Iconic Obama-era star Ellen DeGeneres says goodbye

In the days leading up to the final, the ovations grew longer and louder. Fans gave kisses, made heart shapes 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 peaked in less controversial times, when Beyoncé, Madonna, Barack and Michelle Obama were happy to show off their dance moves. the wackiest side by side. alongside the show’s star in front of an audience of millions.

When the program debuted in 2003, it seemed unlikely to be a success. Ellen DeGeneres had been in limbo for five years at that point, since ABC canceled her sitcom a year after her groundbreaking announcement that she was gay. On Thursday, at the start of the 3,339th 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 are we having for our gay breakfast?’ Or, ‘Pass the gay salt.’

After mentioning that she also couldn’t say the word ‘wife’ before same-sex marriage was legal, the camera turned to the public to capture Ms DeGeneres’ wife, actress Portia de Rossi , before returning to the host.

“Twenty-five years ago they canceled my sitcom, because they didn’t want a lesbian on prime time once a week,” she continued. “And I said, ‘OK, then, I’ll be daytime every 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 submissions from fans and celebrity guests, including Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston and Pink, she wasn’t in the lead.

A turning point came in 2020, when BuzzFeed News reported allegations of workplace misconduct on the show’s set, prompting an investigation and the firing of three high-ranking producers. Shortly after, the ratings for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” also known as “Ellen,” plummeted. The show lost over one million viewers for the 2020-2021 season, down 44%.

Ms. DeGeneres apologized to her staff and viewers, but the show fell well behind former contestants like “Dr. Phil,” “Live With Kelly and Ryan” and “The View.” seemed like her fans were struggling to understand the disconnect between her sunny stage persona and the realities of the workplace she oversaw.

In her just-concluded final season, she settled atop the second tier of daytime conversation, with a gap of around 100,000 viewers between her program and “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” and a biggest lead on shows like “Maury” and “Rachael Ray.” During the final weeks of “Ellen,” some guests alluded to the struggles of the past two years and implored the host to appreciate her contribution. Julia Louis-Dreyfus said she hoped Ms DeGeneres understood “what a beautiful thing you’ve done with this show”.

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

Comedian Howie Mandel continued the pep talk on the next episode: “I want nothing for you but the happiness you’ve spread to everyone – I want you to just bask in that. 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 recording of shows without an audience in the studio, rather than attributing it to “Ellen” workplace reports, which included complaints from staff members that they had faced “racism, fear and intimidation”, as well as sexual harassment from top producers.

“It was a pandemic issue,” said Mike Darnell, chairman of Warner Bros. unscripted division, which oversaw the show. “I think for a comedian – who there are very few of them during the day – not having an audience makes a huge difference.”

Ms. DeGeneres, born in Metairie, Louisiana, started out at a comedy club in New Orleans, making a name for herself with observational material that sometimes veered into the absurd. One of the first routines, “Phone Call to God”, was inspired by the death of his girlfriend in a car accident. When she imagined it, she saw herself doing it on “The Tonight Show,” then the ultimate place for stand-up comics.

She was short in her career in 1984 when cable network Showtime declared her “the funniest person in America”. 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 comic to be summoned by the longtime king of late night in a debut appearance.

“Carson didn’t have many actresses on the show,” said Wayne Federman, a comedian and author of “The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle.” “It was very difficult to get along as an actress. And of course, Ellen, the charming and disarming actress that she was, made the show. And being called to the couch was remarkable. Carson was hit.

In 1994, she starred in the sitcom “These Friends of Mine,” which ABC renamed “Ellen” after one season. It ran for over 100 episodes – the benchmark for a network hit – and made television history when Ms. DeGeneres, along with the character of Ellen, came out of the closet in 1997.

She appeared on the cover of Time and sat down 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 stories, which her bosses deemed too focused on gay themes. At one point, executives demanded that a special content notice be included as part of the show.

It took another five years before Jim Paratore, an executive with Telepictures, a division of Warner Bros., helped organize his comeback. Leaders of local television affiliates were reluctant to have a gay person host a daytime talk show, fearing a backlash. And when “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” premiered in 2003, executives at Warner Bros. were talking about another daytime property they had in the works, “The Sharon Osbourne Show,” in the belief that it had the best chance of spreading.

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

Little by little, she proved her skeptics wrong. Mr. Federman, the comedian and historian, attributed his success to his unusual approach.

“She always thought it was the comedian’s job to set the pace of the play – that she wasn’t going to let the audience dictate how well she was going to have to tell the jokes or how fast she was going to have to do her routine,” he said. “She felt that if she had control, the public would come to her – and that’s exactly what happened.

“Most comedians, if you don’t get the laughs, you speed it up,” he continued. “She was always the one who slowed down. Ellen had an uncommon confidence in her comedic pace. She was like, ‘I’m going to do this comedy at a very laid-back pace that people will easily fall into.’ It was perfect for daytime television.

After a few years, the identity of “Ellen” was firmly in place. The host lavished money and prizes on members of her audience and those in need. She danced with fans and celebrity guests, reveling in the awkwardness — just be yourself, she said. As the internet gained traction, she invited the first viral stars to her show, elevating them to wider fame.

She came to embody a cultural moment – ​​a time when Mr. Obama was president, same-sex marriage was newly legal and social media was seen as a benevolent force. “Ellen’s” feel-good vibe matched a dominant 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 gave her credit for pushing “our country toward justice”, saying she had pulled it off “one joke, one dance, at a time”.

About a decade ago, moving beyond jokes and dancing, Ms. DeGeneres adopted “Be Kind” as her motto, and it quickly turned into her own business. Today, an annual subscription to “Be Kind” costs $219.96. Those who sign up receive a box every four months containing items curated by Ms. DeGeneres. (The summer collection includes sunglasses, a diary and a bracelet.)

For Ms. DeGeneres, the Be Kind character proved useful. When she was twice selected to host the Oscars (in 2007 and 2014), it was to clean up the mess left behind by performers whose performances were seen as too biting or caustic – Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Seth MacFarlane .

Later, as Donald J. Trump dominated the news from his White House pulpit and former tech darlings Facebook and Twitter became battlegrounds for heated cultural debates, Ms. DeGeneres’ light-hearted approach started to fall out of favor. Even the viral sensations that had once been boosted by her show no longer needed her – 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 following 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 Be Kind Lady.

Daytime talks remain arguably the toughest TV genre to crack. Since Ms. DeGeneres entered the fray, the list of reality TV stars, news anchors and actors who have tried include Queen Latifah, Jane Pauley, Kris Jenner, Bethenny Frankel, Bonnie Hunt, Tony Danza, RuPaul, Jeff Probst, Anderson Cooper and Mrs. Osbourne. It all came and went in a flash.

The high price of daily television adds to the challenge. “The economics of producing north of 150 hours of television a year, with 34 weeks of originals and 170 episodes a year, is really expensive,” said Mr. Decker, the executive. A new show can cost between $20 million and $30 million to launch, he added. Additional costs have to go to hundreds of employees, sound stages (“Ellen” held three on the Warner Bros. lot), and celebrity guests.

“You need a good grade to even cover your costs year over year,” Decker said. “It’s a very difficult business model, and to spread it over two decades of real secular changes in our industry? It’s amazing how long a show lasts.

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

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