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After 19 seasons and more than 3,200 episodes, Ellen DeGeneres is signing off.
And though she pretaped her final week of shows in late April, the finality still hadn’t set in when she talked to The Hollywood Reporter a week before the series finale of The Ellen DeGeneres Show airs.
In many ways, DeGeneres says she feels like she’s simply at the beginning of another summer break. Her longtime pal Oprah Winfrey, who’s been in her shoes, has told her the feeling is normal. “She said I won’t really feel it until September, when I’d normally go back [into production],” offers DeGeneres, whose final show airs May 26, with her very first guest, Jennifer Aniston, returning, along with Pink, who wrote the Emmy-winning show’s theme song.
Over the last year or so, Winfrey has also advised DeGeneres to take some much-needed time off and not jump as quickly into her next act as Winfrey once did. So, the former sitcom star will try her best to sit back, travel and weigh what’s next, be it film, another documentary or a stand-up tour. Contractually, the comic, who returned to stand-up after 15 years with a special titled Relatable in 2018, is on the hook for a second Netflix hour at some point. In the meantime, she’s off to Rwanda, where she’ll celebrate the opening of her 12-acre science and education campus and its focus on saving wild mountain gorillas.
But first, DeGeneres, who will continue with both her Ellen Digital Ventures and her A Very Good Production shingle, opened up about the “very, very difficult” period at her show following public allegations of a toxic workplace and “crying every day” as the end of Ellen neared.
Was this final week of shows emotional in the ways that you expected it to be, or did you find yourself surprised by how it hit you?
I knew going in that this season was going to be my last season, so I really tried to take everything in. And it’s funny because the last couple of months I was more emotional than I was in the last week or two. I got really emotional about two months out, but that last week I wasn’t because I really just wanted to enjoy it. I was working with [former monk] Jay Shetty a lot, too, on being present and I was. I was very present for all of it.
At least a few of your final guests did get quite emotional. Did that surprise you?
Yeah, I guess it did. I mean, it was very flattering because it meant that they really enjoyed themselves on my show and that was always my intention. And so for people like Zac Efron to get emotional — I mean, he really teared up, but there are so many people who grew up on the show and so that [response] was very flattering. [Doing press] is a necessary evil in this business. You do a job and then you’ve got to go out and talk about it, and people ask questions over and over again, and I came from that side of the business and I was always like, “How can I make this a better, more fun experience for people?”
When it came to planning the final shows, what was important to you? And just as important, what didn’t you want?
There was a time a couple of months out where I was crying every day. I was really emotional, even though it was my choice, and it’s the right choice. I knew it was time to end this chapter and to do something different, but still it was really emotional. But I did not want the last two weeks to be about that. I’d meditate every day on my intention and how much I wanted to be present and enjoy it, and I wanted that for the audience, too. I wanted people to be reminded of what we brought to television with the music and the games and everything. It was more of a variety show than anything, and I wanted the last two weeks to be pure fun because I struggle with anxiety and depression and I know how important it is to have an escape. We’re reminded every single day of what’s going on in the world, from a sick family member to wars and fires and global warming. There are so many different things that make you sad.
And I struggle with becoming overwhelmed with that. And sometimes it feels hard for me even to go out and do a show because I am thinking, “How can I be out having fun when someone’s suffering?” And then I realize that that’s one hour a day that I’m helping somebody who needs to escape just like I do. That’s what I hope everybody was getting from the show and will remember it for.
Oprah is one of very few people who has been in your shoes. I know she’s given you advice on-air. I’m guessing she also gave you advice off-air. Which of it will you listen to?
Well, she’s obviously a very wise woman, and one of the wisest things that I got from her is when making a margarita, always use fresh lime, never bottled lime. So, I’ll always remember that.
That’s good advice. You told me a year ago that you weren’t very good at sitting still, which I believe is something she’s encouraged.
Yeah, she gives that advice, but she doesn’t listen to it herself. She did say that she regrets [not taking time off when her talk show ended], but she was launching her network at the same time. So, that was bad timing on her part because she really should have taken time to sit and reflect. I am going to try to take her advice, which is, “Don’t do anything for a year. No matter how good the offer is, just sit for a year.” And I’ll tell you, I have an incredible offer right now that I actually got several months before I finished. It’s really, really hard to say no to, and I’m asking to delay it because I am really trying to sit still. This is my first self-imposed break. The last one was not. [Editor’s note: After DeGeneres came out, her sitcom was swiftly canceled and she faced tremendous backlash.] And three years at the time seemed like an eternity but, looking back on it, it was a blip, and so I can do one year. I’m going to start traveling in a couple of weeks and try to enjoy my time.
When we spoke last spring, a big juicy film role sounded alluring to you. Was that what the offer was all about?
It’s something along those lines. But there’s definitely that opportunity, and there’s been a couple of offers for that. And it just depends on timing. That would be great. But then I also love doing stand-up, so I can always write another special and go out and [perform], which is [wife] Portia [de Rossi]’s preference. She really loved when we went out on what she calls, “a tour.” She doesn’t understand, we only went to seven cities.
It’s a tour-lite.
Yeah. Wanda Sykes makes fun of me because we made sweatshirts and we put all of the cities that we did before I shot my special and she’s like, “That’s it?!” I mean, I think Chris Rock goes to, like, 80 cities. But people are offering me private gigs or Vegas gigs, so I don’t know if it’s stand-up, if it’s acting, for sure there’s going to be some documentaries that I’d like to produce. I’m doing a documentary about my campus in Rwanda. I’m going to go in a few weeks and shoot there, so that’ll be fun.
We’re living in a very charged environment. Do you worry at all about the stage being a safe space?
Have you ever seen a UFC fight where they’re in a cage? That’s what I would tour in. Inside of a cage and completely safe. Don’t you worry about me.
At any point during this farewell season, did you regret your decision to wrap it up?
No. It’s for sure the right time. The world is in a crazy place. Like you said, it’s very charged. And you know, I was going to stop three years ago and they talked me into staying a little longer and I did and it’s fine. There was a lot that happened during that time that was unfortunate, but it is what it is — you go through stuff in life and you just keep learning and growing. That’s how I have to look at it. But it’s definitely time to stop. And the producers, we’ll all stay in touch. Andy [Lassner, her executive producer, who often appears on-air] still texts me at least three times a day.
Do you have any regrets about not ending sooner?
I have to just trust that whatever happened during that time, which was obviously very, very difficult, happened for a reason. I think that I learned a lot, and there were some things that came up that I was shocked and surprised by. It was eye-opening, but I just trust that that had to happen.
Fair enough. What do you think you’ll miss the most from this chapter as you move into the next one?
Well, once in a while, they’d bring a soft-serve ice cream truck on the lot. That was nice.
Got it, and is there a close second?
Oh, after that? Yeah. OK. Let me think … I’m going to miss the audience and the close proximity of that kind of love and energy that I felt every day. Of course I’ll miss laughing every single day with all of the people who became my family. And I’ll miss meeting all kinds of interesting people, which I got to do every day. I guess what I’m saying is I’ll miss just about everything.
You’re leaving a very different daytime landscape than you joined 19 years ago. It’s considerably more fractured with the advent of streaming and so much else. Do you think you could have launched this show in today’s environment, and would you have wanted to?
The answer probably would be no, I don’t think I would. As I said, things happen for a reason. Like, by me getting canceled on my sitcom, I couldn’t have an acting career because people wouldn’t hire me because I was openly gay and they weren’t putting openly gay people in movies and TV shows the way they are now. And if I’d tried, I wouldn’t have been able to be myself every single day on TV and do all the things that I got to do and meet all the people that I got to meet. So, what hurt me so badly — what hurt my feelings and hurt my career and hurt me financially — turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened because it brought me to this. And it’s the perfect time to end because it is a fractured environment, like you said, and now it opens me up to whatever that next experience is.
Did you take anything from the set home with you?
Yeah, I brought my phone, that old one that I used to call [her old friend] Gladys and others on. I have it sitting in my living room on a table.
I know you have to go, but is there anything that I didn’t ask but you think I should have?
Yeah, you didn’t ask me what flavor soft-serve. I would have said vanilla.
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