In the days leading up to the finale, the ovations grew longer and louder. Fans blew kisses, made heart shapes with their hands and screamed the host’s name. The outpouring signaled the end of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” a daily hour of daytime escapism that had reached its peak in less contentious times, when Beyoncé, Madonna, and Barack and Michelle Obama were happy to show off their goofiest dance moves side by side side with the show’s star before an audience of millions.
When the program made its debut in 2003, it seemed unlikely to be a hit. Ellen DeGeneres had been in limbo five years at that point, ever since ABC had canceled her sitcom a year after her groundbreaking announcement that she was gay. On Thursday, at the start of the 3,339th and final episode of her talk show, she recalled what she had been through and how much times had changed.
“When we started this show, I couldn’t say ‘gay,'” Ms. DeGeneres said. “I said it at home a lot. ‘What are we having for our gay breakfast?’ Or, ‘Pass the gay salt.'”
After mentioning that she also couldn’t say the word “wife” in the time before gay marriage was legal, the camera turned to the audience to capture Ms. DeGeneres’s spouse, the actress Portia de Rossi, before returning to the host.
“Twenty-five years ago, they canceled my sitcom, because they didn’t want a lesbian to be in prime time once a week,” she continued. “And I said, ‘OK, then, I’ll be on daytime every day. How about that?'”
But by the time of Thursday’s finale, Ms. DeGeneres, 64, was no longer at the forefront of social change. And despite the heartfelt send-offs delivered by fans and celebrity guests including Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston, and Pink, she was not going out on top.
A turning point came in 2020, when BuzzFeed News reported of workplace misconduct on the show’s set, which prompted an investigation and the firing of three high-ranking producers. Not long afterward, the ratings for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” also known as “Ellen,” cratered. The show lost more than a million viewers for the 2020-2021 season, a 44 percent decline.
Ms. DeGeneres apologized to her staff and her viewers, but the show remained well behind onetime competitors like “Dr. Phil,” “Live With Kelly and Ryan” and “The View.” It seemed her fans had a tough time puzzling out the discrepancy between her sunny stage persona and the realities of the workplace she oversaw.
In her just-concluded final season, she settled into a place atop the second tier of daytime talk, with a gap of about 100,000 viewers between her program and “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” and a greater lead over also-rans like “Maury ” and “Rachael Ray.” In the final weeks of “Ellen,” some guests hinted at the difficulties of the last two years and implored the host to appreciate her contribution. Julia Louis-Dreyfus said she hoped Ms. DeGeneres understood “what a great thing it is that you’ve done with this show.”
“Really,” Ms. Louis-Dreyfus added. “Honestly.”
The comedian Howie Mandel continued the pep talk on the next episode: “I want nothing for you but the happiness that you have spread to everyone else — I want you to just bask in that. I want you to be happy. And I hope you’re happy.”
Ms. DeGeneres’s closest supporters blamed the ratings slide on Covid-19, which necessitated the taping of shows with no studio audience, rather than attributing it to the reports on the “Ellen” workplace, which included staff members’ complaints that they had faced “racism, fear and intimidation,” as well as sexual harassment from top producers.
“It was a pandemic problem,” said Mike Darnell, the president of Warner Bros.’ unscripted division, which oversaw the show. “I think for a comedian — which, there’s very few in daytime — not having an audience makes an enormous difference.”
Ms. DeGeneres, born in Metairie, La., started out in a New Orleans comedy club, making a name for herself with observational material that sometimes veered into the absurd. An early routine, “Phone Call to God,” was inspired by the death of her girlfriend in a car crash. When she came up with it, she could see herself doing it on “The Tonight Show,” then the ultimate venue for stand-up comics.
She was shortly into her career in 1984, when the cable network Showtime declared her the “Funniest Person in America.” Two years later, she was performing “Phone Call to God” on “The Tonight Show.” Johnny Carson called on her to sit beside him, a gesture he reserved for comedians whom he held in high esteem. She was the first female comic to be summoned by the longtime king of late night during a debut appearance.
“Carson didn’t have many female comedians on the show,” said Wayne Federman, a stand-up comic and author of “The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle.” “It was extra hard to get on as a female comedian. And sure enough, Ellen, the charming, disarming comedian that she was, did the show. And getting called over to the couch was remarkable. Carson was smitten.”
In 1994 she was starring in the sitcom “These Friends of Mine,” which ABC retitled “Ellen” after one season. It lasted more than 100 episodes — the benchmark for a network success — and made television history when Ms. DeGeneres, as well as the character Ellen, came out of the closet in 1997.
She appeared on the cover of Time and sat for an “Oprah” interview, but the next season was the show’s last. As The New York Times reported at the time, she clashed with ABC executives over the sitcom’s story lines, which her bosses deemed overly focused on gay themes. At one point, the executives demanded that a special content advisory be included as part of the show.
It took another five years before Jim Paratore, an executive at Telepictures, a division of Warner Bros., helped engineer her comeback. Executives at local TV affiliates were resistant to the idea of an out gay person hosting a daytime talk show, fearing a backlash. And when “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” premiered in 2003, executives at Warner Bros. were talking up another daytime property they had in the works, “The Sharon Osbourne Show,” in the belief that it had the better chance of catching on.
“Sharon Osbourne was flying high at that point, and Ellen was coming out of a cancellation, and people didn’t want her to talk about being gay,” David Decker, an executive vice president at Warner Bros., said. “She wasn’t launched with a lot of tailwind — she was launched with a lot of headwind.”
Little by little she proved her doubters wrong. Mr. Federman, the stand-up comic and historian, attributed her success to her unusual approach.
“She always thought it was the job of the comedian to set the pace of the room — that she wasn’t going to let the audience dictate how hard she was going to have to tell the jokes or how fast she was going to have to do her routine,” he said. “She felt if she was in control, the audience would come to her — and that is exactly what happened.
“Most comedians, if you don’t get the laughs, you speed up,” he continued. “She was always the one who slowed it down. Ellen had an uncommon confidence in her comedic rhythm. She was like, ‘I’m going to do this comedy at a very casual rate that people will easily fall into this.’ That was perfect for daytime television.”
After a few years, the identity of “Ellen” was firmly in place. The host lavished her audience members, and people in need, with cash and prizes. She danced with fans and celebrity guests, reveling in the awkwardness — just be yourself, she said. As the internet gained traction, she invited early viral stars to her show, elevating them to wider fame.
She came to embody a cultural moment — a time when Mr. Obama was president, gay marriage was newly legal and social media was regarded as a benevolent force. The feel-good vibe of “Ellen” fit in with a prevailing mood, and the show won dozens of Emmys. Ms. DeGeneres hit a peak in 2016, when Mr. Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. During the White House ceremony, he credited her with pushing “our country in the direction of justice,” saying she had pulled it off “one joke, one dance, at a time.”
About a decade ago, moving beyond the jokes and dancing, Ms. DeGeneres adopted “Be Kind” as a motto, and it soon morphed into its own endeavor. Today, a yearly subscription to “Be Kind” costs $219.96. Those who sign up receive a box every four months containing items selected by Ms. DeGeneres. (The summer collection includes sunglasses, a planner and a bracelet.)
For Ms. DeGeneres, the Be Kind persona came in handy. When she was twice selected to host the Oscars (in 2007 and 2014), it was to clean up the messes left behind by performers whose performances were perceived as too biting or caustic — Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Seth MacFarlane.
Later, with Donald J. Trump dominating the news from his White House pulpit and the onetime tech darlings Facebook and Twitter becoming battlegrounds for heated cultural debates, Ms. DeGeneres’s lighthearted approach started falling out of favor. Even the viral sensations who once got a boost from her show didn’t need her anymore — TikTok was more than enough. Then came the workplace scandal, which seemed to undercut the “Be Kind” message.
“Being known as the Be Kind Lady is a tricky position to be in,” she told viewers in the wake of the reports. “So let me give you some advice. If anyone is thinking of changing their title or giving yourself a nickname, do not go with the Be Kind Lady.”
Daytime talk remains arguably the hardest TV genre to crack. Since Ms. DeGeneres entered the fray, the list of reality stars, news anchors and actors who have given it a go includes Queen Latifah, Jane Pauley, Kris Jenner, Bethenny Frankel, Bonnie Hunt, Tony Danza, RuPaul, Jeff Probst, Anderson Cooper and Ms. Osbourne. All came and went in a flash.
The high price of daily television adds to the challenge. “The economics to produce north of 150 hours of television a year, with 34 weeks of originals and 170 episodes a year, is really expensive,” Mr. Decker, the executive, said. A new show may cost $20 million to $30 million to launch, he added. Further costs must go to hundreds of employees, sound stages (“Ellen” occupied three of them on the Warner Bros. lot) and flying in celebrity guests.
“You need a big rating to even cover your costs year over year,” Mr. Decker said. “It’s a very challenging economic model, and to lay that out over two decades of real secular change in our industry? It’s unbelievable, to keep a show going that long.”
Ms. DeGeneres has said she plans to take some time off, but whatever comes next, the talk show will be the centerpiece of her legacy.
“There will be other things, other great things, but there will never be a time like this,” Ms. Winfrey told Ms. DeGeneres on the third-to-last episode of “Ellen.” “Know that these are the glory days.”