When Ellen DeGeneres made her daytime TV debut 15 years ago, a lot of people weren't very sure if the world was ready for her.
The hesitancy makes a bit of sense. After all, it had only been five years since her very public coming out had brought her hit sitcom Ellen to an early demise. Her second attempt at a sitcom, The Ellen Show on CBS, had crashed and burned after only 13 episodes in 2001. Finding Nemo had only been in theaters for a few months and, while her voice work as Dory stole the film, Pixar wasn't exactly betting the farm on the down-and-out comedienne when making the movie.
Not only was DeGeneres' star not on the rise, there was the fact that there had never been an openly gay talk show host on TV—in the daytime or otherwise. And despite getting then-President of Warner Bros. Telepictures Productions Jim Paratore—who'd developed The Rosie O'Donnell Show and The Bachelor, to name a few—on board for The Ellen DeGeneres Show, affiliates weren't exactly chomping at the bit when the pair tried to syndicate her show.
"Jim was a straight, white man, and he loved me, and he could not believe the resistance from all these station managers who didn't want to buy my show," DeGeneres reflected with The Telegraph in 2016. "They said: she's a gay woman, and the women at home watching daytime TV are straight housewives with kids – what does she have in common with them? So Jim said: we're going on tour – you're going to show them who you are. So I had to go from city to city. We would make these men come out and sit in the audience. They were looking around and seeing what kind of audience I had. I did a meet-and-greet with everyone afterwards, from city to city. They were shocked that I didn't curse – I guess cursing goes with being gay?"
Eventually, she won them over and The Ellen DeGeneres Show premiered in syndication on September 8, 2003. But in those early days of the show, DeGeneres was still forced to fight an uphill battle when it came to the one aspect of daytime talk that shows tend to live and die by: authenticity.
"They didn't think anyone would watch a lesbian during the day," she told Ryan Seacrest during a 2017 appearance on his radio show. "[Keeping my sexuality quiet] was really not just implied it was verbal … I remember there was something that happened to my finger and I was in a relationship and I was going to say 'we' and they wouldn't let me say 'we.'"
And for someone who had literally lost everything for the sake of being honest about who they truly were, that didn't sit well. "It felt horrible because I had worked so hard to be truthful and to come to terms of my shame of hiding something that I knew wasn't wrong … It was a hard balance," she admitted. "What's more appealing than anything is honesty."
But as the show, which debuted to solid ratings, only continued to see its audience grow, it was clear that there was little need to worry. And so things got easier. Now, it's hard to imagine tuning in for the show and not getting an update on her marriage to Portia de Rossi, whom she began dating a year after the show launched.
Quickly, The Ellen DeGeneres Show became known as the place where celebrities could feel safe and let their hair down a little, dancing with the affable host as they made their way on stage. It also became known as the place where viewers tuning in could find a fun and, above all else, nice hour-long respite from an increasingly cynical, spiteful world. And that's something that's remained paramount for DeGeneres in the 15 years that she's captained this particular ship.
"Every single day, it is my stamp on everything—it's my name—so I have to answer every question. I have to make every decision. I have an amazing team, I have amazing producers, I have amazing writers, but at the end of it, it's me making the decisions on the writing, the tone, the editing. I want the show to reach people and to be something positive," DeGeneres said, explaining her mission to W Magazine in 2007. "Because the world is full of a lot of fear and a lot of negativity, and a lot of judgment. I just think people need to start shifting into joy and happiness. As corny as it sounds, we need to make a shift."
As the show has continued to grow over the years, launching hit apps—Head's Up! has been downloaded more than 25 million times—discovering stars-in-the-making (Sophia Grace and Rosie, anyone?), and earning an impressive 59 Daytime Emmy Awards and 21 People's Choice Awards (most than any other person in the show's history!), DeGeneres' commitment to shifting folks into joy and happiness has never wavered.
"It is a happy show, on purpose. I represent happiness to a lot of people. I want to keep myself as open and as nonjudgmental as possible," she told Parade in 2016. "Before the show was picked up, I think a lot of station managers thought I would have an agenda to try to somehow turn the world gay. People did worry. Our only agenda is to make people feel good. It's an hour of joy."
That's not to say that DeGeneres is afraid of taking people to task for their perpetuation of inequality in the world, as we've seen her do in her own unique way in these recent, more politically-divisive years. "I mean, my show's always been a place where people watch for an hour and feel good," she told The Telegraph months before the 2016 presidential election, "and that will certainly be the case when I go back this next season. But there will also probably be elements of me speaking out a little bit more about what's going on. Because you can't stay quiet."
But mostly, DeGeneres is just proud that, in her time on the air, she's bucked the growing trend of nastiness in comedy. "You listen to any monologue on late-night TV or just in general, to people talking, and there's always a joke at someone's expense. It's sarcasm; it's nasty," she told Good Housekeeping in 2011.
"Kids grow up hearing that, and they think that's what humor is, and they think it's OK. But that negativity permeates the entire planet. I think that's where bullying comes from. I mean, I grew up watching Dick Van Dyke and Lucille Ball, and they were nothing but sweet and funny. It wasn't 'negative comment, negative comment, laugh track."'So I'm really proud I'm not adding to the negativity. I'm proud that for the hour my show is on television, I'm not being mean, and I'm hopefully helping one other person go, I'm going to be kind. Because then it all just kind of spreads, and the world is a little nicer out there."
But now it seems that DeGeneres' specific brand of kindness may have an expiration date—at least, in its current form. Though she's locked in her contract through the summer of 2020, the comedienne admitted in a December interview with The New York Times that she actually wavered before signing on the dotted line, saying she goes back and forth on how much longer she's got left. While De Rossi is ready for her to hang up her dancing shoes, her brother Vance DeGeneres, a comedian himself, argues that the world needs her daily dose of warmth and positivity.
"She gets mad when my brother tells me I can't stop," DeGeneres said of her wife, while De Rossi explained that she merely doesn't want her other half to be bound by the limitations of daytime talk. "I just think she's such a brilliant actress and standup that it doesn't have to be this talk show for her creativity. There are other things she could tackle," she said, adding that no matter what happens, "I don't see the end of the show as her career ending."
Already, DeGeneres has begun branching out, with her first stand-up special since 2003, Relatable, debuting on Netflix on December 18. And she's looking forward to showing fans a different, slightly fuller version of herself. "I wanted to show all of me. The talk show is me, but I'm also playing a character of a talk-show host," she told the newspaper. "There's a tiny, tiny bit of difference."
While it's unclear just how much longer we'll have DeGeneres on ours TV screens every afternoon, one thing's for sure: We'll be cherishing every ounce of kindness she's got to offer and move she's got to bust.
The Ellen DeGeneres Show, currently in its 16th season, airs weekdays.
(This story was original published on September 11, 2018 at 10:43 a.m. PST.)