Ellen vs. Johnny: Day and Night? Maybe Not…

So it appears Memorial Day weekend is a delineation point for talk show history again.  Just like Johnny Carson did when he stepped down from the TONIGHT SHOW thirty years ago today, yesterday Ellen DeGeneres ended her 19-year run as a daytime talk show host, bringing back first show guest Jennifer Aniston, appearing emotional when discussing her struggles in getting stations to buy a show featuring an out lesbian lead and paying homage to her executive producers–or at least the ones who weren’t collateral damage after a scathing 2020 Hollywood Reporter article, prompted by on-air accusations by Dakota Johnson, revealed a significantly toxic work environment with dozens of accusations from former staffers.

Ellen survived an internal investigation and continued her show, but her status as queen of daytime was irrevocably tarnished.  Her ratings dropped by more than -40% in the wake of these revelations (although the impact of shifting daytime viewing trends amidst COVID-19 lockdown perhaps contributed to this decline).  Her prime time ELLEN GAME OF GAMES spin-off was cancelled as well.  Indeed, while many of her remaining fans were emotional about her choosing not to have a nice round 20 seasons (for the record, OPRAH had 25, akin to Johnny’s 30), she arguably had overstayed her welcome.  This year, her show has hovered around 1 million total viewers and less than a 1 rating among adults 18-49. By contrast, the final episode of THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON reached more than 55 million viewers,  Yes, the era, the daypart and the competitive landscape are factors, but a fifty-fold gap in viewership should put in perspective the degree of difference between these departures.

However, Ellen’s legacy beyond mere audience can’t be diminished.  As an early embracer of online video via her Ellentube account, DeGeneres had more digital downloads of her interviews and OTFs than any other personality.  Her content has regularly ranked number one in social media interactions, not withstanding her ratings struggles.  As a champion of LGBTQ rights and representation, she has given a voice and a means of support to millions who have seen her success and honesty as a role model.  When she uttered the two words “I’m gay” on her eponymous ABC comedy 25 years ago, it was national news.  As she recounted during her final monologue, when her daytime show launched in 2002 she couldn’t say that word in her new daypart.   She took particular pride in championing Pride and used her platform to promote acceptance and tolerance.

And, as we’ve learned through the hindsight of tell-all books, especially ones released after his 2005 death, Johnny Carson was not without his flaws.  In a 2013 book authored by Carson’s one-time lawyer, Henry “Bombastic” Bushkin, Johnny was described as moody, frequently battling with alcohol and infidelity and often those personal struggles were taken out on his staff.   Rumors persisted that Carson had sexually harassed female members of his staff, as well as some of his guests.  Bushkin described him as a “great talk show host, cold human being”.  Sound familiar?

Yet when Johnny exited the stage for the final time, bidding his audience a “good evening”, with only a couple of exceptions he never graced a TV screen again in his lifetime.  Ellen already is in production on a second Netflix stand-up special and all but telegraphed that her career will continue, advising her audience that “it’s ok to see other talk show hosts, and I’ll probably see a few other audiences” in her trademark snarky style.  And reruns of her show will continue through September, so if you’re among the millions (like me) who hadn’t seen her recently until yesterday, you’ll have a few more weeks to do so.  And, of course, Ellentube will continue, where much of that material will reside in perpetuity.

Living and working around so many people with one or two degrees of separation between all of the people who outed Ellen as a professional tyrant in far harsher terms than she outed her sexuality, it’s difficult to be as emotional about her TV departure as some of her more emotional fans are.  But even back when Carson’s show was in production, it wasn’t hard to find people associated with his production having similar thoughts.  Carson may have only been perceived as a saint because the media at the time protected him and his lawyers (including Bushkin) really good at keeping accusers quiet.  The list of other celebrities who have been uncovered as deeply flawed people, particularly in the TMZ era (ironically, a show that was also distributed by Warner Brothers during the latter part of Ellen’s run), is quite long.

So as Ellen signs off this Memorial Day weekend, it’s much less of a story than when Johnny did in ”92.  But the impressive legacy Ellen leaves is no less significant, bearing in mind the totality of her reach and the differences of the decades.    Both owned their respective eras and dayparts, and both should be honored for what they brought to their viewers in decades of interviews, sketches and monologues.  Neither one was without their character flaws.  But try and find someone who doesn’t have them.   Go ahead.  It’s a long weekend.

Until next time…


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