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Turmoil behind the scenes at talk shows then and now

Ellen DeGeneres apologized after allegations surfaced that her long-running daytime TV talk show is a toxic work environment.
Ellen DeGeneres apologized after allegations surfaced that her long-running daytime TV talk show is a toxic work environment.Andrew Harnik/AP/File

This was not a good week for Ellen DeGeneres, whose friendly, empathetic, just-folks image has taken a serious hit over allegations that her long-running daytime TV talk show is a toxic work environment.

To those of us with long memories, it was faintly reminiscent of an issue that flared up early in Jay Leno’s stint as host of “The Tonight Show” on NBC.

Amid WarnerMedia’s internal investigation of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” DeGeneres apologized to her staff in a Thursday e-mail, writing: “On day one of our show, I told everyone in our first meeting that The Ellen DeGeneres Show would be a place of happiness — no one would ever raise their voice, and everyone would be treated with respect. Obviously, something changed, and I am disappointed to learn that this has not been the case. And for that, I am sorry.”


BuzzFeed News has published a story, based on interviews with current and former employees, that paints a damning portrait of the behind-the-scenes atmosphere of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.’' DeGeneres herself was not accused of misconduct in the BuzzFeed story, but it says that top producers and senior managers created a workplace rife with sexual harassment and misconduct, racism, unjust termination, intimidation, and fear.

Those last two words might also have applied to the behind-the-scenes environment of “The Tonight Show” in 1992, right after Leno replaced Johnny Carson as host. Leno had always been (and still is) known as a fundamentally nice guy, but the “corrosive style” of his executive producer, Helen Kushnick, created a “reign of terror,” according to Bill Carter’s exhaustively reported 1994 book, “The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, & the Network Battle for the Night.”

The volatile Kushnick had been Leno’s manager during his years as a stand-up comic, and was by all accounts indispensable to his career success. But once she took control of “Tonight,” she started demanding that guests booked for Leno agree to not appear on other late-night shows, alienating stars and their agents. When questioned about a decision, Kushnick delivered “a tirade of name-calling and demeaning criticism,” according to Carter. (Kushnick later disputed the book’s version of events and filed a libel suit that was settled out of court.)


After Leno’s ratings began to fall — the one unforgivable sin in television — Kushnick’s tumultuous four-month reign ended with her dismissal by NBC. (Kathy Bates gave a memorable performance as Kushnick in the 1996 HBO movie adaptation of “The Late Shift.”) In the aftermath of that rocky episode, Carter wrote, Leno “vacillated between taking full responsibility for all that had happened under Helen and defending himself because he really didn’t know all that had gone on.”

DeGeneres’s note to staffers struck a similar chord. “As we’ve grown exponentially, I’ve not been able to stay on top of everything and relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I’d want them done,” she wrote. “Clearly some didn’t. That will now change and I’m committed to ensuring this does not happen again.”

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.