Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show returns for its 19th and final season following a year of controversy that called the host’s workplace conduct and general demeanor into question.
The show is hoping to put all that behind in the final season as it seeks to do a bit of a victory lap that highlights the show’s past with an all-star roundup of guests and fan-favorite highlights.
“This is going to be a ‘thank you’ to everybody, because the show doesn’t happen without the support of fans,” DeGeneres said during a production break on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” which returns Monday.
Also to be spotlighted: The show’s philanthropy, which included far more than product giveaways.
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“We’re going to check in with people that we’ve helped through the years (and) people that have paid it forward,” DeGeneres said. That includes a Las Vegas educator who opened her own wallet for students in need and whose school was rewarded by the show with a new library and other resources.
“I want people just to really remember what the show has been,” the host said. “It’s been a happy place and it continues to be a happy place. And I hate that it would be remembered in any other way.”
That DeGeneres voices such concern over the legacy of her greatest career success to date should be surprising for the host-comedian whose motto is “be kind.” But it’s inevitable given allegations last year that the show was a toxic workplace.
Ahead of the daytime talk show host’s final bow, it may be worth taking a look back at the scandal that rocked the show ahead of the comedian’s decision to end things:
Fox News’ published an interview with a former bodyguard, who documented his unsavory experience with the host. It was one of the first public signs that DeGeneres’ on-screen demeanor and generally friendly nature may not have lived up to her off-screen persona.
Toxic workplace culture
Things turned up to eleven in July of 2020 when Buzzfeed News came out with a report in which former and current staff members blew the whistle on an allegedly toxic work environment stemming from three producers who they claim created an environment based on bullying and fear of losing their job.
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“A current employee told BuzzFeed News that on May 1, the same day the story about the former bodyguard was published, executive producers took the rare move of holding an all-staff meeting over Zoom to address the negative stories and low morale,” the report said.
Ten additional former employees of the long-running show spoke out anonymously to the outlet with additional nightmarish claims about what it’s like working for DeGeneres and top producers.
The ex-employees shared harrowing details of their day-to-day experiences working at “Ellen,” which included claims of racist remarks and directives from producers to not speak to DeGeneres should she be roaming the office off-air.
Days after the Buzzfeed report came out, the public interest in Ellen’s workplace and personal demeanor led to an internal investigation.
Variety reported at the time that “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” was under investigation by parent company WarnerMedia. A memo was sent to the show’s staffers announcing that a team had been assembled alongside a third-party organization to interview current and former employees about what was happening behind the scenes of the show.
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Things also took a turn when Buzzfeed News published another bombshell report alleging that producer Kevin Leman was guilty of alleged sexual misconduct. Ex-staffers claimed he solicited oral sex at a company party in 2013, while another ex-staffer claimed to have seen the exec grab a production assistant’s penis on a different occasion. Another staff member claimed they saw Leman grope a production assistant and kiss his neck in a car.
Nearly a dozen employees also stated that it was not unusual for Leman to make crude and sexual jokes in the office.
Leman denied the allegations.
Warner Bros. offered a statement to Fox News at the time, explaining that they “take the recent allegations around the show’s workplace culture very seriously.”
The statement explained that in order to “determine the validity and extent of publicly reported allegations and to understand the full breadth of the show’s day-to-day culture,” many current and former employees were interviewed.
DeGeneres addressed the scandal for the first time in a letter to staff members that was obtained by The Hollywood Reporter. In it, she addressed the ongoing scandal and apologized to her staff and committed to doing better.
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“On day one of our show, I told everyone in our first meeting that ‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show’ would be a place of happiness – no one would ever raise their voice, and everyone would be treated with respect,” she began. “Obviously, something changed, and I am disappointed to learn that this has not been the case. And for that, I am sorry. Anyone who knows me knows it’s the opposite of what I believe and what I hoped for our show.”
DeGeneres continued, explaining that as the show has “grown exponentially,” she has had to turn to others to self-manage, which some employees did not do.
“That will now change and I’m committed to ensuring this does not happen again,” she stated.
The hammer falls
A spokesperson for Warner Bros. confirmed to Fox News in August of 2020 that executive producers Ed Glavin and Kevin Leman and co-executive producer Jonathan Norman had been let go from the show following the investigation.
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Staff learned of the situation by way of a virtual meeting that DeGeneres herself hosted.
At the time, DeGeneres issued a second apology to her staff in the video call that expanded on her letter. In it, she noted that she is not a perfect person.
The Emmy-winner added, “I’m hearing that some people felt that I wasn’t kind or too short with them, or too impatient. I apologize to anybody if I’ve hurt your feelings in any way.”
The penultimate season opens strong
After handling the situation internally for so long it was finally time for DeGeneres to address the situation with her fans. In the opening of Season 18, which would end up being the show’s second to last,” DeGeneres dove in headfirst.
“As you may have heard, this summer there were allegations of a toxic work environment at our show and then there was an investigation. I learned that things happened here that never should have happened,” she began.
DeGeneres continued: “I take that very seriously and I want to say I am so sorry to the people who were affected. I know that I’m in a position of privilege and power and I realized that with that comes responsibility, and I take responsibility for what happens at my show.”
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“This is ‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show.’ I am Ellen DeGeneres. My name is there, my name is there, my name is on underwear,” the host joked. “We have had a lot of conversations over the last few weeks about the show, our workplace and what we want for the future. We have made the necessary changes and today we are starting a new chapter.”
DeGeneres then addressed accusations that she is much different on-air than in person despite her pledge to “be kind.”
“There were also articles in the press and on social media that said that I am not who I appeared to be on TV, because I became known as the ‘be kind’ lady. And here’s how that happened: I started saying, ‘be kind to one another’ after a young man named Tyler Clementi took his own life after being bullied for being gay,” DeGeneres said.
She added: “I thought the world needed more kindness and it was a reminder that we all needed that, and I think we need it more than ever right now.”
“Being known as the ‘be kind’ lady is a tricky position to be in. So let me give you some advice out there if anybody’s thinking of changing their title or giving yourself a nickname, do not go with the ‘be kind’ lady. Don’t do it,” DeGeneres jokingly added.
She took on a more serious tone as she said, “The truth is I am that person that you see on TV. I am that person that you see on TV. I am also a lot of other things. Sometimes I get sad, I get mad, I get anxious, I get frustrated, I get impatient. I am working on all of that. I am a work in progress. I’m especially working on the impatience thing, and it’s not going well because it’s not happening fast enough, I’ll tell you that.”
After bleeding viewers as a result of the scandal, Ellen announced that she had decided to end her talk show after Season 19.
“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,” she told The Hollywood Reporter at the time.
She later announced the news to her fans on her show. However, she saved the juiciest revealed for a sit-down interview with “Today” co-host Savannah Guthrie. The interview proved to be a bit of a setback for the star, who seemed to place the blame on critics rather than herself, as she’d claimed to in her various apologies.
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“I have to say, if nobody else is saying it, it was really interesting because I’m a woman, and it did feel very misogynistic,” DeGeneres claimed at the time.
When anchor Guthrie asked if the Emmy-winner felt “canceled,” she responded, “I mean, I really don’t understand it. I still don’t understand it. It was too orchestrated. It was too coordinated.”
DeGeneres said she felt confused and hurt above all.
“For me to read in the press about a toxic work environment when all I’ve ever heard from every guest that comes on the show is what a happy atmosphere this is and what a happy place is,” she said.
DeGeneres noted that there are 255 employees that make up her show so she doesn’t know “how I could have known” the alleged behavior was going on.
“There are a lot of different buildings. Unless I literally stayed here until the last person goes home at night, it is my name on the show so clearly it affects me and I might have to be the one to stand up and say, ‘This can’t be tolerated.’ But I do wish someone came up to me and said, ‘Hey, this is something you should know about.”
“No, I do not have thick skin. I’m extremely sensitive to the point that this is not healthy how sensitive I am. When something is coming back at me that I know is not true, I guess I could take one or two of those shots but four months in a row took a toll on me,” DeGeneres admitted.
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Regardless of the controversy, DeGeneres is bowing out of TV, claiming that ending after Season 19 was the plan all along and that the controversy had nothing to do with it.
“I think 19 is a great number. One is the beginning and nine is the ending,” she said, employing the sort of whimsical line she tosses off easily.
The Associated Press and Fox News’ Nate Day and Melissa Roberto contributed to this report.