“Thank you so much for being on this journey with me. I feel the love. And I send it back to you. Goodbye.”
And with that Ellen DeGeneres wrapped up her daytime talk show on Thursday afternoon after 19 seasons, more than 60 Emmy wins, and countless viral moments.
There’s no denying The Ellen DeGeneres Show has been one of the most successful daytime shows in history, but it would be disingenuous to say it goes out on a high note.The show, despite its aforementioned blockbuster status, faces a complicated legacy as does its host, a person once revered as one of the most likeable figures in pop culture.
Before The Ellen DeGeneres Show premiered on September 8th 2003, Ellen was most known for her standup comedy and for her ground-breaking sitcom Ellen. While Ellen aired for five seasons, it’s most remembered for its season four plot line in 1997 which saw Ellen, the character (as well Ellen, the real life person) come out as a lesbian. It was a pop culture milestone viewed by more than 40 million people, many of whom saw themselves represented on primetime television for the first time.
In 2022, on the 25th anniversary of that pivotal and historic episode, Ellen recalled the initial resistance and pushback she received when deciding to come out so publicly, saying, “When I came out, people warned me that it was going to ruin my career. And they were right.” The sitcom was cancelled after its subsequent season, a blow which the comedian admits was devastating both professionally and personally.
But then, in November of 2001, Ellen started to rise from the ashes. The comedian was given the seemingly thankless job of hosting the Primetime Emmy Awards, a ceremony that had twice been cancelled, and the first one following the devastating attacks on September 11th. It was a potentially dicey position but Ellen shined, striking just the right tone, balancing reverence with revelry perfectly and earning several standing ovations throughout the evening. The stage was set for an Ellen reinvention.
And what a reinvention it was. With Rosie O’Donnell ending her massively successful afternoon talk show the year before her debut, Ellen became the new darling of daytime. While Oprah still reigned supreme as the true Queen, Ellen more than filled Rosie’s shoes as Oprah’s fun, frothy counterpart, providing song, dance, games, and general joyful escapism in the afternoon, all while winning Emmy after Emmy. From 2004 through 2007, the show dominated the Daytime Emmys and continued to win sporadically over the years. It was Ellen’s world and we were just living in it. Until, of course, it wasn’t and we weren’t.
Things started to go sideways in January of 2019 when Ellen welcomed her friend Kevin Hart on her show. The comic actor was just coming off stepping down as the announced host of that year’s Academy Awards after social media unearthed old homophobic tweets and bits from his years-old standup routines. One tweet from Kevin in 2011 said if he came home to find his son playing with his daughter’s dollhouse, he’d smash the dollhouse over his son’s head and say “stop, that’s gay.” He also used the slur “f*g” more than once. Ellen not only gave Kevin nearly seven minutes of interrupted time on her massive platform, she never once challenged him or explained how his previous words and actions could have been painful to many people and that those people were not obligated to accept his half-hearted apologies. Ellen also revealed she, a previous Oscar host herself, had personally called up the Academy to get Kevin reinstated. Kevin was positioned as a victim of a smear campaign organised by who Ellen referred to as “haters” and “trolls” – the go-to words public figures throw around whenever they’re faced with any sort of criticism. Ellen, a gay woman, sat there while Kevin complained that he wasn’t even afforded “a full 24 hours to glow in the glory” of realizing his lifelong dream of hosting the Oscars. I’m sure Brandon Teena, Matthew Shepard, and Tyler Clementi also had dreams that were never achieved.
Later that same year, on an October weekend, Ellen was pictured seated (and smiling) next to former president George W. Bush in the owner’s box at a Dallas Cowboys game. Social media went wild and Ellen was forced to address the matter during her monologue the following week. Once again, rather than acknowledge how some people could be hurt that she was fraternizing with the man who bungled Hurricane Katrina at the expense of many marginalized people, a leader who sent the US into a deadly war with Iraq under false pretenses, and who, in 2004, declared support for a constitutional amendmant banning gay marriage, Ellen doubled down. In fact, a clip of the monologue on the show’s YouTube channel is titled, “This Photo of Ellen & George W. Bush Will Give You Faith in America Again.” “I’m friends with George Bush,” the host declared, “In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have,” she added. Okay, sure. But being friends with people with whom you disagree about inconsequential stuff like TV shows, movies, and the taste of cilantro is one thing, disagreeing about fundamental things like war crimes and who deserves basic human rights is not even the same. It was a truly condescending take and a reminder that while Ellen may be a gay woman, she’s also a very privileged and extremely rich white woman. Ellen closed the matter by saying, “when I say be kind to one another, I don’t mean only to the people who think the same way that you do, I mean be kind to everyone.”
Ah yes, kindness, the virtue that would come to be the cornerstone of the Ellen brand that would eventually come to bite her in the ass. Hard.
The same month as the George Dubya debacle, comedy writer and podcaster Dan Sheehan tweeted, “When you move to LA, the first two things that happen are you get a parking ticket and someone who once worked for Ellen will tell you a story of how she’s a monster.” The tweet received more than 16 thousand likes and countless comments from people agreeing with the statement. In March of 2020, at the beginning of Covid-19 pandemic, when the world was thrown into a period of uncertainty, comedian Kevin T. Porter tweeted, “Right now we all need a little kindness. You know, like Ellen DeGeneres always talks about! She’s also notoriously one of the meanest people alive. Respond to this with the most insane stories you’ve heard about Ellen being mean and I’ll match everyone one with $2 to the LA Food Bank.” The tweet went viral and was flooded with terrible tales of alleged Ellen nastines.
The tweet might have been quickly forgotten in the fast moving pop culture news cycle had it not been for a report in Variety the next month about Ellen’s staff and crew being frustrated for being kept in the dark about their employment and their pay after the host was forced to shoot the show remotely from her California home during the Covid shutdown. Then, two months later, in July of 2020, BuzzFeed News published a massive report featuring input from current and former Ellen staffers alleging the show was a toxic hellscape of discrimination and even unwanted sexual advances.
When Ellen returned from hiatus for her 18th season in September of 2020, she was once again forced to address the scandal that had swirled over the summer. The host denied knowledge of the alleged mistreatment of her staff and pledged to do better, saying being known as “that Be Kind lady” is a “tricky position to be in” but reassuring viewers she was, in fact, the person they saw on TV every day.
But the damage seemed to have been done and in May of 2021, it was announced the show’s next season, its 19th, would be its last. Ellen maintained it was her plan all along but one can’t help but wonder if she wouldn’t have gone the distance to make it an even 20 seasons had she not been embroiled in one controversy after another. And while these last couple weeks of the show have featured a parade of A-list guests like Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Kim Kardashian, Pink, and Jennifer Aniston (who holds the distinction of being on both the show’s very first and very last episodes) it’s impossible not think of the show as petering out with a whimper rather than going out with a bang. How Ellen and her legacy will be remembered is yet to be determined and while there’s no denying her massive impact, all the good she’s done, the millions of dollars she’s given to charity, and the important inroads she’s made for the LGBTQ+ community, to say it’s complicated is putting it mildly.