Ellen Degeneres. Picture: YouTube Screenshot
Ellen Degeneres. Picture: YouTube Screenshot

'Ellen' the talk show is still forcing a smile

By The Washington Post Time of article published Sep 27, 2020

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By Hank Stuever

The possibility that Ellen DeGeneres might not be the nicest person in Hollywood should never have been a complete surprise to any sentient observer of television, famous people or human behaviour.

A certain knifelike aspect was always part of DeGeneres's act, made more subliminal over the years by her innate joviality and shrewd branding (the dance moves, the gestures of generosity) but still there all along - evident in the glint of her crystal-blue eyes whenever she makes an ever-so-slightly cutting remark on her syndicated afternoon talk show.

That gleam takes on a maniacal, laser-beam intensity when she presses the button on a trapdoor rigged beneath the anxious contestants of her curiously torturous prime-time game show.

Some viewers understand this aspect of DeGeneres to be an obvious part of the package, that the queen of nice is probably sometimes a queen of ice.

Because, as DeGeneres somberly noted when "Ellen" returned this week for its 18th season on a deliberate and highly watched note of recompense, no person can ever be just one thing.

Suffering in a way that only someone of her status and notoriety can, DeGeneres and her handlers spent the summer in a suspended state of damage control. Long-standing rumours about her backstage demeanour (don't speak directly to her, don't look her in the eye, don't let her smell you - it sounds like the sort of advice the Jeep driver gives before the safari begins) coalesced into workplace grievances, first revealed in two BuzzFeed News stories.

Former employees and industry colleagues began sharing stories about DeGeneres's dark side. WarnerMedia launched an internal investigation; three top "Ellen" producers were fired.

Judging from the first three episodes that aired this week, DeGeneres has looked deep within and ... let herself off the hook, mostly.

Her show remains an unsettled realm of enforced cheer. In no time at all, she was back to rolling her eyes, accepting praise from her guests, and dousing willing participants in pink and purple slime.

"I learned that things happened here that never should have happened. I take that very seriously and I want to say I am so sorry to the people who are affected," she said during her closely watched opening monologue on Monday's show.

As apologies go, it was a mixed bag of contrition and excuses, with just a whiff of legal caution: Thinking it over, DeGeneres doubts the wisdom of promoting herself as "the Be Kind lady" (the genesis of which, she noted, dates back to her grief over a young gay man who killed himself in 2010).

Look where being the paragon of niceness gets you, she seemed to say.

Her apology rambled from self-reflection into self-pity, casting herself "as the boss of 270 people" (earning somewhere between $85 million and $100 million annually) who, "If I ever let someone down, if I've ever hurt their feelings, I am so sorry for that.

“If that's ever the case, I've let myself down and I've hurt myself." One can't help but note the operative "if" in all this: If I ever. If that's ever the case.

Like her talk-show peers, DeGeneres has no live audience at the moment - the die-hard fans who wait in line for hours to fawn in her presence. She is left relating to a theater full of vertical flat screens, each containing an Internet feed of her faithful viewers at home, who all seem to be in a forgiving mood.

To DeGeneres's right is Stephen "tWitch" Boss, her longtime DJ and loyal sidekick, who, DeGeneres has repeatedly noted this week, has been promoted to "co-executive producer" - a direct result of the backstage shake-up.

Although Boss stays in his usual spot, on an elevated side stage behind a tall table, DeGeneres joked this week that his "fake DJ" equipment is no more, acknowledging that he was never really spinning the show's upbeat tracks.

DeGeneres glided past that illusion and Boss played along, both as a professed close friend and now a more powerful colleague; in one segment on Tuesday,

DeGeneres asked Boss to call his mother so they could all bask together in her act of promoting him. Something about their exchange seemed to unwittingly summon a lingering awkwardness, a dynamic of superiority.

Is this a happy place? Or is the vacuous experience of watching the "Ellen" show just so much more glaring now?

DeGeneres emphasized during her apology that she sees her show as a safe haven from the world's issues and problems, which no place really is.

"Ellen" thrives by being a kinder, gentler wash of the world around us - replete with friends who are former Republican presidents who campaigned against the same-sex marriage DeGeneres now enjoys, or expressions of symbolic solidarity with police shooting victim Breonna Taylor.

"Ellen" is filled with emphatic expressions of "hope" instead of outrage; its determination to be cheerful leaves it in a permanent state of reaction instead of action. Whether a topic is cute or funny or sad or infuriating, it can all be danced off.

When complaints about the show's workplace first surfaced, I was struck by one anonymous employee's observation about how the staff seemed to sort itself, according to BuzzFeed, between the "people who 'drink the Kool-Aid' and are usually well-liked by ("Ellen's") producers, and people who recognize the work environment is toxic."

To stick with "Ellen" now, as a viewer, is to still savor the flavor of her Kool-Aid. She wants very much to put the unpleasantness behind her, and so do her celebrity guests, including Tiffany Haddish, who appeared Monday and told DeGeneres "I support you 110 percent," and Alec Baldwin (himself a frequent flier between the red and green zones of public scorn), who told DeGeneres: "Don't stop what you're doing - we need you, we need you, we need you."

Message apparently received. By Tuesday, DeGeneres was talking about her dog's broken leg. By Wednesday, she had moved completely past her woes.

"Ellen" is both an expression of DeGeneres's identity and her burden to bear.

Like Oprah Winfrey before her, DeGeneres spends part of her shows doling out money to the everyday people she says have touched her heart. On Monday, it was a $75,000 check (paid for by Shutterfly, the online photo developer) to a New Orleans man raising his younger siblings after the death of their mother four years ago. On Tuesday, DeGeneres gave a $25,000 check to the W.A.F.F.L.E. Crew, a seven-man dance troupe that performs in New York subway stations.

If you already enjoy DeGeneres's Kool-Aid, then all is forgiven, and such acts will help you feel better about the world, a little bit at a time.

If, on the other hand, something about DeGeneres's show and this conspicuous charity gives you a moment's pause (if you're dividing $25,000 by seven dancers and taking out the taxes; if you're wishing DeGeneres was interested enough in the New Orleans family to ask how their mother died, and you want to remind them about their new tax liability) then "Ellen" is not for you, and probably never was. "Ellen" might not even be the show for Ellen herself. Sorry not sorry.

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