Culture Trips

The end of Ellen’s show signifies how celebrity culture has shifted | Ellen DeGeneres

After 17 years as a staple of daytime television, Ellen DeGeneres is ending her eponymous talkshow. The host, 63, revealed to the Hollywood Reporter that the show’s current 18th season, ending in 2022, will be its last. And while the comedian, whose 1997 Time Magazine cover coming out (“Yep, I’m Gay”) marked a watershed moment in LGBTQ representation in Hollywood, attributed the show’s conclusion to the hosting job “just not being a challenge anymore”, the end feels a long time coming, the foregone conclusion of challenges far beyond her satisfaction with the role as America’s daytime friend.

DeGeneres hinged her reputation on the motto “be kind” – a bland niceness that attracted nearly every A-lister to her couch at least once and offered a sheen of winsome celebrity relatability to mass audiences before social media democratized star relationships with their fans, and peppered the talkshow genre with viral video-worthy games (to which Jimmy Fallon’s celebrity carnival Tonight Show owes a great debt). But the niceness brand has sputtered out following a Buzzfeed exposé into alleged sexual harassment, racial insensitivity and bullying behind the scenes (based on interviews with 36 former staffers), as well as general impatience with out-of-touch celebrity culture hastened by the pandemic.

In other words, it was high time for Ellen to go. I can’t comment on how challenged Ellen personally feels in hosting the show after 3,000 episodes and a truly impressive 2,400 celebrity interviews (imagine what that ubiquity of surface niceness does to your brain). But it does seem very clear that the flat blandness of “be kind” could not ride out the turbulence of the past year – the Buzzfeed report, the subsequent dismissal of three top producers, the larger post-#MeToo and Black Live Matter-propelled cultural reckoning over toxic workplaces, and the general disdain for faux platitudes from out-of-touch, insulated celebrities.

That’s not to say that Ellen’s reign as a daytime TV anchor wasn’t a major milestone in representation, and surely her presence, out and unashamed, if rarely ever political, did much to normalize LGBTQ presence on television in ways that seem ridiculously dated to younger audiences now, a testament to how swiftly (though imperfectly) LGBTQ representation has blossomed on screen. Her eponymous daytime show, which premiered in 2003, was “the hardest show we’ve ever had to launch in the history of our company”, a Warner Bros exec told the Hollywood Reporter in 2012.

Ellen DeGeneres and Hillary Clinton
Ellen DeGeneres and Hillary Clinton. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

DeGeneres built her daytime reputation as a mainstream, celebrity-friendly, discomfort-avoidant star, an image further cemented by her voicing the kooky character of Dory in Pixar’s smash Finding Nemo. DeGeneres was the disarming voice behind one of the most ubiquitous and beloved animated characters of the 2000s, itself a milestone for an LGBTQ star.

That image has cracked and strained in recent years, as DeGeneres herself acknowledged in a 2018 New York Times profile in which she discussed feeling boxed in by her nice daytime persona, ahead of her Netflix standup special Relatable, which inverted expectations that the comic, long ensconced in the Hollywood wealth bubble, could be an everyday viewer’s friend.

In retrospect, the profile reads as a soft defense from the mini-scandals slowly hammering the nails in the coffin of the Ellen show – flare-ups which courted derision on Twitter but never seemed to dent her daytime audience, evidence of the thicker-than-assumed firewall between Very Online knowledge and the rest of America. There was her tone-deaf shielding of comedian Kevin Hart after he stepped down from his hosting gig for past homophobic tweets. There were the photos with George W Bush at a Dallas Cowboys football game, which she defended with the vacuous scolding that “I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different. And I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s OK that we’re all different.”

There was the gentle but easily legible disdain from guest Dakota Johnson, refusing to play along to DeGeneres’ aw-shucks “why didn’t you invite me to your birthday party?” banter (“You were invited,” Johnson said). There was the time in April 2020 when she likened quarantine in her California mansion to “being in jail”. There was the callout from comedian Kevin T Porter on Twitter for Ellen horror stories, which drew 2,000 replies with (unsubstantiated) stories of her alleged behind-the-scenes rudeness and entitlement.

Perhaps nothing was more damning than a good old-fashioned exposé, which capitalized on the Twitter pile-on and the general workplace reckoning during last summer’s burning of everything with actual reported details of the Ellen Show’s far-from-kind set. The host’s defensive distancing of herself from the report probably only hastened the momentum of waning interest in her show (ratings have been drastically falling for a while), even as her Hollywood guests remained on book (on deck this week: friend and fellow daytime titan Oprah Winfrey).

But the ultimate death knell may have been simply the swiftness of the culture blazing past Ellen’s namesake brand of earnest niceness, especially if said brand seemed increasingly strained and inauthentic. With each dent in the show’s facade, her plea to “be kind” was revealed to be not so much bland as forced and phony, a kiss of death in a time with increasingly little audience patience for celebrity acts that aren’t the least bit self-aware, or in on the bit. Once at the forefront, Ellen found herself struggling to catch up.

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