Though she officially bade farewell Thursday afternoon, it feels as if Ellen DeGeneres left the air a year or two ago. Such was the mutedness of the talk-show host’s valedictory run — most likely the result of a 2020 exposé that alleged a “toxic” workplace behind the scenes of a series that encouraged fans to “be kind.”
Nonetheless, the deposed Queen of Nice hit a triumphant note in her final opening monologue, framing “The Ellen DeGeneres Show’s” 19 seasons as a symbol of gay progress. “Twenty years ago, when we were trying to sell this show,” she said, “no one thought this would work. Not because it was a different kind of show, but because I was different.”
She continued, “Twenty-five years ago, they canceled my sitcom because they didn’t want a lesbian to be in prime time once a week. And I said, ‘Okay, I’ll be in daytime every day, how ’bout that?’” The audience exploded in applause. DeGeneres then hosted friend and guest Jennifer Aniston, who appeared on the show’s first episode, as well as singers Pink and Billie Eilish. She closed the hour with another queer-friendly message: “If someone is brave enough to tell you who they are, be brave enough to support them, even if you don’t understand. They’re showing you who they are, and that is the biggest gift anybody can ever give you. And by opening your heart and your mind, you’re going to be that much more compassionate. And compassion is what makes the world a better place.”
In one of the many celebrity “interviews” of the past week in which the rich and famous dropped by to praise DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey assured her protege in daytime TV, “You are going to be missed.” But the comedian, host, sitcom star and film actor has been in the spotlight for so long — making her Johnny Carson debut 36 years ago, her squeaky-clean stage persona already honed — that it’s worth wondering which DeGeneres we’ll remember most.
She’ll always be a gay pioneer twice over. It took courage to publicly come out in 1997 — on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” in fact — shortly after which she lost her sitcom. On “Ellen,” her character came out as well — to a therapist, played by Winfrey.
It was a fearless move amid the rampant homophobia of the late 1990s: The same year that DeGeneres was forced off ABC, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old college student, was murdered in a brutal hate crime. A generation grew up hearing the phrase “Ellen DeGenerate” muttered by their parents and grandparents.
But DeGeneres’s hyper-visibility also modeled queer bravery and defiance, while giving gay and lesbian youths the solace of knowing there was someone like them out there, as Jerrod Carmichael attested in his moving appearance earlier this month. Her painful (but temporary) downfall also paved the way for shows with central LGBTQ characters such as “Will and Grace” — a fact that that show’s star Sean Hayes and DeGeneres joked about in a segment dubbed “Battle of the Gays.”
A lesbian host of a daytime series was a hard sell when “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” premiered in 2003. (Rosie O’Donnell came out on her own talk show in 2002, two months before its end.) In her 2018 stand-up special, “Relatable,” DeGeneres recalls that it was initially hard to find station managers willing to take on the show and that she was asked to dress more femininely. As she revealed in her final episode, she also wasn’t allowed to say the word “gay.” She has since won dozens of Emmys, earned multiple recognitions from GLAAD and been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Like Winfrey, DeGeneres was an unexpectedly popular invitee to the living rooms of Middle America; their successes are all the more remarkable for their ability to appeal across lines of race and sexuality. In so doing, Winfrey and DeGeneres helped normalize Black and gay women, respectively, among daytime’s largely straight, White audience. That much of the recent backlash against DeGeneres has come from queer commentators — for her friendship with George W. Bush, a president who opposed gay marriage during his time in the White House, or her public forgiving of Kevin Hart, a comic who had previously based some of his humor on violent homophobia — speaks in part to her achievements in making queerness mainstream enough that the LGBTQ community is able to demand more from its most prominent figureheads.
But DeGeneres has made enough missteps that certain parts of her astonishingly multifaceted career may be permanently over. She went viral for the wrong reasons interviewing celebrities — pressuring a clearly uneasy Mariah Carey to reveal her pregnancy status, for example, or forcing Dakota Johnson into enough of a corner about a birthday-party invitation that the actor felt compelled to call out the host on camera — that she probably won’t be asked to do serious sit-downs in the future, the way Winfrey did with Harry and Meghan. (Then again, Winfrey was always better at evincing genuine curiosity about her subjects.)
In a fractured TV and film landscape, it’s possible that DeGeneres could find a star vehicle that’ll help her refurbish her image. But there isn’t nostalgia for her sitcom in the way there are for enduring 1990s hits such as “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and Frasier,” and her most notable movie work was voicing an amnesiac (and extremely annoying) fish in the “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory” animated movies. Though her animal activism will probably continue, whatever efforts DeGeneres might put into advocating for kindness moving forward will bring to mind for many comedian Kevin T. Porter’s Twitter description of her as “notoriously one of the meanest people alive.”
But we seem to be okay with a certain degree of cruelty from comics, including clean ones like DeGeneres. Perhaps that’s why she hasn’t foreclosed the possibility of returning to the stand-up stage. “Relatable,” her first special in 15 years, reminded fans of her loopy charms and ultraprecise timing, now welded to a slick self-presentation as a real person who’s as aware as anyone how out-of-touch she must appear to even her most dedicated followers. It’s not just the contractual obligation of a second special for Netflix that presages her return to stand-up. She’s really just that good, and she knows it.
And yet DeGeneres’s most direct road back to America’s good graces might be the most counterintuitive one: leaning into the mean. Not in every direction, of course; allegedly kicking those beneath her is what got her in hot water in the first place. At a certain point, Ellen became arguably more famous and powerful than most of the celebrities she interviewed, making her pranks or intrusive questions uncomfortable. But re-watch her monologue as the host of the 2014 Oscars, when she roasts the A-listers in the audience, and it’s easy to admire how well she deploys her aw-shucks demeanor and killer comic instincts in service of punching up.
DeGeneres will be back. We may never think of her as one of us again, if we ever really did. But she of all people knows that we might like her more if she didn’t try so hard to be something she’s not.