September 26, 2022
Critic's Notebook: The Sweet and Sour Legacy of 'The Ellen DeGeneres Show'

“Have you ever seen Ellen’s talk show?” my elderly uncle asked me offhandedly a few years ago. “I really don’t like it. She seems mean. You know, mean-spirited.”

In all honesty, unless it involves a British police procedural, my uncle couldn’t give a rat’s tushy about the goings-on of popular culture. Our conversation occurred many years before allegations of on-set racism and nastiness took down the proverbial “Queen of Nice” in the summer of 2020, eventually leading to plummeting ratings and the end of the series. He hadn’t heard, like I had, whispers from friends of friends of friends who had worked on her show and reported shockingly tyrannical behavior from a person who had built their career on pleasant, quotidian relatability. He had simply caught a few of his wife’s DVR’d episodes of The Ellen DeGeneres Show and recognized something gleefully cruel in the way the host liked to frequently “gotcha” people. (She may be known for her goofily innocuous solo dancing, but one of her favorite running gags involves randomly scare jumping celebrities into heart palpitations.)

In the words of Stephen Sondheim, “Nice is different than good.” DeGeneres has always straddled the line between light and dark, between antic fun and snappish charisma. After all, what comedian doesn’t have a fundamental mean streak? And what comedian doesn’t eventually become entrapped by their own persona? Rosie O’Donnell, a former daytime talk show giant in her own right, spent the 1990s as, among other things, a kid-friendly celebrity until she was felled by her own venom, losing the public’s trust once she showed us what was really behind her nurturing facade. John Mulaney, a ventriloquist’s dummy of a stand-up known for his jokes about his domestic life and humble upbringing, lost his Nice Guy reputation last year when he went to rehab, divorced his wife and impregnated Olivia Munn.

No one, not even someone who is paid to make us laugh, can be wholesome or lovable all the time. DeGeneres’ name will forever be marred by rumors and exposés about the toxic work environments she has helmed over the years. Her Faustian bargain — to hide her more complex nature in plain sight while she played everyone’s favorite sweater vest-clad relative — eventually cost her in the end. Critics claim she cozied up to controversial figures to maintain her “everyone gets a fair shot” centrist image. Nah. This was just a rich and powerful celeb who sided with other rich and powerful celebs because how could we, the plebs, possibly understand their lives? I wonder if she felt any relief when her empire started to crumble. Who can maintain a public guise for that long without feeling the itch to take off the mask once and for all?

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