Ellen DeGeneres, a signature Obama-era star, bids farewell

In the days leading up to the final, the ovations got longer and louder. Fans blew kisses, made hearts with their hands and shouted the host’s name. The outpouring marked the end of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” a daily hour of daytime escapism that had culminated in less controversial times when Beyoncé, Madonna, and Barack and Michelle Obama were happy to show their craziest dance moves side by side. side with the star of the show in front of an audience of millions.

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

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

After saying she couldn’t say the word “woman” either before gay marriage was legal, the camera turned to the audience to capture Ms. DeGeneres’s wife, actress Portia de Rossi, before returning. to the presenter.

“Twenty-five years ago they canceled my sitcom because they didn’t want a lesbian to be in prime time once a week,” she continued. ‘And I said, ‘Okay, then I’ll be there every day. What do you think about it?'”

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

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 high-ranking producers. Not long after, ratings for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” also known as “Ellen,” collapsed. The show lost more than a million viewers for the 2020-2021 season, a 44 percent drop.

Ms. DeGeneres apologized to her staff and her viewers, but the show lagged far behind previous competitors such as “Dr. Phil,” “Live With Kelly and Ryan,” and “The View.” puzzling out the discrepancy between her sunny stage character and the reality of the workplace she oversaw.

In her just-concluded final season, she established herself at the top of the second tier of daytime talk shows, with a gap of about 100,000 viewers between her program and “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” and a bigger lead over also-rans like “Maury.” and “Rachael Ray.” In the final weeks of “Ellen,” some guests pointed to the difficulties of the past two years and begged the host to appreciate her contribution. Julia Louis-Dreyfus said she hoped Ms. DeGeneres understood “what great that you did with this show.”

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

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

Ms DeGeneres’ closest supporters blamed Covid-19 ratings forcing shows to be filmed without an audience in the studio, rather than attributing this to reports in the “Ellen” workplace, with complaints from staff members they had faced “racism, fear and intimidation”, as well as sexual harassment by top producers.

“It was a pandemic problem,” said Mike Darnell, the president of Warner Bros.’ unscripted division, which oversaw the show. “I think for a comedian – who are very few during the day – no audience makes a huge difference.”

Born in Metairie, La., Ms. DeGeneres started out in a comedy club in New Orleans and made her name with observational material that sometimes went on to the absurd. An early routine, “Phone Call to God,” was inspired by her friend’s death in a car accident. When she came up with it, she saw herself doing it on ‘The Tonight Show’, then the ultimate venue for stand-up comics.

She was just starting her career in 1984, when the cable network Showtime named her the “Funniest Person in America.” Two years later, she played “Phone Call to God” on “The Tonight Show.” Johnny Carson summoned her to sit next to him, a gesture he reserved for comedians he held dear. She was the first female comic to be called up by the old late night king on a debut.

“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 extra difficult to get started as a female comedian. Sure enough, Ellen, the charming, disarming comedian that she was, did the show. And being called to the bank was remarkable. Carson was beaten.”

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

She appeared on the cover of Time and sat for an “Oprah” interview, but the following 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 her bosses said were overly focused on gay themes. At one point, the executives demanded that some special content advice be included as part of the show.

It took another five years for Jim Paratore, an executive at Telepictures, a division of Warner Bros., to help make her comeback. Executives at local TV affiliates opposed the idea of ​​a gay person hosting a daytime talk show, fearing a reaction. And when “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” premiered in 2003, Warner Bros. executives spoke. about another daytime show they were in the works, “The Sharon Osbourne Show,” believing it had a higher chance of catching on.

“Sharon Osbourne was in high spirits at the time, and Ellen was coming off a cancellation, and people didn’t want her talking about being gay,” David Decker, an executive vice president at Warner Bros., said. “She wasn’t launched with a strong tailwind – she was launched with a lot of headwind.”

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

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

“Most comedians, if you can’t laugh, you go faster,” he continued. “She was always the one who slowed it down. Ellen had an unusual confidence in her comedic rhythm. She was like, ‘I’m going to do this comedy at a very casual pace that people will fall into this easily.’ That was perfect for daytime television.”

After a few years, “Ellen”’s identity was firmly in place. The presenter showered her audience and people in need with money and prizes. She danced with fans and celebrity guests, enjoying the awkwardness — just be yourself, she said. As the internet gained popularity, she invited early viral stars to her show, bringing them greater fame.

She came to embody a cultural moment — a time when Mr. Obama was president, gay marriage was newly legal, and social media was considered a benevolent force. The feel-good vibe of “Ellen” matched the prevailing mood and the show won dozens of Emmys. Ms. DeGeneres peaked in 2016 when Mr. Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At the White House ceremony, he credited her for “pushing our country toward justice,” saying she pulled it off “one joke, one dance, at a time.”

About ten years ago, going beyond the jokes and the dancing, Ms. DeGeneres took “Be nice” as her motto, and it quickly turned into her own pursuit. Today, an annual subscription to “Be Kind” costs $219.96. Those who register will receive a box every four months containing items selected by Ms. DeGeneres. (The summer collection includes sunglasses, a planner, and a bracelet.)

For Ms. DeGeneres, the persona Be Kind came in handy. When she was twice selected to host the Oscars (in 2007 and 2014), it was to clean up the clutter left by performers whose performances were perceived as too corrosive or corrosive – Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Seth MacFarlane.

Later, with Donald J. Trump dominating the news from his White House pulpit and former tech sweethearts Facebook and Twitter becoming the battleground for heated cultural debate, Ms. DeGeneres’ light-hearted approach began to fall out of favor. Even the viral sensations that once got a boost from her show didn’t need her anymore – TikTok was more than enough. Then came the workplace scandal, which seemed to undermine the “Be nice” message.

“Being known as the Be Kind Lady is a tricky position to be in,” she told viewers in the wake of the reports. “So let me give you some advice. If anyone is considering changing their title or giving yourself a nickname, don’t go for the Be Kind Lady.”

Talking during the day may remain the hardest TV genre to crack. Since Ms. DeGeneres entered the fray, the list of reality stars, news anchors, and actors who have tried it includes Queen Latifah, Jane Pauley, Kris Jenner, Bethenny Frankel, Bonnie Hunt, Tony Danza, RuPaul, Jeff Probst, Anderson Cooper, and Ms. Osbourne. Everything came and went in a flash.

The high price of everyday television adds to the challenge. “The economic cost of producing more than 150 hours of television per year, with 34 weeks of originals and 170 episodes per year, is really expensive,” said Mr Decker, the director. A new show could cost $20 million to $30 million to launch, he added. Further costs will have to go to hundreds of employees, soundstages (“Ellen” occupied three of them on the Warner Bros. lot), and flying in celebrity guests.

“You need a high rating to cover your costs even year after year,” said Mr. Decker. “It’s a very challenging economic model, and to explain that over two decades of real secular change in our industry? It’s unbelievable to keep a show going for so long.”

Ms. DeGeneres has said she plans to take some time off, but whatever comes, the talk show will be the center 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 penultimate episode of “Ellen.” “Know that these are the glory days.”

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