Friday, October 19, 2007

“Ellen” Should Never Have A Bad Day

Ellen DeGeneres has cancelled tapings of her popular daytime talk show, taking a few days off to recuperate from a “tough week.” Too bad she didn’t make that decision earlier and spare us all the embarrassment of “Iggy Gate.”

We’ve got staph infections gone wild, Russia looks to be throwing its muscle behind Iran, and killer tornadoes are sweeping across the country. And still the top story on most newscasts was the tale of DeGeneres’ dog adoption gone bad.

What made her think we should care?

Talk show hosts are a unique breed of celebrity, the majority of them moderately successful entertainers—stand-up comedians, B-list actors—who gain greater notice largely from interviewing other, more famous people. Quick, what was Regis Philbin doing before he became “Reege”?

We invite these people into our homes and all we ask in return is that they make us laugh (or, in the case of Oprah, change our lives) and book interesting guests. Depending on the host’s lack of reserve (think Kelly Ripa vs. John Stewart), we usually learn something about their private lives, typically via amusing anecdotes that exaggerate certain characteristics of the persona they’ve created. Oh that wacky David Letterman, caught speeding again.

Once given the cold shoulder by Hollywood and the general public after coming out as a lesbian, DeGeneres recast herself as the friendly girl-next-door. Her show, which debuted in 2003, was largely credited for putting the fun back in daytime TV. Her innocuous slice-of-life, seemingly off-the-cuff monologues provided a goofy contrast to the irony and political humor that typify late-night chat fests. She coaxed normally staid celebrities into playing ping pong or participating in silly sketches. Good lord, she made Nicole Kidman laugh.

And then came the serious miscalculation known as Iggy Gate. DeGeneres walked out onto the soundstage and in lieu of her usual monologue had a breakdown over a puppy. If ever there were a day to cancel a taping, this should have been it.

Some found the episode humanizing. I found it diminishing. And unwatchable, which, last I checked, is the opposite of the purpose of television.

There’s a growing trend in our culture to cut celebrities down to size. Magazines like People or In Touch work hard to catch the rich and famous in everyday situations, and devote pages of coverage to photos of “look, Julia Roberts goes to Home Depot, just like us.” But Ellen wasn’t off the clock. She came to work and turned her job into a platform for her personal woes. Ellen might have a bad day, “Ellen” shouldn’t.


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