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Ellen DeGeneres is signing off.
Daytime’s most recognizable face has decided her upcoming season, the show’s 19th, will be the last. The decision, which fell to DeGeneres, is said to have been several years in the making. She informed her staff May 11 and will sit down with longtime pal and daytime predecessor Oprah Winfrey to discuss the news on Ellen‘s May 13 show.
“When you’re a creative person, you constantly need to be challenged — and as great as this show is, and as fun as it is, it’s just not a challenge anymore,” DeGeneres tells The Hollywood Reporter, discussing the move publicly for the first time.
Timing her departure is something DeGeneres has openly wrestled with in the past. In a 2018 New York Times profile, she revealed that her actress wife, Portia de Rossi, had been encouraging her to move on from the 180-shows-a-year gig, while her comedian brother, along with executives at Warner Bros., had urged her to continue. In the end, DeGeneres signed on for three more seasons but was clear with herself and her team that this contract — which would take her well beyond 3,000 shows, and a stunning 2,400 celebrity interviews — would be her last.
“Although all good things must come to an end, you still have hope that truly great things never will,” says Warner Bros.’ unscripted TV president Mike Darnell, who as recently as late April was still prodding DeGeneres to reconsider. He calls her eponymous series “an absolute phenomenon,” having established itself over nearly two decades on air “as the premier destination for both superstars and incredible heartfelt human-interest stories.”
Indeed, after an uphill battle to get the show off the ground — “It was the hardest show we’ve ever had to launch in the history of our company,” a Warner Bros. exec previously told THR — it’s been widely praised for delivering a midday jolt of joy, to say nothing of ratings and revenue with its mix of dancing, games and giveaways (nearly $70 million in charitable donations and more than $300 million in audience giveaways). NBCUniversal Local president Valari Staab, whose stations air the show, describes Ellen as “an iconic American TV program” and its host as “a trailblazer and a one-of-a-kind talent.” DeGeneres, whose prolific output has reportedly earned her $84 million in annual income, per Forbes, was the recipient of the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2015 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom under Barack Obama in 2016.
But this past year has not been without controversy. On the heels of a series of personal swipes that DeGeneres says “destroyed” her, came a July BuzzFeed News exposé detailing allegations of a toxic workplace. The latter, which DeGeneres says she learned about through the press, prompted an internal investigation and the dismissal of key executives. The host, who’s built her brand on the motto “Be Kind,” opened season 18 in September with a lengthy apology, telling viewers, “I learned that things happen here that never should have happened. I take that very seriously. And I want to say I am so sorry to the people who were affected.” While the mea culpa was widely viewed — Ellen’s highest-rated premiere in years, per The New York Times — viewership quickly tumbled, even as Hollywood’s A-list remained loyal guests.
Still, Darnell is steadfast in his commitment. “Ellen was and is an indelible piece of the television landscape, and it will be sorely missed,” he tells THR. To his relief, DeGeneres will remain a part of the Warner Bros. fold, having built a sprawling portfolio of unscripted shows there in recent years, including Fox’s The Masked Dancer, NBC’s Ellen’s Game of Games and HBO Max’s Ellen’s Next Great Designer. The studio has a considerable stake in her Ellen Digital Ventures, too, which is responsible for more than 60 original series, including digital hit Momsplaining With Kristen Bell. Though DeGeneres, who’s also producing natural history specials and documentaries for Discovery and returned to stand-up with a celebrated Netflix special in 2018, is coy about her next chapter, she is hopeful a juicy acting role and more time for her conservation efforts are a part of it.
Here, the woman whose 1997 “Yep, I’m Gay” Time cover story nearly torpedoed her career, speaks with THR about the decision to wrap up a show that’s earned her 64 Daytime Emmys, the allegations that nearly sent her packing and the parts that she’ll miss most — and least — about her daily platform.
Let’s start with the decision to end the show in 2022: Take me back to when you decided this would be it.
I was going to stop after season 16. That was going to be my last season, and they wanted to sign for four more years and I said I’d sign maybe for one. They were saying there was no way to sign for one. “We can’t do that with the affiliates and the stations need more of a commitment.” So, we [settled] on three more years, and I knew that would be my last. That’s been the plan all along. And everybody kept saying, even when I signed, “You know, that’s going to be 19, don’t you want to just go to 20? It’s a good number.” So is 19. (Laughs.)
And you never wavered?
No. When we did our 3,000th show, they showed that highlights montage and everybody was emotional. We all hugged and everyone had tears in their eyes, and Mike Darnell was here going, “You really want to [end this]?” Look, it’s going to be really hard on the last day, but I also know it’s time. I’m a creative person, and when you’re a creative person you constantly need to be challenged, which is why I decided to host the Oscars or why I decided to go back to stand-up when I didn’t think I would. I just needed something to challenge me. And as great as this show is, and as fun as it is, it’s just not a challenge anymore. I need something new to challenge me.
A few years ago, you’d said that Portia had been urging you to move on, while your brother was pushing you to stay. Did anyone, outside of Darnell, try to convince you one way or another this time around?
Yeah. Obviously the producers. But you’re right, my brother was like, “People look forward to this show every day, and there aren’t many shows out there that are just pure joy like this.” He’s always been my biggest advocate and — not that Portia isn’t, but she’s also selfish and wants me to do things that I’m challenged by, and she’s watched me come home every day saying, “I just feel like there’s something more I could be doing.” I care about the environment. I care about animals. I care about design and furniture … So, definitely people have been saying, “Why don’t we just try to go a little longer?” But 19 years is a long time to do anything.
As you think about your future, we’ve seen you return to stand-up, we’ve also seen you hosting and narrating and producing. What will this move free you up to do that you haven’t had time to do?
Look, I don’t even know the answer. I’ve been trying to think about that. I have some ideas, but my agent is just like, “Why don’t you just sit still for a minute. You probably don’t even know how exhausted you are and what it’s going to be like to sit still.” And I don’t know how long I’ll be able to do that because I’m like a Ferrari in neutral. I’m constantly needing to go. So, that’s my first challenge, and then I’m going to figure it out. I wouldn’t have thought I was ever going to do a talk show when I stopped doing movies and sitcoms. I thought that that was the only path. And then all of a sudden there was a talk show that took me on this 19-year journey.
“Sit still for a bit” does not sound like the advice of a Hollywood agent.
If you’re going to have an agent, [Eddy Yablans] is a good one to have. He cares tremendously about me, first and foremost, and money and career second, which is very rare.
Would you consider returning to movies and sitcoms?
A sitcom seems like a walk in the park compared to this, 180 shows a year. I don’t know if that’s really what I want to do next, but movies for sure. If there were a great role, I’d be able to do that, which I’m not able to do now. I’m opening up my campus in Rwanda next year, and I want to be more involved with conservation and everything that matters to me as far as the environment and animals.
There were pretty serious allegations waged last summer, and some changes were made to your show. I’m curious how that chapter impacted you, the show and this decision?
It almost impacted the show. It was very hurtful to me. I mean, very. But if I was quitting the show because of that, I wouldn’t have come back this season. So, it’s not why I’m stopping, but it was hard because I was sitting at home, it was summer, and I see a story that people have to chew gum before they talk to me and I’m like, “OK, this is hilarious.” Then I see another story of some other ridiculous thing and then it just didn’t stop. And I wasn’t working, so I had no platform, and I didn’t want to address it on [Twitter] and I thought. “If I just don’t address it, it’s going to go away,” because it was all so stupid.
But it very much didn’t go away.
I became a comedian because I wanted to make people feel good. It started when I was 13 years old when my parents got divorced, and I wanted to make my mother happy. My whole being is about making people happy. And with the talk show, all I cared about was spreading kindness and compassion, and everything I stand for was being attacked. So, it destroyed me, honestly. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. And it makes me really sad that there’s so much joy out there from negativity. It’s a culture now where there are just mean people, and it’s so foreign to me that people get joy out of that. Then, on the heels of it, there are allegations of a toxic workplace and, unfortunately, I learned that through the press. And at first I didn’t believe it because I know how happy everybody is here and how every guest talks about, “Man, you have a great place here. Of all the talk shows I’ve done, everyone here is so happy.” That’s all I’ve ever heard.
So, there was an internal investigation, obviously, and we learned some things, but this culture we’re living is [is one where] no one can make mistakes. And I don’t want to generalize because there are some bad people out there and those people shouldn’t work again, but in general, the culture today is one where you can’t learn and grow, which is, as human beings, what we’re here to do. And I can see people looking at that going, “You don’t care about what people [went through].” I care tremendously. It broke my heart when I learned that people here had anything other than a fantastic experience — that people were hurt in any way. I check in now as much as I can through Zoom to different departments, and I make sure people know that if there’s ever a question or ever anything, they can come to me, and I don’t know why that was never considered before. I’m not a scary person. I’m really easy to talk to. So, we’ve all learned from things that we didn’t realize — or I didn’t realize — were happening. I just want people to trust and know that I am who I appear to be.
You mentioned that it almost impacted the show. What did you mean by that? Were there moments in there where you thought, “I don’t want to come back to this”?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was four solid months. And you have to understand, in that time, someone got into our house and robbed us and I lost four animals — three cats and a dog died. It was a tsunami. When it started, with that stupid “someone couldn’t look me in the eye” or whatever the first thing was, it’s like a crest of a wave. Like, “This isn’t going to be that big of a wave.” And then it just keeps getting bigger and bigger until it was out of control. And I really, honestly, felt like, “I don’t deserve this. I don’t need this. I know who I am. I’m a good person.” And I was sitting back going, “If I was someone watching this, I would think, ‘Well, there must be some truth to it because it’s not stopping.’” Of course they’re going to believe this because I’m not addressing it because I was told not to and you can imagine what that felt like. And it’s a lot to live up to. I started saying “be kind to one another” because I really believe people should be kind to one another and so it was easy clickbait to say, “Oh, the be kind lady isn’t so kind.” I am kind. I’m also a woman and I’m a boss.
As you start to think about wrapping up, what will you miss the most and the least about this platform?
I will not miss hair and makeup every day. I’m not someone who loves to sit in a chair and have that done. And I will not miss fittings — if you gain one pound, the pants don’t fit you the way that they did two weeks ago, so that doesn’t feel good to have fittings. Those are the things I won’t miss. I’ll miss everything else. Listen, this is my family. They’ve become my best friends. I come to work and I laugh every single day. We create stuff that’s sometimes just funny to us and it’s not exactly mass appeal, but I don’t care ’cause it’s stuff that’s dry and quiet and it’s my humor and, you know, I’ve tried to stay true to who I am and what my brand is. This all became bigger than I ever could have dreamed of. I’m not the pretty girl who made it in Hollywood because of the way I looked. I worked from nothing to doing stand-up to having this career, and I’m so proud of this show. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. And so I’ll miss everything but, in my gut, I know it’s time to do something different.
You’re going to sit down with Oprah, who’s been in your shoes. What do you want to ask her about ending this chapter and starting a new one?
First of all, she wears, like, Louis Vuitton heels. She’s not been in my shoes — she’d be a lot more comfortable if she were in my shoes. (Laughs.) No, we’re friends and we’ve talked about how hard this is. I haven’t asked her advice yet, but I’m sure she’s going to say exactly what my agent did: “Sit still for a while and figure it out.” But look at her. She stopped and she didn’t have to do anything again, and she’s done a tremendous amount since then. So, I don’t look at this as the end at all. It’s the start of a new chapter, and hopefully, my fans will go with me wherever I go. That being said, if I never do anything else ever again, I’m so proud of what this show stood for and still stands for and what we’ve made it through.
I know you have a show to do, but is there anything that I haven’t asked that you wished I had?
No, what you asked is what people are curious about. And maybe I’m too brutally honest. That’s one thing any of my friends will tell you, I am honest to a fault and I will tell you how I feel. It’s probably best that I didn’t address this last summer because I was so hurt and so angry. But when I can be my higher self and look [back] at it, I know all of that happened for me to grow. When I came out [in 1997] and was so publicly attacked during that time, it also really destroyed me, but then I got stronger and I learned and grew from it. But people always say you have to have thick skin to be in this business and I’ve never gotten that. I have very thin skin and things affect me, and I’m proud of that. Like, I love that I’m emotional and I still care what people think and say about me, to a degree. At the same time, you have to learn from it, too.
So, what have you learned?
Well, you realize that every single encounter means something. And if, for whatever reason, one day I wasn’t dancing when I’m in the dry cleaners or I didn’t smile at somebody, it’s like, “Oh, did that affect somebody? Was that what they meant?” And I don’t know, but I know that I’m just a person with a lot of different emotions and I struggle with depression and with anxiety. So, every day I’m not super smiley, but my intention is never to hurt anyone. And I’ve also looked at it, going, “OK, can I be more present because this one-minute encounter is going to impact somebody in a certain way.”
As you explored in your Netflix special, being the “Be Kind” lady who’s always dancing has its drawbacks.
I remember years and years ago, my girlfriend at the time and I were taking our dog to be put down. We’re crying as we bring our dog in and this woman was so excited to see me and she wants me to say something funny and I’m like, my dog is dying. It was just the most awkward situation, but that’s the extreme of what I’m talking about. And I did address it in my stand-up special. Like, I can’t honk my horn at anybody. God forbid someone cuts me off. No, they got to look at me dancing. Anyway, that’s the reality of all of it, and I have to look at every single thing as a lesson and throw away the stuff that I know I can’t control.
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