to see that her prediction had come true: Carson was signaling for her to come over to the couch. She was the only female comedian to receive that invite during a first appearance on the show. After The Tonight Show, DeGeneres was soon acting on sitcoms. In 1994 she became the star of her own sitcom, Ellen (originally titled These Friends of Mine), famously coming out in an April 1997 episode.

Before DeGeneres publicly acknowledged her sexuality, the death that sparked “Phone Call to God” was presented as that of her best friend, not the woman she’d loved. After coming out, she was able to be more truthful about this episode of her life, and how it had impacted her. On Oprah’s Master Class, DeGeneres stated, “I think it made me realize how fragile and how easily you can lose somebody. Literally, in an instant, she just was gone. And it was really hard, but it shifted my entire focus and my life.”

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