She’s famous for being funny, but Ellen DeGeneres got serious recently when she opened up about a past tragedy that changed her life forever — her late girlfriend’s death.

“My girlfriend was killed in a car accident when I was 20 years old,” she recalled. “And I wasn’t doing comedy.” Sadly, after a night out watching Ellen’s brother perform with his band, her girlfriend died in a violent car accident while on the way home. Ellen drove by the crash site, unaware that it was her girlfriend in the mangled car. “I found out the next morning,” she says. “That, of course, made me feel like I should have stopped. A lot of guilt.”

Ellen, 60, admitted the relationship had been struggling. “We had fought a lot,” she said, adding that although they had separated, “I was planning on moving back in. I was just trying to teach her a lesson.”

The loss forced Ellen to rethink her life. “It made me realize how easily you can lose somebody,” she said. “It shifted my entire focus.”

The budding comedian says she thought at the time, “It would be great to just pick up the phone and call up God and talk about this,” she recalled about trying to understand her grief. She wrote out the conversation, and afterward, she said, “I thought, ‘Johnny Carson would love that, and I’m going to do that on the show.'”

ellen degeneres on the tonight show getty images

Ellen performing on The Tonight Show in 1987.

A few years later, in 1986, Ellen did perform her “Phone Call to God” routine on The Tonight Show, her first network appearance. She became the first-ever female comedian to perform and then be invited to sit on the couch with Johnny, and it launched her career. The host offered her “an open invitation” to return, saying, “That’s very good stuff.”

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