Ellen DeGeneres’ Farewell Tour Is Already a Whiny, Tone-Deaf Disaster
While DeGeneres complains about the reports of her behavior and toxic workplace, it’s even harder to remember what it was about the show that changed history—and was so good.
The upcoming season 19 of the series, which has produced over 3,000 episodes, will be its last. It tees up a goodbye tour for a host who radically changed daytime television, the entertainment industry, and, when it comes to acceptance of the LGBT community, our entire culture. Now she is mostly known as the person who, according to reports, turned out to be the tyrant that had long been whispered about, announcing her departure while complaining about the circumstances.
Eighteen years ago, Ellen danced into TV history on the first episode of her talk show. Now, she’s sulking her way out. The dancing, this time, seems to be happening on the show’s grave.
If you saw the news of the show ending on social media, it was likely accompanied by a celebratory meme photo of Dakota Johnson looking smug. While, knowing how daytime television and pre-interviews work, there’s no reason not to assume that DeGeneres didn’t know what was about to happen, a 2019 interview with the actress featured Johnson calling out DeGeneres for lying about not receiving an invite to her birthday party.
It unleashed the floodgates: old rumors of DeGeneres’ diva-like behavior resurfaced and, soon after, reports came out about the show’s toxic workplace environment, producers’ sexual misconduct, and more anecdotes about the host’s unreasonable demands.
In a Hollywood Reporter interview announcing the end of her show and in subsequent interviews with both Oprah Winfrey and Today’s Savannah Guthrie that aired Thursday, DeGeneres has said that she decided two years ago that this upcoming season would be her last and that the torrent of criticism she has received in the last year had nothing to do with the choice.
It’s tempting, given all the recent drama, to insert a GIF of Dakota Johnson saying, “Actually, no, that’s not the truth, Ellen” in response. And that’s a shame. Because for as much scandal as The Ellen DeGeneres Show has been mired in recently, it was also—and for a very long time—a great talk show.
After her interviews on Thursday, DeGeneres has made it almost impossible to remember that.
On Thursday’s episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, in which the host announced the end of the series, Oprah Winfrey was the guest. It’s a poignant bookend to this chapter of DeGeneres’ career. Winfrey guest-starred on the episode of the sitcom Ellen in which DeGeneres came out as gay in 1997. (May we all rely on Oprah to be our therapist while negotiating seismic life choices.)
Nearly 25 years later, and after DeGeneres fought back from being essentially blacklisted in the industry for daring to be openly gay at the top of her career, Winfrey resumed her role as the sounding board for a monumental career decision. It should be an occasion for emotional remembrances of all that was suffered, all that was triumphed, and all that was accomplished. But, damn, DeGeneres is making that hard.
Their interview was perfectly sweet. It turns out it’s been nearly 10 years to the day that Winfrey announced she was ending The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the two talked through their processes in coming to their respective shows, and the parts of hosting daytime TV that they do or will miss. But the genuine sentiment is overshadowed by deeply cynical interviews with The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday and Savannah Guthrie on Thursday’s episode of Today.
DeGeneres queued up similar talking points in both conversations, though her talk with Guthrie seemed especially tone-deaf.
Not that it matters, but I believe that the negative press of the last year didn’t play a part in stopping her show. “If it was why I was quitting, I would not have come back this year,” she told Guthrie. Two years ago, she wanted to leave but caved to a three-year contract that will take her into the final season. She thought about not coming back, saying she was devastated by those reports. “I am a kind person. I am a person who likes to make people happy. I am a people pleaser. This is who I am.”
Each time the allegations about her behavior were brought up, there was an incredibly off-putting flippancy in DeGeneres’ responses. She kept referring to stories from low-level employees about not looking her in the eye as ridiculous, something that she at first laughed at, assuming it would go away.
She equated the avalanche of continued stories to a conspiracy or an agenda. “It was too orchestrated,” she said. “It was too coordinated.” She even told Guthrie she believed it was easy clickbait—“What if the ‘Be Kind’ Lady isn’t kind?”—and misogynistic. She said she was being unfairly targeted because she is a successful woman in Hollywood.
“I never had any complaints about anything for 17 years and then all at once, everything happened,” she told Guthrie at one point. “All I’ve ever heard from every guest who comes on this show is what a happy atmosphere this is and what a happy place it is,” she said at another.
A few things about that. One, if you are a person who has even been tangentially associated with the entertainment industry over the past decade, you have heard the whispers—which eventually grew to the volume of a banshee’s wail—of DeGeneres being difficult, demanding, and entitled toward people who work for her. But beyond that, it takes a certain privilege and blindness to reality to assume that because Sofia Vergara and Taylor Swift never noticed that junior employees were being harassed, abused, or taken advantage of, there was no such problem in the workplace.
In fact, each time she has been asked about the allegations of a toxic work environment, DeGeneres has brought the conversation back to her personal insult that people found her mean. The effect is a dismissal of the people who worked for her and felt harmed.
So here we are, wondering where the lines are drawn between this total lack of accountability, the schadenfreude people seem to be delighting in as the show ends, and remembering that this show was legitimately great—and ushered a transition in how we thought not only about daytime television, but the entire industry.
In 2003 when the show began, the idea of kindness was revolutionary. Truthfully, so was the audacity of fun.
This was the heyday of Jerry Springer’s derangement porn. The View was must-watch television for its bickering and obsession with salacious “Hot Topics.” Even on “inspirational” shows like Oprah’s or Montell Williams’, episodes centered around turning extraordinary life circumstances into zoo exhibits: reuniting adopted children with birth parents, women who escaped kidnappings or home invasions, what it’s like to be gay/trans/divorced/fat/biracial/depressed/conjoined/atheist in America.
It’s hard not to view the reference as a distraction from the allegations, but DeGeneres reminded Guthrie that her whole “Be Kind” ethos was rooted in wanting to stem the tide of hatred our culture was drowning in. “At the time there were a lot of young gay, young boys, either being killed or being bullied into suicide because they were gay,” she said. “It was happening a lot. That’s why I started saying Be Kind to each other.”
While, yes, sunniness has always been a hallmark of daytime TV, there was something different about the energy that DeGeneres brought to her job. It wasn’t just the philanthropy that became a calling card of the show. It was the idea that celebrities could be our friends because that’s how DeGeneres’ conversations with them made you feel.
It makes sense that, in the wake of the news of her departure, people are championing new daytime additions Kelly Clarkson and Drew Barrymore as her heirs apparent. We may have lost the illusion that DeGeneres is nothing but kind, buoyant, and our midday BFF. But that hasn’t yet happened with them.
The most tragic thing about the 18-year trajectory of The Ellen DeGeneres Show is that disintegration from a celebration of joy to a surrender to cynicism.
What has really irked me, both at the beginning of this farewell tour and in the stand-up special she released in 2018, is her resentment for ever introducing kindness to her brand. The “Be Kind Lady” is “a ridiculous title to have,” she tells Guthrie. “I can’t honk my horn or else the Be Kind Lady honked at me.”
It’s frustrating not just because it soils her own legacy—if she wants to do that, more power to her. But it perpetuates the assumption that jadedness, sarcasm, meanness, abusiveness, or even just apathy and mediocrity is the only thing that works or lasts.
Being decent is not an impossible standard. The worst fallacy of Hollywood is the idea that being a role model is a burden. That’s such lazy, selfish nonsense. Honk your horn until you make yourself deaf, Ellen. Just don’t mistreat your employees.
There’s still a year left to remember all the ways in which The Ellen DeGeneres Show changed TV. Taking a cue from DeGeneres herself, here’s my cynical take on that: Someone needs to work with her on her talking points.