DeGeneres joined Shepard on his Armchair Expert podcast on Tuesday and told him about her struggles as a young adult.
“My girlfriend was killed in a car accident when I was like 20 years old,” DeGeneres shared. “And I wasn’t doing comedy, I think I was probably waitressing someplace at the time. I was living with her when she was killed.”
“I couldn’t afford to live where we were living together and so I moved into this tiny little basement apartment,” the Emmy winner recalled. “I moved into this basement apartment and I was sleeping on a mattress on a floor and it was infested with fleas. And I used to write all the time, I wrote poetry and songs and stuff, and I thought, ‘Why is this beautiful 21-year-old girl just gone and fleas are here?’”
The death of her then-girlfriend resulted in material for her first-ever stand up performance that would eventually become her life-changing moment and one of her most memorable jokes.
“I just thought it would be amazing if we could just pick up the phone and call up God and ask questions and get an answer,” DeGeneres said about her famous “Phone Call to God” bit.
She continued: “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 be asked to sit down.'”
DeGeneres appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in November 1986 and became the first female comedian to be invited to sit down on the host’s couch after a stand-up routine — just like she predicted.
Shepard mentioned that DeGeneres’ wife Portia de Rossi played the famous Carson episode during the Ellen Show host’s 60th birthday party in February for their friends and family.
DeGeneres also spoke about the death of her then-girlfriend in an episode of Oprah’s Master Class in October 2015.
“She was trying to get me to come back home. I acted like I couldn’t hear her because the music was too loud. I was being really … dismissive of her,” she remembered, explaining that the pair had broken up during a big fight.
DeGeneres said that they went out to support her older brother’s music gig but they went home separately with DeGeneres driving back with her friends and passing an accident in which a vehicle was “split in two.”
The next morning DeGeneres learned that her girlfriend had died in that very same car accident. “That, of course, made me feel like I should have gone home with her that night,” DeGeneres said.
She added that she felt “a lot of guilt.”
“In an instant, she just was gone. It shifted my entire focus,” she said.