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Ellen DeGeneres, a Signature Star of the Obama Era, Says Goodbye

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In the times leading as much as the finale, the ovations grew longer and louder. Fans blew kisses, made heart shapes with their hands and screamed the host’s name. The outpouring signaled the tip of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” a every day hour of daytime escapism that had reached its peak in less contentious times, when Beyoncé, Madonna, and Barack and Michelle Obama were glad to indicate off their goofiest dance moves side by side with the show’s star before an audience of tens of millions.

When this system made its debut in 2003, it seemed unlikely to be successful. Ellen DeGeneres had been in limbo five years at that time, ever since ABC had canceled her sitcom a yr after her groundbreaking announcement that she was gay. On Thursday, initially of the three,339th and final episode of her talk show, she recalled what she had been through and the way much times had modified.

“Once we began this show, I couldn’t say ‘gay,’” Ms. DeGeneres said. “I said it at home rather a lot. ‘What are we having for our gay breakfast?’ Or, ‘Pass the gay salt.’”

After mentioning that she also couldn’t say the word “wife” within the time before gay marriage was legal, the camera turned to the audience to capture Ms. DeGeneres’s spouse, the actress Portia de Rossi, before returning to the host.

“Twenty-five years ago, they canceled my sitcom, because they didn’t desire a lesbian to be in prime time once every week,” she continued. “And I said, ‘OK, then, I’ll be on daytime day-after-day. How about that?’”

But by the point of Thursday’s finale, Ms. DeGeneres, 64, was now not on the forefront of social change. And despite the heartfelt send-offs delivered by fans and celebrity guests including Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston, and Pink, she was not going out on top.

A turning point got here in 2020, when BuzzFeed News reported allegations of workplace misconduct on the show’s set, which prompted an investigation and the firing of three high-ranking producers. Not long afterward, the rankings for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” also referred to as “Ellen,” cratered. The show lost greater than one million viewers for the 2020-2021 season, a 44 percent decline.

Ms. DeGeneres apologized to her staff and her viewers, however the show remained well behind onetime competitors like “Dr. Phil,” “Live With Kelly and Ryan” and “The View.” It seemed her fans had a troublesome time puzzling out the discrepancy between her sunny stage persona and the realities of the workplace she oversaw.

In her just-concluded final season, she settled right into a place atop the second tier of daytime talk, with a niche of about 100,000 viewers between her program and “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” and a greater lead over also-rans like“Maury” and “Rachael Ray.” In the ultimate weeks of “Ellen,” some guests hinted on the difficulties of the last two years and implored the host to understand her contribution. Julia Louis-Dreyfus said she hoped Ms. DeGeneres understood “what an awesome thing it’s that you just’ve done with this show.”

“Really,” Ms. Louis-Dreyfus added. “Truthfully.”

The comedian Howie Mandel continued the pep talk on the following episode: “I would like nothing for you however the happiness that you will have spread to everyone else — I would like you to only bask in that. I would like you to be glad. And I hope you’re glad.”

Ms. DeGeneres’s closest supporters blamed the rankings slide on Covid-19, which necessitated the taping of shows with no studio audience, quite than attributing it to the reports on the “Ellen” workplace, which included staff members’ complaints that they’d faced “racism, fear and intimidation,” in addition to sexual harassment from top producers.

“It was a pandemic problem,” said Mike Darnell, the president of Warner Bros.’ unscripted division, which oversaw the show. “I feel for a comedian — which, there’s only a few in daytime — not having an audience makes an infinite difference.”

Ms. DeGeneres, born in Metairie, La., started off in a Recent Orleans comedy club, making a reputation for herself with observational material that sometimes veered into the absurd. An early routine, “Phone Call to God,” was inspired by the death of her girlfriend in a automotive crash. When she got here up with it, she could see herself doing it on “The Tonight Show,” then the final word venue for stand-up comics.

She was shortly into her profession in 1984, when the cable network Showtime declared her the “Funniest Person in America.” Two years later, she was performing “Phone Call to God” on “The Tonight Show.” Johnny Carson called on her to take a seat beside him, a gesture he reserved for comedians whom he held in high esteem. She was the primary female comic to be summoned by the longtime king of late night during a debut appearance.

“Carson didn’t have many female comedians on the show,” said Wayne Federman, a stand-up comic and writer of “The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle.” “It was extra hard to get on as a female comedian. And sure enough, Ellen, the charming, disarming comedian that she was, did the show. And getting called over to the couch was remarkable. Carson was smitten.”

In 1994 she was starring within the sitcom “These Friends of Mine,” which ABC retitled “Ellen” after one season. It lasted greater than 100 episodes — the benchmark for a network success — and made television history when Ms. DeGeneres, in addition to the character Ellen, got here out of the closet in 1997.

She appeared on the duvet of Time and sat for an “Oprah” interview, but the following season was the show’s last. As The Recent York Times reported on the time, she clashed with ABC executives over the sitcom’s story lines, which her bosses deemed overly focused on gay themes. At one point, the executives demanded that a special content advisory be included as a part of the show.

It took one other five years before Jim Paratore, an executive at Telepictures, a division of Warner Bros., helped engineer her comeback. Executives at local TV affiliates were immune to the concept of an out gay person hosting a daytime talk show, fearing a backlash. And when “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” premiered in 2003, executives at Warner Bros. were talking up one other daytime property they’d within the works, “The Sharon Osbourne Show,” in the assumption that it had the higher likelihood of catching on.

“Sharon Osbourne was flying high at that time, and Ellen was coming out of a cancellation, and folks didn’t want her to discuss being gay,” David Decker, an executive vp at Warner Bros., said. “She wasn’t launched with a variety of tailwind — she was launched with a variety of headwind.”

Little by little she proved her doubters unsuitable. Mr. Federman, the stand-up comic and historian, attributed her success to her unusual approach.

“She all the time thought it was the job of the comedian to set the pace of the room — that she wasn’t going to let the audience dictate how hard she was going to must tell the jokes or how briskly she was going to must do her routine,” he said. “She felt if she was on top of things, the audience would come to her — and that is strictly what happened.

“Most comedians, in the event you don’t get the laughs, you speed up,” he continued. “She was all the time the one who slowed it down. Ellen had an unusual confidence in her comedic rhythm. She was like, ‘I’m going to do that comedy at a really casual rate that folks will easily fall into this.’ That was perfect for daytime television.”

After just a few years, the identity of “Ellen” was firmly in place. The host lavished her audience members, and folks in need, with money and prizes. She danced with fans and celebrity guests, reveling within the awkwardness — just be yourself, she said. As the web gained traction, she invited early viral stars to her show, elevating them to wider fame.

She got here to embody a cultural moment — a time when Mr. Obama was president, gay marriage was newly legal and social media was thought to be a benevolent force. The texture-good vibe of “Ellen” slot in with a prevailing mood, and the show won dozens of Emmys. Ms. DeGeneres hit a peak in 2016, when Mr. Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Throughout the White House ceremony, he credited her with pushing “our country within the direction of justice,” saying she had pulled it off “one joke, one dance, at a time.”

A couple of decade ago, moving beyond the jokes and dancing, Ms. DeGeneres adopted “Be Kind” as a motto, and it soon morphed into its own endeavor. Today, a yearly subscription to “Be Kind” costs $219.96. Those that enroll receive a box every 4 months containing items chosen by Ms. DeGeneres. (The summer collection includes sunglasses, a planner and a bracelet.)

For Ms. DeGeneres, the Be Kind persona got here in handy. When she was twice chosen to host the Oscars (in 2007 and 2014), it was to wash up the messes left behind by performers whose performances were perceived as too biting or caustic — Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Seth MacFarlane.

Later, with Donald J. Trump dominating the news from his White House pulpit and the onetime tech darlings Facebook and Twitter becoming battlegrounds for heated cultural debates, Ms. DeGeneres’s lighthearted approach began falling out of favor. Even the viral sensations who once got a lift from her show didn’t need her anymore — TikTok was good enough. Then got here the workplace scandal, which looked as if it would undercut the “Be Kind” message.

“Being referred to as the Be Kind Lady is a tough position to be in,” she told viewers within the wake of the reports. “So let me offer you some advice. If anyone is considering of adjusting their title or giving yourself a nickname, don’t go along with the Be Kind Lady.”

Daytime talk stays arguably the toughest TV genre to crack. Since Ms. DeGeneres entered the fray, the list of reality stars, news anchors and actors who’ve given it a go includes Queen Latifah, Jane Pauley, Kris Jenner, Bethenny Frankel, Bonnie Hunt, Tony Danza, RuPaul, Jeff Probst, Anderson Cooper and Ms. Osbourne. All got here and went in a flash.

The high price of every day television adds to the challenge. “The economics to supply north of 150 hours of television a yr, with 34 weeks of originals and 170 episodes a yr, is basically expensive,” Mr. Decker, the chief, said. A latest show may cost $20 million to $30 million to launch, he added. Further costs must go to tons of of employees, sound stages (“Ellen” occupied three of them on the Warner Bros. lot) and flying in celebrity guests.

“You would like an enormous rating to even cover your costs yr over yr,” Mr. Decker said. “It’s a really difficult economic model, and to put that out over twenty years of real secular change in our industry? It’s unbelievable, to maintain a show going that long.”

Ms. DeGeneres has said she plans to take some day off, but whatever comes next, the talk show will probably be the centerpiece of her legacy.

“There will probably be other things, other great things, but there won’t ever be a time like this,” Ms. Winfrey told Ms. DeGeneres on the third-to-last episode of “Ellen.” “Know that these are the glory days.”

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