Ellen DeGeneres used to open every episode of her show by dancing through the crowd, shaking it with complete strangers all in the name of fun. And she would end every episode encouraging her viewers to “Be kind to one another.” It was a mantra that would be tied to her for almost 20 years…but now rumors and allegations of a toxic work environment have shaken up the friendly foundation of Ellen D. What made her turn from the most beloved talk show host ever to becoming the very epitome of irony? Did anything really change or was it all always there? Let’s dance around this topic and find out: WTF Happened to…Ellen DeGeneres?
But to truly understand what the fuck happened to Ellen DeGeneres, we go back to the beginning. And the beginning began when she was born on January 26th, 1958 in Metairie, LA.
Ellen began performing in 1981 and by 1984 she was named the funniest person in America, thanks in much part to her “phone call with God” bit, an instant classic of stand-up. In 1986, she went through the roof by sitting on the couch, appearing on The Tonight Show–at the scouting of Jay Leno–and becoming the first woman to be invited by Johnny Carson over to the fame couch, a coveted sign of “making it” at the time.
In 1989, Ellen landed the short-lived sitcom Open House. Soon after that ended, she got a role on another sitcom, Laurie Hill (1992), which aired just five episodes of the 10 shot. But Ellen made an impression on creators Neal Marlens and Carol Black, who helped get a little show called These Friends of Mine going. The show–renamed Ellen after the first season–had the fortunate position of following Roseanne. It felt like a sign, as Roseanne Barr–like Seinfeld, Cosby, Allen, and more–made it clear that transition from stand-up to sitcoms was the move.
As the underdog character of Ellen Morgan, DeGeneres gave viewers somebody to root for. But the show broke ground and glass ceilings with season four’s “The Puppy Episode” (1997), in which the character came out as gay–the same month TV Guide featured her on the famous “Yep, I’m Gay” cover and Time made a story of it. The move was advised against by nearly everyone, prompting parental advisory warnings, lost markets and bomb threats to the studio. But it resulted in her first Emmy win!
As such, Ellen began dating Anne Heche in 1997, a highly publicized relationship that lasted until 2000. Before that, Ellen would land her first Emmy hosting gig, later hosting twice more; she, too, would get her first Grammy hosting gig in 1996, the same year she starred in Mr. Wrong, which would soon feel laughable to ‘90s audiences due to her coming out the year later. In 1998, not only did Ellen get canceled (the show, not the woman; that would come later…), but she had a supporting role in Goodbye Lover and as a dog in Dr. Dolittle, following that up with The Love Letter and a hilarious performance in Edtv.
Ellen started the century off with HBO movie If These Walls Could Talk 2, which earned Emmy and PGA nods, and giving the sitcom circuit another go with The Ellen Show, which was canned after just 13 episodes.
But 2003 was The Year of Ellen. In May, she lent her voice to Pixar’s eventual Oscar winner Finding Nemo, voicing lovable, doofy Dory, helping it gross over $900 million worldwide, still making it one of Pixar’s biggest hits. She would reprise the role for Finding Dory, the first Pixar movie to cross the $1 billion mark. She also released her second stand-up special, Here and Now, a hilarious return to the form. But it would be The Ellen DeGeneres that would give her a whole new audience–some of whom would turn on her as time passed…It would land her the Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show in its first year, winning it for four consecutive years. Instantly becoming a respected a role model, somebody to look up to, somebody who could support you and be there for you no matter what. Backed by her mantra of “Be kind to one another” (which ended every show), she was the most likable and relatable person on daytime television.
In 2004, Ellen began dating Portia de Rossi, marrying in 2008. The same year, she was named by Comedy Central as the 16th greatest stand-up comedian ever. And Ellen kept pushing on, hosting the Oscars in 2007 as a natural, affable fit and again in 2014, best remembered for her selfie, which hit 3.4 million retweets, a record at the time.
But the backlash would begin amid the 2007-2008 WGA strike, in which Ellen crossed the picket line to do her namesake talk show just four days after the strike launched. She defended it by saying she didn’t want to fire employees and that she was a member of AFTRA (which didn’t permit striking), but a slight turn had already happened. Foreshadowing future problems, Ellen was also, ironically enough, accused of snapping at writers for offering bad jokes…But it wouldn’t be enough–yet–as Ellen landed a stint as judge on American Idol in 2010 and launched a short-lived record label, eleveneleven, which shuttered in 2012. That same year, she would win the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. In 2015, she launched ED by Ellen, a lifestyle brand that further put her in the public consciousness with a line of clothes and, expectedly, dog toys.
In 2016, Ellen would be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The next year–and undoubtedly of less note–she launched Ellen’s Game of Games, cuz she is an expert at games and fun.
2018 serves as the breaking point for Ellen DeGeneres…That year, she released Relatable, her first stand-up special since 2003’s Here and Now, which openly mocked her image. And while things would come to a head soon enough, that year she also began thinking about leaving her talk show when her contract ended. While 2020 looked hopeful with Golden Globe’s Carol Burnett Award (Burnett being one of her idols), there was a sudden call to arms by comedian Kevin T. Porter for people to unearth negative stories about DeGeneres. When all was tweeted and done, there were more than 2,500 reply posts, leading towards an inevitable investigation.
Warner Bros. would launch their investigation soon after, leading to revelations of a toxic environment that waded in sexual and racist rhetoric by various staff members, with many claiming to be victims of “microaggression”. Did Ellen know about all–or even any–of this? That was a question at the forefront, with some saying she must have. As one former employee put it, “That ‘be kind’ bullshit only happens when the cameras are on. It’s all for show.” Stories poured in about staff members being encouraged to keep their problems to themselves and being fired for using time to attend family funerals and canned upon returning from a health facility after a suicide attempt and rules forbidding staff members to speak or look at her.
Ellen would tell herself, “I don’t deserve this. I don’t need this. I know who I am. I’m a good person,” adding she had a constant feeling that she always had to be laughing and dancing, as if comedians can’t be sad or off. She also defended herself by saying, “I thought something was going on, because it was too orchestrated, it was too coordinated.” Coordinated or not, it was becoming clear to many that Ellen DeGeneres and her show didn’t fit the “Be Kind” promise, something uttered at the end of every episode and plastered on so, so much merch.
Ellen would be forced to write a letter to her staff, admitting it was indeed not “a place of happiness.” In it, she wrote, “As someone who was judged and nearly lost everything for just being who I am, I truly understand and have deep compassion for those being looked at differently, or treated unfairly, not equal, or — worse — disregarded. To think that any one of you felt that way is awful to me…I promise to do my part in continuing to push myself and everyone around me to learn and grow.” Unfortunately for her reputation, in 2018, Ellen stated, in part, “The one thing I want is everyone here to be happy and proud of where they work, and if not, don’t work here.’”
And soon enough, Ellen would no longer have a show. After 19 seasons, 3,300 episodes, more than 170 Daytime Emmy nominations (over a third of which were wins), Ellen DeGeneres decided to not renew her contract.
She was already one of the highest-paid celebrities. She already left her mark. She already had 20 People’s Choice Awards. But would the people still vote for her? Would they care? Did the laughs matter anymore? Could we get behind the “Be Kind” motto if the supposed expert wasn’t really kind? The least we can do, really, is be kind to one another–at least in front of the camera!