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.