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She broke barriers. Then she broke her own career.
On Wednesday, embattled comedian Ellen DeGeneres confirmed that she’ll end her eponymous talk show after next season.
The writing was already on the wall — her contract was up anyway in 2022, a source told The Post. DeGeneres’ official reason for her exit is that her show is “just not a challenge anymore.” But for months she’s been dogged by scandal and “Ellen” has reportedly seen a dip in its ratings and its ability to book A-list guests.
DeGeneres, 63, has become a flashpoint for controversy ever since allegations of “Ellen” having a “toxic workplace environment” behind the scenes broke last summer — contrasting with her affable public image and her catchphrase, “be kind.”
The reporting — which included allegations about sexual misconduct and harassment from producers — resulted in an investigation from WarnerMedia and three producers getting ousted from the show.
“That ‘be kind’ bullsh–t only happens when the cameras are on. It’s all for show,” one former employee told Buzzfeed News in July.
DeGeneres declined to comment on this article, but in September, she addressed the controversy on-air in her first Season 18 monologue.
“As you may have heard, this summer there were allegations of a toxic work environment at our show and then there was an investigation,” she said. “I take that very seriously and I want to say I am so sorry to the people that were affected… I take responsibility for what happens at my show.”
DeGeneres has a busy slate aside from “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” producing “Ellen’s Game of Games” and “The Masked Dancer” on NBC, “Ellen’s Next Great Designer” on HBO Max, and “Endangered” on Discovery+, among others. It remains to be seen how the end of “Ellen” will impact the rest of her career — but her tarnished public image is a far cry from where she started.
DeGeneres first rose to prominence on the stand-up comedy scene in the 1980s, with a breakthrough 1986 appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Her jokes were broad crowd-pleasers such as, “My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was 60. She’s 97 today and we don’t know where the hell she is.”
She became a star with her sitcom “Ellen,” which aired from 1994-1998. On “The Puppy Episode” in Season 4, which aired on April 30, 1997, she made history by coming out as gay on TV. She also appeared on the cover of Time and did specials with Oprah and Diane Sawyer.
Her reason for coming out on TV was to free herself of “shame” she said in 2017.
“I did some work on myself, some deep soul-searching, and realized I was really carrying around a lot of shame … No matter how many times I tried to rationalize that I didn’t need anyone to know, I knew that it was a secret. And I knew that there was a possibility that people would hate me for the simple fact that no matter how much they loved my comedy or my show, but they might hate me if they knew I was gay. It became more important to me than my career.”
She saw an easy transition for her character, Ellen Morgan, to realize that she was gay, too, “which was why her relationships with men weren’t working out,” she said.
It was a game-changer for Hollywood and for the LGBTQ community — but it was hardly smooth sailing from there.
Although a whopping 42 million people tuned in and “The Puppy Episode” earned an Emmy and Peabody award, ABC axed the show in 1998.
“[The show ended] because I came out,” DeGeneres told Dax Shepard’s “Armchair Expert” podcast in 2018. “This is a long, long story — but they really didn’t want me to come out. They finally let me come out, and it was a huge success the night of. It was huge. It was celebrated … and then they just stopped promoting it because everybody was scared. We were losing sponsors, so they were just acting like, ‘We’re just letting it glide. We’re not going to touch it.’ I got no more advertising, I got no more promotion. So they canceled it.”
She also alleged that fellow LGBTQ celebs such as Elton John told her to “shut up already” about being gay in the aftermath. “People were making fun of me. I was really depressed,” she said.
In 2001, DeGeneres followed it up with short-lived CBS sitcom “The Ellen Show,” that was critically panned and canceled after just 13 episodes. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to work again,” DeGeneres told Out in 2016 about that phase of her career. “I was at rock bottom and out of money, with no work in sight. But one step at a time, it gets better.”
DeGeneres was in the odd position of having reached critical and commercial success — but still being a relative underdog in the industry.
“It was all kinds of other lessons of learning what it’s like to not be loved and to be the butt of everybody’s joke on television and in magazines,” DeGeneres told Oprah Winfrey in 2015. “I had to learn what that feels like to not let things like that get to you.”
Following the cancellation of “Ellen” and the failure of “The Ellen Show,” she found her footing in 2003 with the launch of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and her role voicing the ditzy cartoon fish Dory, in Pixar hit “Finding Nemo.” Dory’s slogan, “just keep swimming,” was both literal for the character and figurative about persevering through life’s difficulties — which fit DeGeneres’ image as a celeb with hard-won success and America’s de-facto fun aunt.
Still, it wasn’t a seamless leap to “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Aided by Warner Bros. exec Jim Paratore, she took it on tour to convince station managers.
“Jim was a straight, white man, and he loved me, and he could not believe the resistance from all these station managers who didn’t want to buy my show,” DeGeneres told the Telegraph in 2016.
“They said: she’s a gay woman, and the women at home watching daytime TV are straight housewives with kids – what does she have in common with them? So Jim said: we’re going on tour – you’re going to show them who you are. So I had to go from city to city. We would make these men come out and sit in the audience. They were looking around and seeing what kind of audience I had.”
She also began a relationship with “Arrested Development” star Portia de Rossi in 2004, and they tied the knot in 2008.
DeGeneres’ pioneering path for the LGBTQ community and her cheerful and down-to-earth image earned mass public goodwill that lasted for two decades. She became the queen of inoffensive and wholesome comedy, with material that families can watch together without worrying about salacious comments or scathing zingers.
She also served as a guest judge on “American Idol” in 2010, racked up a whopping 30 Emmys and a Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded in 2016).
She was frequently tapped to host awards shows such as the Grammys (in 1996 and 1997), the Oscars ( 2007 and 2014), and the Emmys (in 2001 and 2005) following Hurricane Katrina, where she was given the thankless task of creating a festive atmosphere in the wake of national tragedy. As a host, DeGeneres was a safe choice — the opposite of industry colleagues such as Ricky Gervais, who’s known for gleefully lobbing insults.
Her public image is encapsulated in her most memorable Oscars moment: it wasn’t a cutting joke about Leonardo DiCaprio’s dating life — instead, it’s a huge group selfie of A-listers. Cute, but not exactly scathing stuff.
Once “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” became a pop culture staple, her audience was primarily comprised of women in the “mom” demographic. For the most part, her celeb interviews didn’t reveal juicy information — they went viral for harmlessly goofy oddities such as Kristen Bell’s obsession with sloths.
However, there were hints along the way that DeGeneres wasn’t practicing what she preached with her “be kind” mantra. For instance, in 2008, when Mariah Carey appeared on “Ellen,” DeGeneres pressured the pop star into disclosing her pregnancy on TV.
“I can’t believe you did this to me Ellen… This is peer pressure,” Carey said on-screen, when DeGeneres offered her Champagne. After Carey pretended to take a sip, DeGeneres called out, “You’re pregnant!”
Tragically, Carey ended up having a miscarriage. Her twins with ex-husband Nick Cannon were born in 2011. “I was extremely uncomfortable with that moment is all I can say,” Carey told Vulture in August, reflecting on her “Ellen” appearance. “And I really have had a hard time grappling with the aftermath. I wasn’t ready to tell anyone because I had had a miscarriage. I don’t want to throw anyone that’s already being thrown under any proverbial bus, but I didn’t enjoy that moment.”
“Ellen” has attracted cream-of-the-crop A-listers who knew they’d be treated with kid gloves, but aside from Carey’s interview, there have still been stray awkward moments such as a 2019 appearance from Dakota Johnson, in which DeGeneres accused Johnson of not inviting her to her birthday party.
“Actually, no, that’s not the truth, Ellen,” Johnson said.
Even before “Ellen” was formally investigated for its toxic workplace environment, rumors about DeGeneres’ behavior started flying in March of 2020, thanks to a viral Twitter thread from comedian Kevin T. Porter asking people to respond “with the most insane stories you’ve heard about Ellen being mean.”
His replies were flooded with anecdotes such as one from Chris Farah, a former waitress who said she once served DeGeneres.
“She wrote a letter to the owner & complained about my chipped nail polish (not that it was on her plate but just that it was on my hand). I had worked till closing the night before & this was next morn, almost got me fired,” Farah shared.
Another fan chimed in and alleged, “My friend wrote for the Ellen Show for two years and told me Ellen didn’t greet her once. In fact, upon employment, staff were told they weren’t allowed to talk to her.”
Writer and comedian Benjamin Siemon (“Crazy Ex Girlfriend”) claimed that DeGeneres had bizarre rules about her employees’ hygiene.
“She 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,” he said.
“A new staff member was told “every day she picks someone different to really hate,” he continued. “It’s not your fault, just suck it up for the day and she’ll be mean to someone else the next day. They didn’t believe it but it ended up being entirely true.”
These accounts painted a tyrannical picture that’s a vast departure from DeGeneres’ “nice” persona — and from the underdog she started out with, following her coming-out moment and its backlash.
The investigation of “Ellen’s” workplace also came on the heels of an April report from Variety that crew members were “furious” after “Ellen” left them in the dust with no communication about their continued employment once the pandemic hit.
But even now that the dominos have fallen on “Ellen,” it’s not black and white, since not everyone sees her as a villain.
A source close to the production told The Post, “The truth is there’s a lot of gratitude among her staff that she didn’t just quit after last summer, and has kept them all employed this season during a pandemic. And now, they all get to work for a whole other season next year.”
Talking to the Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday about the end of “Ellen,” DeGeneres said, “This culture we’re living is… one where you can’t learn and grow, which is, as human beings, what we’re here to do.”
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