The recent scandal at her talk show suggests that the host’s smiling facade covers up something dark—and hints at why that facade had to be created in the first place.
The Ellen DeGeneres Show features a recurring segment, called “Cash for Kindness,” that spreads good cheer by lying to people. DeGeneres will send a producer or an audience member out into the world to pretend to be some harried worker—a cater-waiter, a delivery person, a birthday-party magician—and then, in spectacular fashion, spill whatever they’re carrying on the sidewalk. As potatoes go rolling or greeting cards flap in the wind, a trap is laid. DeGeneres watches through hidden cameras to see which passersby do, or don’t, stop to help pick up the mess.
The bit is funny because it is mortifying. Speaking into her producer’s wireless earpiece, DeGeneres feeds her staffer ever-more-distressing banter to recite: There’s an engagement ring in the tiramisus! The greeting cards are supposed to be in alphabetical order! The strangers who stop to help are, you may suspect, a bit nervous that they’ve been roped into some scam—or maybe worse, roped into a situation that will expose the limits of their time, means, or generosity. Eventually, the undercover staffer reveals that they work for Ellen. The random Good Samaritan is brought onto the talk show’s set, and DeGeneres hands them cash: a reward for being kind, but also, it feels, payoff for being messed with.
Like any good prank, especially the pranks DeGeneres loves, cash-for-kindness revels in voyeurism, deceit, and discomfort, all of which get forgiven in the name of a laugh. Yet, like so much of DeGeneres’s comedy, this mischief doubles as do-goodery. It is part of DeGeneres’s grand campaign to merchandise kindness—which is also seen when she says “Be kind to one another” at the end of each show, or when she gets taxi drivers to hug Uber drivers on air, or when she hawks kindness-themed subscription boxes for up to $250 a year. Her aesthetic of cream colors, goofy grins, and uplifting tears, along with her amusing displays of light sadism, have earned her a $330 million empire, a raft of Emmys, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.