Ellen DeGeneres Talks Toxic Workplace Allegations: All the Times She's Directly Addressed Controversy

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Ellen DeGeneres returned to work on her eponymous daytime talk show on Monday, following allegations from former staffers about a "toxic" workplace environment, sexual harassment claims against high-ranking producers and an internal investigation by Warner Bros. Television -- all amid the coronavirus pandemic shutdown.

DeGeneres addressed fans and viewers in a candid statement at the top of the show, kicking off season 18 of The Ellen DeGeneres Show with a public apology and admitting that the allegations were especially difficult to weather, given her reputation as a proponent of kindness and inclusivity.

"Being known as the 'be kind lady' is a tricky position to be in," she noted, joking, "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."

"The truth is, I am that person that you see on TV. I am also a lot of other things," DeGeneres admitted. "Sometimes I get sad, I get mad, I get anxious, I get frustrated, I get impatient, and I am working on all of that," she added. "I am a work in progress. I am especially working on the impatience thing. It's not going well because it's not happening fast enough. I will tell you that."

However, the comedian, actress and producer noted that she ultimately got into the entertainment business "to make people laugh and feel good."

"That's my favorite thing to do," she said. "And now I am the boss of 270 people. 270 people who help make this show what it is. 270 people who I am so grateful for. All I want is for every single one of them to be happy and to be proud to work here."

"My hope is that we can still be a place of happiness and joy. I still want to be the one hour a day that people can go to escape and laugh. I want to continue to help all of the people that we help every day. And I'm committed to making this the best season that we have ever had."

This isn't the first time DeGeneres has had to publicly address controversy. Over the years, she has faced criticism over her groundbreaking primetime sitcom, her treatment of various guests on her daytime show, her friendships with controversial comedians and conservative politicians and plenty more. Read on to learn more about how she's weathered controversy in the past.

 

Her First Cancellation

DeGeneres became a household name -- and a groundbreaking television figure -- on her 1990s sitcom, Ellen, in which her character became one of the first American primetime characters to come out as gay. However, the season after her lauded coming-out episode, Ellen was canceled by ABC. 

At the time, DeGeneres expressed her opinion that the network was uncomfortable with her character being openly lesbian -- noting that certain episodes that featured same-sex kisses or storylines received parental advisory warnings at the top of the show.

"It just felt so degrading," she told Diane Sawyer in a PrimeTime Live interview following the show's cancellation. "Again, just a warning to be, you know—it’s my life. It’s how I live my life. I love someone, and because of who I choose to love, I get a warning label."

"I would've appreciated the honesty of [ABC] saying, this is something, honestly, we can't handle," DeGeneres added. "You can't come out and then go back into the closet and not show anybody anything."

Though then-ABC president Robert Iger disputed DeGeneres' claim that the show was canceled for being "too gay," the comedian said she was unwilling to change her content to appease the network -- and she felt the push back ultimately doomed her show.

"It doesn’t make any difference to me if I would have stayed on, you know, two more years or 10 more years," she said. "If I would have been not following my heart and what I think is necessary and what is going to make a huge difference in people’s lives. That’s more important to me than anything right now. I grew up wanting to be famous. I grew up wanting to be somebody. And then I, all of a sudden, found out that I wanted to be somebody happy, and that was more important than just being somebody."

 

'Not as Nice as You Think'

After an ill-fated second sitcom attempt, DeGeneres found major success in daytime -- her long-running eponymous talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, has been on the air since September 2003 and won a total of 61 Daytime Emmys. However, a December 2018 New York Times profile, titled "Ellen DeGeneres Is Not as Nice as You Think," detailed the disparities between the comedian's real life and on-air persona, while also exploring her internal struggle about when to step away from her daytime show.

The timing of the article coincided with DeGeneres' new Netflix standup special, Relatable, in which she showed a different side of herself: "In sharp contrast to her public image as everyone’s good friend, happy to listen, she presents herself — with tongue in cheek — as cartoonishly aloof and indifferent, stuck in a privileged bubble, cracking several jokes, for instance, about her fabulous wealth," Jason Zinoman wrote.

However, the interviewer did ask the host point blank about the long-gestating rumors of unhappiness behind the scenes of her daytime show. “That bugs me if someone is saying that because it’s an outright lie,” DeGeneres said. “The first day I said: ‘The one thing I want is everyone here to be happy and proud of where they work, and if not, don’t work here.’ No one is going to raise their voice or not be grateful. That’s the rule to this day.”

 

Hart to Hart

DeGeneres' show's branding as a feel-good environment has landed her in hot water a few times in recent years. After Kevin Hart stepped down as the host of the Oscars in 2019, following backlash over resurfaced homophobic statements, DeGeneres invited him on her show to offer a mea culpa of sorts, which led to a new wave of backlash -- from members of the LGBT community who felt she was giving him a pass on his hateful comments.

"You have grown, you have apologized, you are apologizing again right now. You've done it. Don't let those people win — host the Oscars," DeGeneres told Hart on the show, later backing up her comments on Twitter

"However you feel about this, the only positive way through it is to talk about it," she wrote. "Thank you for being here, @kevinhart4real."

 

Famous Friends 

DeGeneres came under fire later in 2019 for appearing to pal around with former President George W. Bush when the pair sat together at a Dallas Cowboys game, which they both attended as guests of owner Jerry Jones' daughter, Charlotte Jones-Anderson. She addressed the online ire on her show the following week. 

"People were upset," the host noted. "They thought, why is a gay Hollywood liberal sitting next to a conservative Republican president? A lot of people were mad. And they did what people do when they're mad... they tweet."

Instead of sharing the negative tweets aimed at her, DeGeneres pointed out a complimentary one, which said, "Ellen and George Bush together makes me have faith in America again."

"Exactly. Here's the thing. I'm friends with George Bush," she told her audience. "In fact, I'm friends with a lot of people who don't share the same beliefs that I have."

"But just because I don't agree with someone on everything doesn't mean that I'm not going to be friends with them. When I say, 'be kind to one another,' I don't only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone."

 

Recent Troubles

Following Buzzfeed News reports that alleged a "toxic" atmosphere at her eponymous daytime show, DeGeneres issued an apology to her staff in an internal letter obtained by ET, affirming that she was committed to "having conversations about fairness and justice." 

"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," DeGeneres wrote in her letter. "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."

"I could not have the success I’ve had without all of your contributions. My name is on the show and everything we do and I take responsibility for that... As we’ve grown exponentially, I’ve not been able to stay on top of everything and relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I’d want them done. Clearly some didn’t. That will now change and I’m committed to ensuring this does not happen again."

After further reports that sexual harassment and misconduct "run rampant" at the Ellen DeGeneres Show offices -- and the subsequent departures of executive producers Ed Glavin and Kevin Leman and co-executive producer Jonathan Norman -- she issued another apology to show staff as they returned to work on Aug. 17.

DeGeneres made a surprise appearance during a virtual conference call, issuing an address that a source told ET was "very real, unscripted, raw and honest. Her words were very heartfelt."

ET learned the comedian and host expressed that she had thought her show was a well-oiled machine and was running well. However, she said she came to realize that the show is not a machine, and the human beings on her staff didn't feel it was running well.

DeGeneres said she was devastated to learn of some of the allegations and stories that have come out -- including claims that she does not look people in the eye, or that she does not address people. She told the staff that is not who she is, and apologized if anyone ever felt that she did not pay attention to them.

Someone who was part of the Zoom meeting told ET at the time that the mood of show staff seemed positive after hearing DeGeneres' words, adding, "It felt like a nice page turn" and that the staff is "really hopeful and optimistic."

 

First Show Back

In her first show back, on Sept. 21, DeGeneres carried over that optimism, addressing fans in a candid monologue at the top of the show.

"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 shared. "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 realize that with that comes responsibility and I take responsibility for what happens at my show. This is The Ellen DeGeneres Show, I am Ellen DeGeneres."

"This is me. And my intention is to always be the best person I can be. And if I've ever let someone down, if I ever hurt their feelings, I am so sorry for that. If that's ever the case, I have let myself down and I have hurt myself as well, because I always try to grow as a person. I look at everything that comes into my life as an opportunity to learn."

ET learned that the comedian wrote the monologue herself, in which she also acknowledged that summer 2020 had been an especially awful one for lots of people around the world -- noting that she still hopes to be a beacon of optimism and positive energy.

"People are losing their jobs. People are losing loved ones to a pandemic. People are losing their homes and lives in raging fires that are going on. There's blatant racial injustice all around us. I watch the news and I feel like, 'Where do we even begin?'" DeGeneres said. "So my hope is that we can still be a place of happiness and joy. I still want to be the one hour a day that people can go to escape and laugh. I want to continue to help all of the people that we help every day. And I'm committed to making this the best season that we have ever had."

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