Ellen DeGeneres, a signature star of the Obama era, says goodbye


Ellen DeGeneres, a signature star of the Obama era, says goodbye

In the days leading up to the final, the ovations grew longer and louder. Fans threw kisses, made heart shapes with their hands and shouted the host’s name. The outpourings signaled the end of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” a daily hour of daytime escape that had peaked in less controversial times when Beyoncé, Madonna and Barack and Michelle Obama were happy to show off their silliest dance moves side-by-side with the star of the show in front of an audience of millions.

When the program debuted in 2003, it seemed unlikely that it would be a hit. Ellen DeGeneres has been in limbo for five years at this point, since ABC canceled her sitcom a year after her landmark announcement that she was gay. On Thursday, at the beginning of the 3,339. and final episode of her talk show, she recalled what she had been through and how times had changed.

“When we started this show, I couldn’t say ‘gay,'” Ms. DeGeneres said. “I said it a lot at home. ‘What do we have for our gay breakfast?’ Or, ‘Give me the gay salt.’”

After mentioning that she couldn’t say the word “wife” either in the days before gay marriage was legal, the camera turned to the audience to capture Ms. DeGenere’s wife, actress Portia de Rossi, before returning to the moderator.

“Twenty-five years ago, they shut down my sitcom because they didn’t want a lesbian prime time show once a week,” she continued. “And I said, ‘Okay, then I’ll be there every day during the day. How about that?'”

But by the time of Thursday’s finale, Ms. DeGeneres, 64, was no longer at the forefront of social change. And despite heartfelt goodbyes from fans and celebrity guests, including Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston and Pink, she didn’t go to the top.

A turning point came in 2020 when BuzzFeed News reported allegations of workplace misconduct on the show’s set, leading to an investigation and the firing of three senior producers. Not long after, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, aka “Ellen,” took a tumble in ratings. The show lost more than a million viewers in the 2020-2021 season, down 44 percent.

Ms. DeGeneres apologized to her staff and her viewers, but the show fell far short of once-time competitors like “Dr. Phil”, “Live With Kelly and Ryan” and “The View”. It seemed like her fans were having trouble sorting out the disconnect between her sunny stage persona and the reality of the workplace she oversaw.

In her just-completed final season, she has carved herself a place at the top of the second tier of the talk of the day, with a gap of about 100,000 viewers between her program and The Kelly Clarkson Show, and a larger lead over followers like Maury and Rachel Ray”. In the last few weeks of “Ellen,” some guests hinted at the difficulties of the past two years and begged the hostess to acknowledge her contribution. Julia Louis-Dreyfus said she hopes Ms. DeGeneres understands “what a great thing you’ve done with this show.”

“Really,” added Ms. Louis-Dreyfus. “Honestly.”

Comedian Howie Mandel continued the pep talk in the next episode: “I want nothing for you but the happiness you’ve passed on to everyone else – I want you to just bask in it. I want you to be happy. And I hope you’re happy.”

Ms. DeGeneres’ closest supporters blamed the drop in ratings on Covid-19, which necessitated the taping of shows without a studio audience, rather than attributing it to reports about the “Ellen” workplace, which included complaints from employees they faced . Racism, Fear and Intimidation” and Sexual Harassment by Top Producers.

“It was a pandemic issue,” said Mike Darnell, the president of Warner Bros. Unscripted Division, which oversaw the show. “I think for a comedian – who is very few around during the day – not having an audience makes a tremendous difference.”

Ms. DeGeneres, a native of Metairie, Louisiana, began her career in a comedy club in New Orleans and made a name for herself with observational material that sometimes veered off the rails. An early routine, Phone Call to God, was inspired by the death of her friend in a car accident. When it came to her, she could see herself doing it on The Tonight Show, then the ultimate stand-up comic spot.

She was about to start her career in 1984 when the cable network Showtime named her “America’s Funniest Person”. Two years later, she performed “Phone Call to God” on The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson invited her to sit next to him, a gesture he reserved for comedians he held in high esteem. She was the first female comedian to be summoned to a debut appearance by the longtime king of the late night.

“Carson didn’t have many female comedians on the show,” said Wayne Federman, a stand-up comic and author of The History of Stand-up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle. “It was especially difficult to get ahead as a female comedian. And sure enough, Ellen, the charming, disarming comedian that she was, did the show. And being called to the couch was remarkable. Carson was smitten.”

In 1994, she starred in the sitcom These Friends of Mine, which ABC renamed Ellen after one season. It lasted more than 100 episodes – the benchmark for network success – and made television history when Ms. DeGeneres, as well as the character Ellen, came out of the closet in 1997.

She appeared on the cover of Time and sat for an “Oprah” interview, but the next season was the show’s last. As The New York Times reported at the time, she clashed with ABC executives over the sitcom’s storylines, which their bosses felt were overly gay-focused. At one point, executives requested that a special content advisory be part of the show.

It would be five more years before Jim Paratore, an executive at Telepictures, a division of Warner Bros., would help orchestrate their comeback. Local TV network executives resisted the idea of ​​an out gay man hosting a daytime talk show, fearing backlash. And when The Ellen DeGeneres Show premiered in 2003, Warner Bros. executives talked about another daytime item they had in the works, The Sharon Osbourne Show, believing it would have a better chance of catching on .

“Sharon Osbourne was on a high at this point, and Ellen was coming off a rejection, and people didn’t want her to talk about being gay,” said David Decker, executive vice president at Warner Bros started with a lot of tailwind – it was launched with a lot of headwind.”

Little by little she proved her doubters wrong. Mr. Federman, the stand-up comic and historian, attributed their success to their unusual approach.

“She always thought it was the comedian’s job to set the pace of the room — that she wouldn’t let the audience dictate how hard she had to tell the jokes or how fast she had to do her routine,” he said. “She felt like if she was in control, the audience would come to her — and that’s exactly what happened.

“Most comedians speed up when they’re not laughing,” he continued. “She was always the one who slowed it down. Ellen had an unusual confidence in her comedic rhythm. She said, ‘I’m going to do this comedy at a very easy pace so people will easily fall for it.’ That was perfect for daytime TV.”

After a few years, the identity of “Ellen” was established. The presenter showered her viewers and those in need with cash and prizes. Dancing with fans and celebrity guests, she reveled in the awkwardness — just be yourself, she said. As the internet gained traction, she invited early viral stars to her show and propelled them to greater fame.

She embodied a cultural moment — a time when Mr. Obama was president, gay marriage was newly legal, and social media was viewed as a benevolent force. “Ellen’s” feel-good vibe suited the mood, and the show won dozens of Emmys. Ms. DeGeneres hit a high point in 2016 when Mr. Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. During the White House ceremony, he credited her with pushing “our country toward justice” and said she nailed it “one joke, one dance at a time.”

About a decade ago, as Ms. DeGeneres moved beyond the jokes and dancing, she adopted “Be Kind” as her motto, and it soon morphed into an endeavor of its own. Today, a year’s subscription to Be Kind costs $219.96. Those who sign up will receive a box of items selected by Ms. DeGeneres every four months. (The summer collection includes a pair of sunglasses, a planner and a bracelet.)

For Ms. DeGeneres, the Be Kind person came in handy. When she was twice chosen to host the Oscars (2007 and 2014), she was tasked with cleaning up the mess left by performers whose performances were found to be too stinging or caustic – Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Seth MacFarlane.

Later, as Donald J. Trump dominated the news from his White House pulpit and once-tech darlings Facebook and Twitter became battlegrounds for heated cultural debates, Ms. DeGeneres’ light-hearted approach fell out of favor. Even the viral sensations her show once gave her a boost no longer needed her — TikTok was more than enough. Then came the jobs scandal that seemed to undermine the “Be Kind” message.

“Being known as the Be Kind Lady is a difficult position,” she told viewers after the reports. “So let me give you some advice. If anyone is considering changing their title or giving themselves a nickname, don’t go with the Be Kind Lady.”

Daily talk remains arguably the most difficult TV genre to crack. Since Ms. DeGeneres entered the fray, the list of reality stars, news anchors and actors who have tried includes Queen Latifah, Jane Pauley, Kris Jenner, Bethenny Frankel, Bonnie Hunt, Tony Danza, RuPaul, Jeff Probst, Anderson Cooper and Mrs. Osbourne. Everything came and went in a flash.

The high price of daily television adds to the challenge. “The economics of producing more than 150 hours of television a year with 34 weeks of original programming and 170 episodes a year is really expensive,” said Mr. Decker, the managing director. A new show could cost $20 million to $30 million to launch, he added. Other expenses include hundreds of employees, sound stages (“Ellen” manned three of them on the Warner Bros. property), and flying in celebrity guests.

“You need a large classification to even be able to cover your costs year after year,” said Mr. Decker. “It’s a very challenging economic model, and laying that across two decades of real secular change in our industry? It’s incredible to keep a show going for so long.”

Ms. DeGeneres has said she plans to take some time off, but whatever comes next, the talk show will be at the heart of her legacy.

“There will be other things, other great things, but there will never be a time like this,” Ms. Winfrey told Ms. DeGeneres on the third to last episode of “Ellen.” “Know that these are the glory days.”

You May Also Like