Ellen DeGeneres, a Stand-Up Person

By Les Firestein   |   August 13, 2020

In recent weeks, sharks have been circling the waters off the coast of Santa Barbara. It is a scientific fact that certain species of shark must always move forward, constantly feeding, or else they will die. This is true of Mako sharks. It’s true of hammerheads. It is true of Great Whites. My big question is: as the shark that is cancel culture smells blood in the water off Padaro, will it devour its most recent wounded victim? And should we let it?

I made the mistake of clicking on some piece of Ellen gossip the other day, and as a result I’ve become virtually trapped inside an inescapable infinity algorithm that sends me “news” about her every time someone sneezes and Ellen doesn’t scream “gesundheit!” Unlike Google alerts which can be opted out of, once you’re snared inside a news algorithm it’s like Blair Witch with no way out. As the possessed little girl said in The Exorcist, “Mother, make it stop!”

For anyone who’s been out of the country and missed the news, and that’s pretty much no one, in recent months our local treasure and global brand Ellen stands accused of essentially three different charges, which frequently get conflated. (1) She is accused of presiding over a toxic work environment at her titular show. (2) She is accused of disloyalty to gays for showing kindness or at least civility to, alternatively, George W. Bush and Kevin Hart. And (3) in a much more general sense, Ellen stands accused of not being nice enough… or not being always nice.

Unfortunately for Ellen, cancel culture has no due process, so when it comes to accusations of “not nice enough,” I thought I’d weigh in with my own personal experiences with Ellen. And add my voice to the conversation both as a comedy writer who has known Ellen in show business and, more recently, as someone who knows her simply as another person who lives in their track suit in Montecito. 

My history with Ellen goes back 30 years. She started out as my landlord. Ellen and my ex-girlfriend shared a manager, so that’s how we found out Ellen had a place we could rent. While Ellen was doing her sitcom on ABC I was executive producing The Drew Carey Show on the same network so we’d bump into each other from time to time though we never worked together. We’d have some competitive banter as comedy people do but that was about it. In my mind I usually “won.”

At a certain point we talked about me coming over to help on the Ellen show, but in this particular case the deal was too complex so I just stayed put. I will say, however, that Ellen stuck her neck out for me with the studio, which is rare for a star. I thought maybe she was interested in me romantically, but I’ve since reconsidered. 

I would call myself a friend of Ellen’s but not a close one. She’s a Hollywood friend. We don’t tell each other secrets. Even though her show looks like a well-financed slumber party, I never get invited to any actual slumber parties which I assume are populated by Jen Anniston, Sean Hayes, Portia of course, and Michelle Obama. And probably Katy Perry when she’s in town.

Over the years Ellen and I have bumped into each other around town but nothing of note. That is, until 2018 – the year of our debris flow. When our town got devastated, I reached out to Ellen to ask if she would get behind our fundraising effort to install debris nets to protect Montecito. Within about an hour, Ellen was texting me saying I’d be on her show the following Tuesday along with Santa Barbara’s former Fire Chief and she would present us with a big check. Ellen’s support for Montecito was swift and unequivocal. 

Ellen is from Louisiana, but she treats this place like her home, supports numerous local causes, and puts her money where her mouth is. She also frequently shakes down her friends for money for our community and I appreciate that.

Based on the recent harsh news about Ellen I wondered if maybe myself and a handful of her vocal celebrity friends were the exceptions to her normal cruelty, so I reached out to my fellow Montecitan, Augie Johnson, to see how he was treated by Ellen and her show. You remember Augie as the guy who nabbed (and saved) a two-year-old toddler from the mud in our debris flow. You also remember him as the only person you’ve ever met named “Augie.”

Augie told me that Ellen had been critical in raising funds for all sorts of 805 causes after the debris flow, helping many people publicly but probably helping even more people privately. Then Augie told me that months later, after having Augie on her show, Ellen called him up out of the blue simply to see how he was doing.

Billy Baldwin told us about the time his son was at home watching the Ellen show when someone rang at their gate. His son paused the show and opened the gate to find real live Ellen standing there holding the Baldwin’s dog that had gotten loose. Locally, I know of so many everyday Ellen kindnesses that go unreported – where Ellen in real life aligns with the Ellen from her show.


Of course, her many acts of kindness do not mean that her show did not foster a “toxic work environment.” But even highly toxic workplaces can be mitigated and I’m certain this clean-up is of dire importance to the Ellen I know. Certainly she needs to take unqualified responsibility for what happened on the show that bears her name. And I expect she will. But heck, even culturally rotten Uber was detoxified and rehabilitated.

The next charge against Ellen is showing disloyalty to her constituents by offering a chance at redemption to the comedian Kevin Hart, a person who has made homophobic comments. And socializing with W, the ex-president, who, while in office, was certainly no friend to gays. Personally, I have no problem with Ellen opening a dialog with someone outside of her echo chamber. It’s something we encourage here at the bipartisan Journal and I think it’s actually the path to détente. Remember in 2014 when President Obama was roundly criticized for saying he’d negotiate with the Taliban? Cut to 2018 it was actually Trump and Pompeo who sent our first ambassador there, Zalmay Khalilzad. [BTW Ambassador Khalilzad seems to be doing a great job, mostly by talking to our most extreme adversaries; see the NYTimes story from March 1 of this year.]

The final criticism of Ellen is that Ellen in real life is not the “nice” Ellen of her show. Well let me tell you something. No celebrity is the person you think they are. Sometimes they’re somewhat who they appear to be but they are also holographic projections of a brand and amalgamations of our fantasies and hopes. Mixed in with the prestidigitation of publicists. This is true of every major performer I’ve ever worked with, bar none.

With the exception of the President of the United States, whom I have actually worked with in show business, I don’t know of any other person who could withstand being the exact same person publicly and privately – it would be too much to handle, with no private/public separation, nowhere to hide, and no plausible deniability. It would be like living in a Truman Show you could never escape.  

As for the blood in the water off Padaro, an interesting scientific fact about sharks is that in addition to snacking on humans, they also have a nasty cannibalistic streak. (Remember when scientific fact was a thing?) Shark pups start eating their own even inside the womb.

I say if the sharks of cancel culture really want some fresh meat from Santa Barbara, I’d like to see them devour each other. Because Ellen deserves the same shot we all deserve when we get caught being human. The same shot to redeem herself that she gave Kevin Hart, and I’ll bet she does a better with it, too.


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