Actress-comedienne Ellen DeGeneres broke new ground for women in the world of comedy: one of the most successful female standups of her generation, she parlayed her club success into television, movies, records, books, and a talk show, later making history for her portrayal of TV's first openly gay lead character. Born January 26, 1958 in Metairie, LA, DeGeneres worked a variety of odd jobs in the New Orleans area after high school and before making her standup debut at an area coffeehouse's amateur hour in 1981. A year later, she won a "Funniest Person in America" competition sponsored by the Showtime cable network; buoyed by her success, DeGeneres moved to San Francisco -- at the time a hotbed of standup clubs -- and launched a comedy career largely steeped in observational humor. However, it was a more personal tour de force, a telephone conversation with God inspired by the accidental death of a close friend, which became the centerpiece of her act and won her an invitation to perform on NBC's The Tonight Show in 1986; DeGeneres was so well received that host Johnny Carson even invited her over to sit on the studio set's couch, a career-making boost for any comedian. She was the first female comic ever to earn the invitation during her debut appearance on the program.