Ellen DeGeneres began her talk show when she was down on her luck, having experienced career turbulence thanks to prejudices against openly gay talent. She will leave it, at the conclusion of the show’s 19th season in 2022, as among the most powerful women in entertainment.
This is an outcome few might have predicted. In the years after her 1997 coming-out — almost certainly, in its moment, the highest-profile confession of that sort to date — DeGeneres saw her sitcom fall away, and another attempt get cancelled in its first season. She was a trailblazer, with all the cost that that implies, and a positive outcome of her talk show’s steady success is the degree to which it brought a gay woman into middle American homes daily.
But what did she do with that access? Ellen DeGeneres’ legacy, for years, appeared to be her urging the public to “be kind,” a slogan that was strikingly vacuous and empty even before the unkindness of the work environment she led became public knowledge. While she certainly still has fans, as well as the loyalty of a community of Hollywood stars that never stopped appearing on her show, it’s hard to understand what the driving force behind DeGeneres’ show will be in the year ahead.
DeGeneres plans to talk about the decision to step aside with her guest Oprah Winfrey — a striking choice in part because of just how strong Winfrey’s final season was. Over the course of a year, Winfrey brought back various guests with whom she had unfinished business in order to have moments of connection. Winfrey’s show had different goals than DeGeneres’, but it’s hard to imagine what a DeGeneres attempt at a similar project would look like; the show’s signature moments, with the exception of Dakota Johnson confronting the host, have tended to fall in the now-distant past.
What rankled about the “be kind” motto wasn’t, or wasn’t solely, that it was at odds with DeGeneres’ public persona. It was that it gave her cover to make a show about nothing, one that blurs together in the mind. The Johnson interview was certainly not the only one that crackled with a freaky tension, as if DeGeneres and her guest were waging a secret battle over who would come out of the interview looking better. But under normal circumstances, the show was simply inert. DeGeneres referred to her show, in an interview about leaving the show, as “not a challenge anymore”; that’s one way to refer to having stopped trying.
This is strange because DeGeneres is a specific, tactical comedian who is also able to appeal to a mass audience. She was not only probably the most broadly successful Oscar host of the 2010s, she was also the one whose specific sort of viral success everyone who came after her has been chasing. That was in 2014, though, and the years since have seen DeGeneres continue to flatten into an icon. When, in 2018, DeGeneres released a Netflix stand-up special, it felt almost shocking; the fact that she used that different sort of spotlight to toy with her own public image was even stranger. There have not, since, been any further forays into edgy comedy, though DeGeneres has since that time talked in the press about the challenges her image presents her in her normal life.
DeGeneres has been so wildly successful as “the Be Kind Lady” that it’s hard to imagine her doing anything other than what she’s been doing for nearly two decades. That’s a hazardous place for a creative person. It stunts one’s ability to hear critique (in her interview addressing leaving, DeGeneres referred to critics of what went on at her talk show as “just mean people”), and it halts potential artistic growth. Maybe, in some years, DeGeneres will emerge with some side that she couldn’t have shown us when she was trapped in talk-show megafame.
As for the TV landscape without DeGeneres: In some ways, this is as big a sea change as when Winfrey left her show a decade ago. DeGeneres has been the standard-bearer of TV talk since that time. Her absence, in a literal sense, will leave a void, as aspirants like Kelly Clarkson and Drew Barrymore compete to be the next top talker. But what, specifically, is being lost isn’t clear. The bits and pieces of DeGeneres’ show — giveaways, celebrity chat, slice-of-life stories — are all available elsewhere, and are, elsewhere, shot through with sensibilities that feel a bit less put on than the DeGeneres call for kindness. Any host would be lucky to have aspects of DeGeneres’ success. But there are ways, too, in which the star who rebuilt her image on daytime talk has become constrained by it: For those looking to make a run at daytime stardom, DeGeneres’ trajectory is a cautionary tale.