Ellen DeGeneres, the doyenne of daytime, talked her way into an internet frenzy on Friday, underwriting Kevin Hart’s half-baked redemption tour in an unnecessarily active effort to get the comedian reinstated as this year’s Oscar host.
In what she called an “incredible and honest conversation,” DeGeneres, the most influential openly gay person alive, gave Hart a massive platform and let the homophobic tweets that led to him stepping down from the gig go unquestioned.
By the episode’s end, we learned nothing about how Hart had evolved since he refused the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ dictate for an apology, or why he still would make for an acceptable figurehead at Hollywood’s signature celebration.
Instead, the episode accomplished something else entirely: It demonstrated the glaring limitations of today’s increasingly artificial talk-show customs. A popular, respected program like “Ellen” should be the perfect place to engage in such discourse. But what DeGeneres did can hardly be called an interview or even a “conversation.” It was lip service from someone who should know better, shallow confirmation that we no longer have a reliable arena to litigate cultural matters as complex as this.
After introducing him as “my friend Kevin Hart,” DeGeneres spent the first segment of the episode chatting about New Year’s Eve, skiing and his new movie “The Upside” ― typical talk-show fodder that’s carefully pre-negotiated with producers. She called him “one of the most generous people” and prompted him to brag about the vintage cars he recently gifted to friends ― calculated talking points meant to make Hart seem likable, forgivable. After a commercial break, DeGeneres sat back as a defiant Hart monologued about his side of the Oscar flap, seeming unbothered by the “if” in Hart’s “I’m sorry if these words hurt” sentiment.
After the next commercial break, she issued her own monologue, revealing that she implored the Academy’s top brass to rehire Hart and insisting he shouldn’t listen to the “haters” who brought his onetime bigotry to light in some kind of coordinated effort to destroy his career. Hart extended an unfounded claim about apologies he’d offered at a “very, very heavy junket” in 2012, and DeGeneres made no moves to ask what he was referring to or how he realized the error of his ways in the first place. She claimed to know he’s not homophobic but did little to help us know that too, going so far as to say that those who objected to Hart’s material would “win” if he doesn’t host the Oscars.
The message was clear: In the eyes of both DeGeneres and Hart, he was victimized by a mob of online “trolls.” But DeGeneres and Hart weren’t actually railing against trolls, the internet users who post purposefully inflammatory rhetoric. These two immensely powerful celebrities were, in actuality, dinging so-called social justice warriors ― the folks who called out Hart’s tweets and challenged the insensitive gags in his 2015 movie “Get Hard” ― without saying as much.
“There has to be a conversation about homophobia,” DeGeneres said before, in the same breath, proving unwilling or unable to moderate a tangible conversation about homophobia. To christen herself Hart’s advocate while slamming his critics as if they’re equivalent to an alt-right militia exposes just how one-dimensional “Ellen” has become. At the exact moment when popular culture is finally reckoning with its bigoted history, the country’s most famous daytime host, whose own career was almost destroyed by homophobia, is prioritizing an agenda that does not serve the viewers who look to her for wisdom ― it merely bolsters her disgraced buddy’s reputation.
DeGeneres is an entertainer, not a journalist. She’s not obligated to conduct interviews as if she were a reporter uncovering the truth. But she invited Hart on for an “honest” moment and delivered anything but. It’s hard to imagine Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue or Dick Cavett, were they still hosting their shows circa 2019, letting Hart ramble at length without posing follow-up questions. But DeGeneres, like her late-night counterpart Jimmy Fallon, built a brand suffocated by sheer pleasantness ― which is fine, if you’re into that sort of thing. But it means she’s not the person to facilitate a tough discussion with a public figure who erred.
When DeGeneres’ show launched in September 2003, it felt like a balm amid the existential crisis of Sept. 11 and a war-minded America. It was a space where cheer abounded, where dancing and insouciance scratched a mid-afternoon itch. DeGeneres, in turn, became the most visible LGBTQ dignitary in the world, given a daily stage to expose the homophobia that tanked her beloved sitcom in the 1990s. But as time went on, DeGeneres’ fame and riches ― a reported $87.5 million in 2018, for example ― seemed to distance her from the real world; today, she seems less engaged and more inaccessible, even if she tries to maintain her “be kind to one another” persona on-air. She can’t even drop the schtick to rationalize why Hart’s ordeal isn’t the “attack” he says it is.
DeGeneres, a two-time Oscar emcee, put her own agenda ahead of the community she is a part of. If Hart gets his job back, it’ll be because one privileged lesbian with a TV show called the many, many people who protested her friend’s problematic past “trolls.” She accomplished nothing except helping to restore Hart’s stature. That’s what the celebrity-industrial complex looks like today, even on talk-based programming: One famous person buttresses another famous person, and that advocacy becomes the letter of the law.
It’s now on the Academy, an institution that hasn’t historically been generous toward minorities, to say that’s not how things work. Reps from the organization have already said they’re open to inviting Hart back. Should that come to fruition, DeGeneres and her pal will be victorious. But is anyone else?