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Jeff Simon: On Ellen DeGeneres, and kindness

Jeff Simon: On Ellen DeGeneres, and kindness


Ellen DeGeneres, winner of the Carol Burnett Award, poses in the press room during the 77th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 5, 2020.

At the end of her hit afternoon talk shows, Ellen DeGeneres looks through the camera lens to her audience and tells them to "be kind."

That, as modern showbiz thinkers would instantly tell you, is resolutely "on brand," just as it was once the brand of Rosie O'Donnell in her late afternoon talk show to be America's "Queen of Nice." Considering how savage and brawling some of O'Donnell's jokes and comments were (about her tormentor Donald Trump, for instance), it was impossible for O'Donnell to maintain her brand for long. Her talk show lasted from 1996 to 2002.

Ellen DeGeneres' "kind" brand has now gone the way of Rosie's. Not long ago, a comedian named Kevin T. Porter invited Twitter to post stories about DeGeneres being "mean." The instant response was 2,600 replies. It got much worse.

Buzzfeed reporter Krystie Lee Yandoli wrote a story that despite DeGeneres' charitable prominence and Oprah-style giveaways on her show, the show's behind-the-scenes life seethed with racism and toxicity of all sorts. Staffers were instructed  it was said  not to even look at the host if passing her in the hall. One employee, we were told, checked into a mental health facility after a suicide attempt and, upon returning to the show after a month's leave of absence, found their job eliminated.

After the charges, DeGeneres replied to the staff and the world about her sorrow and her original intention to make the show a "place for happiness" for audiences and staff alike.

Another Buzzfeed article has alleged rampant sexual misconduct. It named names on DeGeneres' male staff and was specific about allegations. Warner Entertainment is now investigating the show.

This was not immediately followed by a massive flock of friends with tales or testimonials in her support. Eventually, Kevin Hart declared her "one of the dopest people on the planet" and Katy Perry stood shoulder to shoulder with her.

There were two significant critiques from peers: Comedian Brad Garrett of "Everybody Loves Raymond" said it was "common knowledge" DeGeneres treated people "horribly". No matter how she may defray blame on senior staff and pledge reform, Garrett said the toxicity goes all the way to "the top."

Actress Lea Thompson publicly agreed with Garrett.

It may all remind you of what happened to Bill Cosby: A lesser-known comic fed up with hypocrisy blew the whistle on Cosby "the rapist" in comedy clubs and led, down a long path, to the entertainment legend's current residence in prison.

Things haven't gone that far for DeGeneres, nor will they. But one thing is likely: Fellow comics, once primed, won't be eager to promulgate hypocrisy. They won't care how much charity and on-air sweetness she feeds to her brand, they're primed to blow the whistle on reality.

I have, until recently, been a DeGeneres partisan. I always thought her funny and refreshingly unpretentious. The reason I didn't watch her sitcom is that I hate sitcoms.

When she came out in 1997, I was happy to write hosannas to her courage. Sitcom stars aren't supposed to do that in America. It turned out to be so gutsy that it killed the show off.

Which eventually led to a talk show opposite Oprah. I seldom watched her afternoon talk show because that, too, is not a TV form that interests me much. Whenever I did see it, I found it mostly pleasant.

Most importantly, I thought her stint as the Oscars host was the best of the last 30 years  even greater than Billy Crystal's, which depended on the instant passing gags and comments scripted by brilliant backstage bombardier Bruce Vilanch. Unlike Crystal  who was pure showbiz at its most proficient  DeGeneres was as cleverly relatable as any Oscar host ever. Her on-air pizza purchase was near-genius.

Watching her keep the Oscar show afloat in a heaving sea of B.S. was like watching a minor showbiz miracle.

It wasn't her kindness as an afternoon talk show brand that stopped me from watching, it was its on-camera contradiction by another of her recent trademarks  cutesy humiliations, that great worldwide love of ordinary people embarrassing themselves just because it puts them on the tube.

The classic office picnic version of this is the carnival bean bag toss where spouses with good aim toss bean bags at metal switches marked X and, if they hit, get to dunk their spouses into water tanks.

It's the nature of the game to paint us all as either secretly hostile beanbag bombardiers or attention-hungry spouses hoping to see spouses dunk us in cold water or plaster our face with a pie full of shaving cream.

It's not a public spectacle I'm fond of, to be honest. It's a game that turns us all into hypocrites if, at the same time, we're given to lamenting the disappearance of kindness from the world.

As soon as that basic trope became Ellen DeGeneres' trademark in the afternoon and in her prime time show, she lost me.

I know hypocrisy and cruelty are components of comedy. I admired Don Rickles immensely. I once, nevertheless, watched him tear apart a front row at Melody Fair that included a woman, whom he passed by with the shuddering remark, "boy are you ugly."

The harrowing shock of the joke is that she was. But her day had been made anyway. That was the beanbag she'd volunteered to be hit with.

Not me. When Melody Fair's Lew Fisher tried to put me in Rickles' front row while I took notes for a review, I immediately exchanged the seat for one much further back. I wasn't there to be part of his act.

When that sort of cheesy company picnic comedy became a prime time show called "Ellen's Game of Games," her kindness brand revealed itself to be secret self-righteousness.

At that point, she was practically telling America that whatever depressing stuff we heard about her behavior backstage were quite possibly true.

At the same time, that new nighttime show made her too big for her to keep control over her whole empire.

I honestly don't know what's going to happen to her from here. I suspect she's too big and too loved to lose either her empire or her fan base. Her partisans are loyal.

The fascinating question is whether she's going to be equally passionate and loyal to them over the next couple of years.

She will always be a historic figure in American entertainment, just as Bill Cosby will, despite our being heartsick at discovering his awful private life.

Ellen DeGeneres, more than any other single figure, made it possible for a legendary American celebrity to come out of the closet publicly.

With what has happened since, I think she's been telling us that the preceding years of anxiety, dishonesty and backstage distrust and abuse took a much bigger toll on her soul than we've ever known.

Stay tuned in

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