Ellen DeGeneres is not exactly a subversive comedian. This is fine; subversive is not always good. Ellen's stand-up, in particular, is mostly observational, usually inflating the drama or humor in everyday events, like grocery shopping or motherhood. Often, as in the second example, it is Ellen herself who is the butt of her own jokes. It's this style that has made her so successful as a talk-show host: Ellen's jokes are sharp but not barbed, perfect for the type of audience that advertisers are courting at 3 PM on a Wednesday.
It's for this reason that it was so shocking when, back in April, Ellen turned, looked directly into Oprah Winfrey's eyes, and said: "And of course you and Gayle [King] are still in a relationship." This is Ellen—our Ellen. The Ellen who was hired to host the Oscars in 2014, the year after Seth MacFarlane sang for an excruciating two minutes about breasts, as a promise that this ceremony wouldn't come directly from the wet dreams of a horny teenager. The Ellen whose edgiest joke that year was about Jennifer Lawrence's probably calculated clumsiness.
This barb was part of Oprah and Laura Dern's appearance on The Ellen Show to look back on the 1997 two-part episode of Ellen. In "The Puppy Episode," Ellen's character came out—which coincided with Ellen coming out in real life, and very publicly. To Ellen's credit, it was a major moment, predating Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, and The L Word, and we absolutely do not give her enough laudation for it.
All of that said, you do not fuck with Oprah. Oprah will yell at your child for not knowing her name. But Ellen doesn't care anymore—and that may be the problem.
This summer, Ellen will return to her stand-up roots; her first special since 2003's Ellen DeGeneres: Here and Now, was just announced by Netflix. It couldn't come at a better time, because our girl seems tired. Maybe it's all the dancing. Or maybe it's interviewing 14 years' worth of guests about their new projects.
Toward the end of Ellen's now completed 14th season, something seemed off, like Mitt Romney before a software update. As an entertainer, it is essentially Ellen's job to make sure we're having fun, but who will cook for the chef?
Coincidentally, it was during a cooking segment when Ellen really broke. Who'd have known that pairing Nicole Kidman and Giada De Laurentiis would be such an explosive combination? While the two traded barbs from behind curtains of shiny hair, Ellen completely checked out. Whether it was egging Nicole Kidman on or openly begging her producer to wrap the segment up, something was up with daytime's court jester.
But this was only the start.
Have you ever watched a nature documentary in which a skilled predator stalks its prey, slowly wearing it down until the poor antelope finally calls it quits and surrenders to the darkness? You see the life force draining from Ellen's eyes as she attempts to indulge Jessica Simpson's incoherent psychobabble here.
It's an innocuous enough question, but asking what Simpson likes to do with her husband of seven years nearly puts them both in an early grave. A direct quote: "He kinda likes TV shows, but then he snores through them… So I guess I like that? Ummm… What does he? He golfs, I don't. Mmmm. We love our kids?" The kicker, though, doesn't come until Simpson claims to have 38 songs in the can. "You don't have 38 songs," Ellen counters. She sighs, and tosses to break, presumably to ponder the choices that led her here.
Anyone deserves a break after an atrocity like that. However, Ellen, spirit broken and will faded,
takes it a little far with Nicki Minaj.
Let me be clear: Watching Ellen and Nicki Minaj interact is one of my favorite pastimes. I would watch these two on television, I would travel to see them on tour, I might actually consider trying to figure out how to subscribe to a podcast if they had one. But for the first minute of this clip, I think Ellen forgot she had an audience and cameras, so enraptured was she by the conversation about Nicki Minaj's left breast.
Barbara Walters and David Letterman's departure as regular television presences in the past three years has cemented Ellen as perhaps one of the best interviewers on American television. It takes a very specific skill-set to not only entice these stars to answer personal questions, but to convince them that they're having fun while doing so.
Jimmy Fallon has leaned hard into the latter, but he doesn't seem to possess the listening skill required to conduct an actual interview. Seth Meyers's show, on the other hand, tends to turn into two comedians analyzing comedy—a niche interest, to say the least. Ellen's show, like any good circus act, looks a lot more natural than it really is.
That said: It's very rare these days for someone to work a job for 14 years. In the entertainment industry, that's soap opera–level longevity. There are high schoolers who know her as nothing other than a daytime talk-show host. The upcoming Netflix special, which doesn't have a release date yet, will give her a chance to flex an old muscle, and it might just get the endorphins flowing again.
I guess the question I really want to ask is: Is Ellen OK? Has someone checked on her? Perhaps the fix is as simple as taking her own show's advice: Have a little fun today.
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