As America’s pre-eminent lesbian daytime talk-show host, Ellen DeGeneres has attained a somewhat unlikely arena of ubiquity in mainstream entertainment culture. But in the past year, there is evidence emerging that the tinge of mean-spiritedness that comes through in DeGeneres’ interviews and segments on The Ellen DeGeneres Show are consistent with a rumored behind-the-scenes demeanor. And now it’s not just a give-zero-fucks Dakota Johnson who is coming through with tales of the daytime media queen—it’s the workers.
DeGeneres’ comedy and sitcom career famously came to a halt when, in 1997, she used an episode of her show, Ellen, to come out. Even Laura Dern, who played her love interest in the episode, reportedly couldn’t get a job for years afterward. Of course, both women have since seen comebacks that have catapulted them to stardom and riches, but Ellen has more recently received a kind of countercultural check. Outside of her daytime audience and the celebrities she cavorts with, it appears that a good number of regular people—including several of the people who have worked for her and served her in other ways—reportedly find her to be reliably cruel.
There have been rumor mills in the comedy and TV worlds about DeGeneres’ meanness for years. Late last month, a Twitter thread by comedian and podcast host Kevin T. Porter brought many out with first-, second-, and thirdhand stories about DeGeneres’ various transgressions, from refusing to make eye contact with interns to almost getting a waitress fired for having a chipped nail, and more. Almost none of these stories have been shared or confirmed by anyone still in the industry, but in 2014, former Ellen head writer Karen Kilgariff did share with Marc Maron that she was fired from the show after refusing to cross the picket line during the 2008 writers’ strike. DeGeneres has allegedly not spoken to Kilgariff since.
Earlier this year, DeGeneres came under fire for more public-facing actions. After photos came out of her laughing it up at a Dallas Cowboys game with former U.S. President George W. Bush, fans and critics expressed anger that the host would get chummy with the head cheerleader of the Iraq War (and a vehement opponent to gay marriage). DeGeneres dismissed the criticism by saying that liberals and conservatives should be able to reach across the aisle to be friends.
But more recently, it’s become clear that DeGeneres doesn’t quite extend that self-styled grace toward those who cannot escape by virtue of being the head of it: the incarcerated. Performing a monologue from her multimillion-dollar Santa Barbara home during the California coronavirus lockdown, DeGeneres cracked that being self-isolated “is like being in jail. It’s mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 days and everyone here is gay.” Once again, viewers were incensed, and pointed out the obvious incongruity of the “joke”: As DeGeneres lounges in her enormous home, filming the show she earns $70 million a year to host, prisoners are being packed like sardines without any protective equipment as the virus spreads from guards to them, and even suffering beatings from some of those guards for daring to seek medical treatment.
And in a timely moment of worker outcry, the latest DeGeneres PR crash has come from her very own crew, who have been replaced by a non-union outfit that is running tech for DeGeneres’ at-home broadcast. Crew members spoke anonymously to Variety about the poor communication and shady side-dealing they’ve experienced as Ellen has shifted from studio broadcast to a more intimate lockdown-friendly format. Even though the unionized Ellen crew has the chops to transition to the at-home broadcasts, DeGeneres’ team made the decision to hire from outside, and are even planning to cut pay by 60 percent for the regular crew, who have already experienced reduced hours.
DeGeneres, who has a reported net worth of $330 million, makes much of performing acts of charitable giving on her show, and recently announced that she and her wife, Portia de Rossi, would be donating $1 million to COVID-related charities. But—in contrast to her football hangout with Bush—it’s always much more informative to understand how powerful people treat the non-powerful people they depend on, the ones who make their isolation possible.
In her latest standup comedy special—after a long hiatus from the medium—DeGeneres responded to the question of whether she is still relatable enough to be doing standup in the first place. What resulted was a kind of meta-special with bits about the minor inconveniences of her wealthy lifestyle—some ironic, others she genuinely seemed to believe make her “normal.”
In fact, the question of relatability is one that her wallet depends on, not only for a standup special peppered with strategic profanity but also during a family-friendly daytime show. The more Ellen can perform a kind of proximity to regular people on her show, the more she can attract their attention. This mask, however, has begun to slip.
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