Killing It With Kindness

Ellen DeGeneres, daytime superstar, is itching to try something new. But America needs the old Ellen more than ever before.

Hsiao-Ron Cheng

“Thank you so much! I appreciate it,” says Ellen DeGeneres, bobbing and bowing and volleying her gaze into the screaming tiers of her studio audience. “Thank you! I feel the same way about you!” Up and down, left and right, that take-no-prisoners soul-seeking stare, that ice-glare of empathy. “I feel like you’re not satisfied unless I look at each and every one of you. I feel like I’m trying to see all of you and wave, and yet I can’t do it.” Neon sprig of a haircut; space-age ears; pizzicato physicality and readiness, like she might start juggling or break-dancing. “But I’ll try to get every single bit of eye contact I can …” And then she straightens and looks into the camera, dings it with her Ellen-beam of crazed and searching blue. Oh yes, Ellen, here I am, on a Monday afternoon. You’ve found me.

The Ellen DeGeneres Show, popularly known as just Ellen, is in its 16th season. It made its debut during the reign of Bush II. It effervesced in the Obama era. It has survived the internet. More than survived—it has absorbed it, very comfortable with memes, viral videos, all of that. Though it operates according to the conventional dream logic of the daytime talk show (you’re talking with Michael Bublé, then you’re cooking, then your mother appears), it produces extra amounts of serotonin, extra wobbly bubbles of feel-good. It promotes, relentlessly, the idea of being kind. be kind says the Ellen hat. be kind says the Ellen mug. “Be kind to one another,” says Ellen herself, at the end of every episode. Be kind, goddammit!

Ellen helps people—with her show’s famous munificence, spraying out gift cards, heads of lettuce, plane tickets, wads of cash to the lucky and the strapped; and more profoundly with the mood-elevating properties of her Ellen-ness. I have friends—you probably do too—for whom an Ellen viewing habit, at the moment of need, worked better than Zoloft. (She also helps gorillas, through the Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund.)

And now she’s thinking about leaving the show behind. Her contract is up next year, and a recent interview with The New York Times found her mulling her next move. Her 2018 Netflix special, Relatable, was a slightly shaky return to stand-up, a mishmash of not-altogether-disarming jokes about her enormous wealth and confessions of kindness fatigue. (“I’m the ‘Be kind’ girl … I shouldn’t even have a horn in my car. There’s no reason for me to have a horn. I can’t honk, ever, at anyone.”) The audience is at her mercy as always, but the material is a work in progress. She’s in flux. So in the fourth week of the federal-government shutdown, with trash choking the national parks, frustration silting up the system, and ordinary reality beginning to fizz and flicker in its frame, I gave Ellen my full attention.

“Before you get going, can I say something?” asks Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts, a guest on Monday’s show. “Can I say thank you for what you bravely did more than 20 years ago?” Roberts, openly gay since 2013, is referring of course to Ellen’s 1997 visible-from-space coming-out. She did it in a Time cover story, and then on Oprah (“When did you know that you were gay? Is it something like ding-ding-ding-ding-ding—gay bells go off?” “I didn’t hear any bells”) and on her sitcom, Ellen. Very brave, very life-giving, very Ellen. Also very good for ratings.

Then they dropped off. ABC yanked her sitcom in 1998, and Ellen entered (in mega-showbiz terms) the wilderness years. A place of pain and no work. Not quite no work: She played Dory in Finding Nemo. But a depression, a sense of obscurity. From which she emerged in 2003 with her daytime talk show, her magical zone of acceptance, her Trump rally in reverse. Minorities welcome. Vulnerabilities celebrated. Thumbs-up for everyone—cancer survivors, hurricane survivors, a survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting (comforted by special guest Katy Perry). Her journey to this point, her quest to live her truth, has been an American epic, and her people know all about it. “Bless you,” says the gleaming Roberts, and they go wild with approval.

“Nobody’s paying to see a nice person.” Jerry Seinfeld, considering the particular qualities of Ellen as he talked with her on his show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, was definitive. Why do people like Ellen so much? It can’t just be niceness—humdrum, milky niceness. You’re nice, I’m nice, who cares? No, the source of her appeal lies elsewhere: in the tension between the huggy, all-tolerating, gorilla-preserving, mid-afternoon pluralism that is the Ellen mission, and the nightclub sharpness, the side-of-the-mouth zingers, that are the Ellen style. She came up as a comedian. She’s still a comedian. When old homophobic tweets cost Kevin Hart his Oscars hosting gig, she rallied to the defense of her fellow comic. Her Netflix special features a single, mildly explosive use of the word fuck, and you can feel the recoil from the gentle Ellen ultra-fans, the hard-core softies, in the audience. But a kind of cushioned ribaldry is part of her thing: “I don’t know a lot about balls, Heidi,” she once told Heidi Klum while they were making meatballs on her show. Sometimes she says nothing at all, and that works too. The point is Ellen, listening: the high gleam in her eye, the energy field of her comic intelligence.

On Wednesday, Ellen makes some Trump jokes, reprising Dory’s “Just Keep Swimming” song from Finding Nemo, but with updated lyrics: Just keep swimming. Swimming, swimming, even if you don’t agree with the president. And you think he might be working for the Russians. Just keep swimming, swimming … On Thursday, she isn’t there; Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson guest-host the show. They make a smoothie with Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s mesmerizingly anodyne. Without Ellen—her brand, her buzz—it’s all fluff, deep fluff, narcotic and faintly sinister. Three o’clock: the slack waistband of the day. They’re out there, half-watching, the trapped American millions, the furloughed by life, the hospitalized and the immobilized and the incarcerated. Give them some substance, for Christ’s sake: a proverb, a fillip, a laugh, something.

Ellen’s back on Friday—phew—and she does a monologue about the weather, because it’s been raining in L.A. “We need the rain, though, we do … It helps everything grow. This is true—I’m told Sofia Vergara grew two cup sizes.” (Hoots of illicit mirth from the audience, Ellen grinning knowingly.) “That’s how they grow, they get watered.” And there, into the precincts of her forgiveness, goes the leering and bulbous-eyed shade of Rodney Dangerfield. Smut becomes soapy at her touch. In a moment, Samuel L. Jackson will share his holiday snaps, and Ellen will deliver $20,000 to two sisters, federal workers both, going broke during the shutdown.

Ellen was snuggly with the Obamas. Barack came on her show and they danced; Michelle came on her show and they had a push-up contest. Are they all gone, those cozy vibes? Is Ellen besieged, in her Colosseum of kindness, by the snarling politics of the hour? She told the Times that she doesn’t even read the news anymore (although her writers clearly do)—too distressing. It must be tiring, being a joy-delivery system in this environment. Who wouldn’t want to drop an f-bomb? For the moment, though, her show is more important than ever before. Her rainbow wafts of diversity and acceptance are a kind of alternative news source. Trump rallies are about acceptance too, of course: Hey, you—you with the anger, you with the unspeakable thoughts. We have a place for you here. It’s a very American thing, this wild invitation to be yourself. But to be the good, kind, self-regulating, meatball-making version of yourself—that’s the ticket. And that’s where Ellen comes in, mighty as Russell Crowe in Gladiator. At her command, unleash tolerance.

This article appears in the April 2019 print edition with the headline “Killing With Kindness.”