How Ellen Degeneres Goes Viral and Why Her Show Is So Strange
In lieu of something more productive to do, I found myself flipping through the channels on my afternoon off and stumbled across a few episodes of The Ellen Show. The American daytime talk-show trend had mostly flown past us Brits. We knew of Oprah but had little exposure to her iconic show beyond brief repeats on seldom viewed satellite channels. Drs Phil and Oz were complete unknowns, and you could only see Wendy Williams if your TV package had BET. For most of us, the daytime trend of our transatlantic pals began and ended with Jerry Springer, and even then, that ended once we got our own deplorable duplicate with Jeremy Kyle. That Ellen Degeneres’s show was available in the UK, and on a channel everyone I knew had, was a surprise to me, but it made sense. Why wouldn’t the reigning queen of the format have international appeal, especially in this age where the most coveted American shows can be watched within hours of broadcast, and completely legally too?
So I watched the show, having never seen a full episode of it before. I expected many things, but what surprised me most about the experience was how utterly baffling I found it.
The Ellen Degeneres Show is a strange series. It’s a showcase of ceaseless joy but that performativity feels tired and forced. Degeneres herself often seems bored with what she’s doing, and in some interviews, she could barely hide her fatigue with the entire affair. In moments, she even got kind of mean with her guests. The audiences ate it up with desperate fervour, dancing and screaming and having the time of their lives. They guffawed at every joke, regardless of how bad it was, and the silliest of party games - the kinds that would make even Jimmy Fallon second-guess his format - played to the crowds like a sold-out stadium tour with Billy Connolly. For my part, I smiled maybe a couple of times. I didn’t laugh, and mostly I felt confused. This is the wildly popular talk-show that inherited the crown of Oprah? Wasn’t Ellen a lot cheerier than this? Is this all a laugh-or-die situation?
I don’t say any of this to be mean. If you love The Ellen Show then more power to you. We love what makes us happy, and for what it’s worth, the appeal of Ellen and her team’s antics felt instantly understandable to me. I’ve seen fragments of her show scattered across Twitter and Facebook, with huge shared numbers to back them up. Her most viral-friendly videos or tweets frequently make their way to my Facebook wall, through shares from distant relatives and friends who I have the barest recollections of. Ellen’s Twitter account shared a badly made gif of herself laughing, and it got over 4.1k likes. There’s over 3.5m views on a Facebook video of her playing a game with Kevin Hart. A direct rip-off of the Dog Rates Twitter account landed her 15k likes. Make no mistake, as unusually off-putting as I find her show, this is a woman who knows exactly what she’s doing.
We talk so frequently about the world of late-night, its continuing cultural capital, and how the need for viral content has driven the way it’s made for the past several years. Daytime talk-shows are seldom part of that conversation. Perhaps it’s because that’s a woman-driven world, or maybe it’s just seen as less ‘serious’ than its night-time counterparts. Yet it feels necessary to talk about Degeneres in the same breath as Fallon, Colbert and company, because she’s doing the viral work they’re scrambling to achieve, and she’s managed it with a ruthless efficiency that’s only strengthened her brand. Jimmy Fallon could never.
The humour of The Ellen Degeneres Show, and the image pushed forward by its host, is one that can best be described by that most awful of words - ‘nice’. The jokes are pleasant, totally inoffensive, the kind of stuff your great-aunt would e-mail to everyone about three weeks after she initially saw it. A hastily done photoshop in which Ellen is inserted into the promotional shot of a movie or sitting on Barack Obama’s lap isn’t particularly ground-breaking, nor does the joke often make sense, but it elicits enough soft chuckles that people will take a few seconds to like or share. A selfie with the guest of the day can do wonders for your social media numbers, and getting that person to do a silly game elevates them even further. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before but it’s also something that, star power aside, can be replicated by anyone. Therein lies the genius.
How do you make yourself universally relatable and appealing? You embody the BFF mould in every level, regardless of how corny it is. Remember: Corny sells, and daytime talk shows are the best platform possible for that. Nobody expects you to get hugely political - Ellen has gotten into politics on her show but never in a confrontational manner - or monologue every day about the latest tragedies or social upheavals. If you can pull that off, then go for it, but Oprah set a high bar there and few expect her descendants to attempt that leap. At that time of day, you want something that’s predictable and comforting, and that feeling can be copied easily on any social media platform.
There’s a seeming spontaneity to the Ellen viral strategy that helps it stand out amid the competition, and that’s necessary in an online world where 15 minutes of fame has quickly become 15 seconds. The most asinine things can become the hottest trend on the internet as fast as it can become yesterday’s news. Ellen’s team latch onto those moments with such efficiency that it seems as natural a part of the cycle as the backlash. What she adds to that is overwhelming generosity. We all rolled our eyes when she gave the people behind that oddly confusing black and blue dress a $10k cheque, but it completely fit with her strategy. The internet is a nasty place, and Ellen’s viral moments work to make it nice again.
Given that niceness is the driving motive of The Ellen Degeneres Show, it remains curious to me how the show itself is frequently so cold and off-putting. It’s exhausting to be terminally delightful, and Ellen has no qualms with displaying that. Sometimes, she looks tired or merely bored with the entire concept of her show, from the expected screams of the audience to the pre-prepared interviews. This is a formula that hasn’t changed much in the 15 years she’s been doing it. Aside from the additions of viral content, the show almost feels like a throwback to the early 2000s. The problem with success is that your fans, more often than not, prefer to see you stick to the stuff they know than head off the well-trodden path.
For Degeneres, playing it safe is as much a move based on experience than one of pure branding. She remains arguably the most visible and powerful gay woman in America, and she got there through sheer hard graft following an extended period in entertainment exile. The backlash to her coming out on her self-titled sitcom and real life made her almost radical, even though her show and stand-up humour remained cute and observational. 42m viewers tuned in to see history made, and that paved a trail it would take a few more years for others to walk on. Jerry Falwell called her ‘Ellen Degenerate’, the American Family Association pressured advertisers to drop out of ABC airtime, and an affiliate in Alabama dropped the coming-out episode altogether. Laura Dern, who guest-starred on the episode, said she didn’t work for a whole year and a half following its airing. Once the show was cancelled, it took Ellen years before she could return to TV with any success, and she’s talked frequently about these dark times. No wonder she plays it safe. I’d hazard a guess that even some of her ardent viewers, those whose voting records on LGBTQ+ issues are rocky at least, are still afraid that one day she’ll shave her head, start wearing dungarees and do live-readings of the SCUM Manifesto.
And so Ellen and her show will continue with the tried-and-true formula that’s cemented her place as one of the true titans of TV. Her YouTube channel has expanded with shows from Kristen Bell and more focus on her staff, her social media numbers continue to grow, and people are liking what they see, or at least way more than I do. The show as a whole may be growing old, but the sum of its parts remains urgent and ready to go viral. There are worse things to be than nice.
(Header photograph from Getty Images)