Actually no, that’s not the truth Ellen,” was the sentence that set it all off. It came from actor Dakota Johnson, who was being interviewed by Ellen DeGeneres in November 2019 and had found herself the butt of one of DeGeneres’s jokes. If you’ve never seen clips of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, this is part and parcel of the host’s interview schtick: in her singsong patter, she throws out some awkward comments that make celebrities sweat a tiny bit, all in the spirit of the show. Here, the offhand joke was that Johnson hadn’t invited DeGeneres to her birthday party. But Johnson wasn’t biting.
“You were invited…” said the actor. “Last time I was on the show, last year, you gave me a bunch of s*** about not inviting you… I did invite you and you didn’t come.” The altercation was gentle yet deeply awkward, and quickly went viral. It marked a turning point in the public perception of DeGeneres, one of America’s most famous and beloved talk show hosts. Less than a year on, Ellen’s ratings are reportedly at a 17-year low amid widespread allegations of a toxic workplace culture. Now, it appears that DeGeneres and her show are struggling to keep up with their image – one that has long been centred around kindness.
Much of the recent outrage around Ellen stems from the fact that people don’t like to feel as though they’re being sold a lie. The very first allegations against DeGeneres weren’t regarding any form of strict misconduct per se – people said that she was, to put it bluntly, mean. This was summed up by a viral Twitter thread by comedian Kevin T Porter, who called for evidence that DeGeneres was “one of the meanest people alive”. One response from a TV writer who knew former Ellen staff members claimed that “[DeGeneres] has a ‘sensitive nose’ so everyone must chew gum from a bowl outside her office before talking to her and if she thinks you smell that day you have to go home and shower”.
On the same thread, journalist Carrie Poppy said: “My friend who worked at Real Food Daily says Ellen came in and dined, and when she saw her server had a chipped nail, Ellen called management and tried to get her fired.” This sort of hearsay wouldn’t constitute a crisis for just any star – after all, Hollywood is full of stories of celebrities being rude and treating their perceived subordinates badly. But for DeGeneres, who ends each show with the catchphrase “be kind to one another”, the accusations are more serious.
The show’s kind core began to unravel quickly, with criticisms piling on thick and fast. Fans (me included) began a reckoning, not only with DeGeneres as a person but with Ellen as a format, too. These criticisms fit into a much broader cultural crisis around the ethics of popular talk shows, from The Jerry Springer Show to The Jeremy Kyle Show to the Tyra Banks Show, all of which have been retrospectively critiqued for exploiting vulnerable people. The cruelty of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, however, was far subtler. Ellen’s brand of entertainment veered away from the sensationalism of interpersonal conflict and instead opted for “feelgood” antics – but, to some extent, unkindness was still involved.
“Most of the pranks on Ellen wouldn’t be funny if there wasn’t an audience,” a friend of mine recently said. And these pranks are, by and large, enacted on the unsuspecting public. In a clip viewed over 7 million times, DeGeneres plants a hidden camera in Jennifer Aniston’s dressing room and feeds Aniston lines for a conversation with an unsuspecting bike salesman. DeGeneres makes Aniston look silly – “that’s a really pretty bike… pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty,” Aniston says, as DeGeneres delivers instructions into her earpiece. Aniston also does things that would understandably make the bike salesman feel awkward, like asking him to scratch her back. The clip ends with Aniston being told to ask if he’s hitting on her, to which he replies that he isn’t but that he’d love to take her out to coffee. Suddenly, it’s revealed to the bike salesman that Aniston, multimillionaire of Friends fame, wasn’t actually interested in him, and he’s asked her out in front of millions. Surprise! There’s a live studio audience watching. You’re on The Ellen Show.
The show has other uncomfortable segments of a similar ilk, like “Ellen’s got your Facebook photos!”, where she unearths your (usually revealing) online pictures, and “Caught on the Ellen shop’s hidden camera!”, where audience members are given the opportunity to steal from the gift shop and then the incriminating footage is played on the big screen. I remember cringing the first time I saw these segments but not quite knowing how to articulate why. Now, I do. Like many others, I’m asking myself whether such public shaming, with its deceptively jovial “we’re all in this together” shadow, is actually just a bit cruel.
Then comes politics. Last year, around the time of Dakota-Johnson’s-birthday-party-gate, DeGeneres came under fire after pictures emerged of her hanging out with George Bush, a former president who actively stood against same-sex marriage. After the backlash, she made a public statement on the show, saying: “I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have… When I say, ‘Be kind to one another’, I don’t mean only the people who think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”
This sort of apolitical kindness, however, often overlooks discrimination and oppression – and seemed to be part of the culture behind the scenes of Ellen. One former black employee told Buzzfeed that at a work party, one of Ellen’s main writers said, “I’m sorry, I only know the names of the white people who work here.” When the same employee brought up issues of race and representation on the show, she said that her colleagues dubbed her the “PC police”. Another woman who worked there, meanwhile, said that senior staff failed to act after she learned a male colleague was earning double what she was for doing the same job. And this year, the show’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, which left many staff in the dark about their jobs and pay, also points towards a lack of consideration for workers’ rights. It seems absurd that behind the scenes, the makers of Ellen don’t seem to understand that “kindness” also means taking account of things like racism, sexism and working conditions.
Since the news broke that The Ellen DeGeneres Show is under formal investigation, much speculation has surrounded whether DeGeneres will be replaced as the host, and if so, by whom. But it looks like the problem isn’t just about DeGeneres as an individual, and is instead a systemic one that plagues the whole Ellen business from the top down. There’s also been an attitude shift when it comes to daytime TV. Television and viewing habits are constantly evolving, and many things that audiences liked or found comfort in 10 years ago won’t necessarily be deemed likeable or comfortable now. This applies to the awkward pranks and ribbing that is so characteristic of Ellen but also to the ethos we’re sold through our screens – particularly in 2020, that “kindness” without politics isn’t good enough for many viewers.
If there’s one thing the show’s executives can learn from this, it’s that when a brand (whether that’s a celebrity, a show, or, like Ellen, a blurry mix of the two) makes millions from a particular public image, viewers feel betrayed when that image is revealed to be false. Audiences wanted to believe that “be kind to one another” was a guiding principle on DeGeneres’s set. But in the words of Dakota Johnson, it seems that actually no, that’s not the truth, Ellen.