This article originally appeared on VICE US.
The drive from Calabasas to Warner Brothers Studios is a relatively painless one by Los Angeles standards: a 16-mile straight shot down the 101 followed by an easy merge onto the 134, where you’ll keep east for roughly five miles before pulling up to one of its handful of visitor gates. There are no unpleasant detours through the stark gray hell of West Hollywood or stop sign-ridden city traffic because there's no leaving the valley. So when the Kardashians—or Jenners or Wests or whatever nomenclature one of them is going by at any particular moment—get the call to appear on an episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, it's easy to understand why they'd say yes, if only because it's so convenient. And "Yes" they have said, collectively, 34 times over the past 9 years. That averages out to slightly less than four appearances a year, and, as the show has roughly 170 episodes a season, means some member of the Kardashian empire has been on about once every 45 episodes, or, every two months.
The Ellen DeGeneres Show (not to be confused with Ellen, the long-running sitcom about a lesbian named Ellen who lived in the city, or The Ellen Show, the short-lived sitcom about a lesbian named Ellen who lived in the country) is a long-running daytime talk show about a lesbian named Ellen who dances uncomfortably around her stage—and often the weightier issues—all in the pursuit of making her very famous guests appear relatable and herself appear like someone who is, if not relatable, highly likable. Like most talk shows in the internet age, the show is as focused on drawing high-profile guests as it is on getting them to participate in childish games and otherwise easily clippable, two-minute moments designed to go viral. It sounds terrible, right? But through some twisted gay alchemy, The Ellen DeGeneres Show is one of the most-watched talk shows on television (as well as one of the most-watched channels on YouTube), and has amassed an enormous audience of loyal fans who find every episode deeply heartwarming and enjoyable. My mom, for example, loves it. And, statistically, I bet a lot of yours do too! This is why Ellen exists: to entertain women 25-54 who watch network television during the day. And no amount of critique I could write will do anything to change that, so I'll stop.
But back to the Kardashian-Jenner-Wests, whose reality show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, has been on E! for almost 12 years. Since its first season, which was an unexpectedly hilarious and sweet family comedy on par with early episodes of MTV's The Osbournes, the show has ballooned in size and scope. Whereas the early years chronicled the family's peculiar origin story and stumbles through Hollywood's periphery and their own burgeoning fame, KUWTK (as it is often shortened to) quickly evolved into endlessly dramatic extensions of their constant tabloid coverage whose main plots are often family-endorsed responses to months-old drama or controversies. And while attempts to regain that early charm still land here and there, it has become an exhausting and largely dreary experience about a cast of characters whose obsession with family and loyalty has only gotten less endearing as they have found themselves growing more and more guarded and wary of life outside their close-knit inner circle.
Enter: people like Ellen. Though fans of KUWTK and followers of celebrity gossip may have noticed those changes over the past few years, people whose knowledge of popular culture is largely based on a familiarity with The Ellen DeGeneres Show probably have not. Since Kim Kardashian West’s first appearance on the show back in 2010, just before Season 5 began filming, Ellen has allowed her and Kourtney and Kris and Khloe and Kylie and Kendall (it will always be wild to see their names all together, won’t it?) to field softball questions about whatever their current scandal or controversy or life-changing dramatic moment of the quarter is, in a loving environment surrounded by audience members who would applaud anyone on that stage as long as they came out engaging in physical movement that only barely meets the definition of “dance.” After that, they can promote their new show, or app, or fashion line. Anything, really.
Other shows, like Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, obviously do this too, but Fallon tapes in New York; the physically closest late night equivalent of Ellen for the Kardashians is Jimmy Kimmel. Prior to Fallon, it was Jay Leno; both have been the sisters’ other go-to talk shows. But during the family’s most tumultuous times—from Caitlyn’s very public transition to Kim’s Paris robbery—they, as Page Six noted last year, choose to see Ellen first. Why? Well, the aforementioned 16-minute Uber Black away helps, but Kimmel isn’t that much further. Perhaps it’s the syndication deals, which make The Ellen DeGeneres Show a major part of the NBC Universal family, of which KUWTK is also. (Kimmel’s an ABC/Disney property.) If corporate synergy isn’t enough to do the job, maybe it has something to do with a more personal connection, like DeGeneres’ longtime friendship with Kanye West.
Watching all the Kardashian family appearances on the show—or, at least, as many as I could find clipped and transcribed online—I found myself wondering if their collective status as fixtures would have continued had Kanye, whose friendship with DeGeneres predates his romance with Kim, not entered the picture. Just as he, one of the world’s most famous and influential musical artists, provided both intrigue and a broader cultural relevance to the show that was starting to feel stale just as he started dating Kim in 2012, I suspect his eventual marriage into America’s most famous TV family provided long-time friend DeGeneres with the desire to keep public opinion high. She couldn’t control Kanye—no one can, not even Kim—but she could give him a safe space to speak his mind… and even premiere a highly-anticipated video. There’s a genuine warmth and almost disarming familiarity to DeGeneres’s interviews with Kanye (he appeared on the show a whopping seven times pre-Kim, and has come back three times post) that is severely lacking in her chats with his family members, most notably Caitlyn Jenner, whose 2015 appearance was so tense and combative that she blasted it in her 2017 memoir, which was later blasted by Kim on—you guessed it—The Ellen DeGeneres Show, because reality television at its most effective should resemble a snake eating its own tail.
Regardless of what has motivated both parties to maintain their close relationship, it’s one of modern television’s most fascinating and headline-making bits of symbiosis. So let’s explore the past almost decade of mutually beneficial visits of the Kardashian-Jenner-Wests to The Ellen DeGeneres Show—what they talked about, how they talked about it, what they avoided, and most importantly, what they were there to promote.
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