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U.S. comedian Ellen DeGeneres during the 62nd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Jan. 26, 2020.ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

“How was everybody’s summer? Mine was great. Super terrific,” Ellen DeGeneres said the other day, opening her first new show in months. Her words were delivered in an awkward manner, in an attempted ironic tone padded by sheesh-who-knew kind of self-deprecation. It wasn’t funny at all.

Among the more unordinary events of this past, soul-destroying summer was the sudden appearance of controversy surrounding the The Ellen DeGeneres Show and its host, DeGeneres.

In mid-July, BuzzFeed News published a report in which current and former Ellen employees said they were mistreated. The allegations ranged from sexual harassment to racist jokes. Mainly, it was senior producers on the show who were said to have created a toxic workplace. DeGeneres herself was not the focus. That changed.

Ellen DeGeneres addresses toxic workplace allegations, issues on-air apology

Even before the BuzzFeed story, some showbiz figures, far more powerful and better known than Ellen staff, were suggesting on social media that the DeGeneres on-air mantra to viewers, “be kind,” was phony-baloney. In March, as the pandemic started, comedian Kevin T. Porter wrote on Twitter, “Right now we all need a little kindness. You know, like Ellen Degeneres always talks about. She’s also notoriously one of the meanest people alive.”

By the time the BuzzFeed story was being followed by an investigation into the Ellen workplace, carried out by WarnerMedia, a small army of actors and celebrities who had appeared on the show were confirming that they’d witnessed weirdness that made them uncomfortable. Among other stories was the suggestion that staff weren’t allowed to make eye contact with DeGeneres. By late August, a number of producers on the show, accused of misconduct, were let go. The host then made a personal Zoom-call apology to staff.

There was a time when the accusations against DeGeneres would have been framed as an outrageous attack on a gay woman. The talk show host would have been vigorously defended. Righteous indignation would flow forth. Not now. Among other pandemic-era phenomena is less tolerance for rich, white privileged people laughing off accusations of insensitive behaviour.

Now, the demand for clearer rules and a more accountable process is both fervid and sacrosanct. In fact, it’s fair to speculate that the pandemic was the undoing of DeGeneres. Unable to tape her show from the usual studio, the host continued production at her home, an antiseptic Hollywood mansion. For this she hired a non-union crew.

As early as April, Variety reported that members of the prepandemic Ellen production team “received no written communication about the status of their working hours, pay, or inquiries about their mental and physical health from producers for over a month.” Exactly. It is particularly cruel to put low-paid staff in that position during an already worrying pandemic. From there, one can imagine, the anger seethed.

Television does strange things to people. The fame, money and recognition can turn usually sensible people into egomaniacs. It’s a reality you become familiar with, if you cover TV and you sometimes encounter people who are powerful or famous in the industry. Rudeness is one of the perks. Sometimes this extends to a sense of infallibility, a remoteness from ordinary life that turns even mildly famous people into extreme narcissists.

The #MeToo movement has already exposed the extraordinary depths of toxic behaviour at Fox News, NBC, CBS and other TV outlets. The accusations made against some senior Ellen staff mirrored much that’s already been exposed in the TV industry. In this case, though, there’s a wider net being cast – rank hypocrisy and phony-baloney public personae are castigated.

The monologue DeGeneres delivered on her first new show the other day reeked of formidable phoniness. “I learned that things happened here that never should’ve happened,” she said. Which sounded like a carefully constructed dodging of personal responsibility.

In that curious, half-joking manner she also said, “I’ve let myself down and I’ve hurt myself as well.” Hurt? It seems more likely that ratings and advertising sponsorship would be hurt, and that was her real point. Then it was all about “starting a new chapter.”

As one former employee told BuzzFeed, “Not only did Ellen turn my trauma, turn our trauma, into a joke, she somehow managed to make this about her.” Among other reckonings that are unfolding, there’s one devoted to phony-baloney apologies. About time, too.

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