From her earliest days on the sitcom Open House (1989-1990), as real estate agency receptionist Margo Van Meter, Ellen Degeneres always came off a little mean to me, a little wild-eyed, a little hostile, very funny. The shtick she does on her talk show, where she gets the guests and the audience members to dance, exudes an undercurrent of anger and manipulation, leveraging Ellen’s branded passive-aggressive performance persona of aw-shucks awkwardness and twisting it into a projectile aimed at compelling others on the show to debase themselves.
I’m not trying to psychoanalyze or anything, OK? It’s just a feeling I get about Ellen. I’m not saying she’s a bad person, but she’s kinda mean, that’s all, and her game show, Ellen’s Game of Games, which is somehow billed as a reality show, is all about Ellen being mean to people who are trying to win $100,000, so she gets to do all kinds of torturous things to them as they vie for the ultimate prize over the course of a series of colorfully designed, sadistically inventive preliminary games.
I have personal experience with television game shows. I tried out for a show called The Weakest Link, which was hosted by Anne Robinson, a British lady whose gimmick was that she was stern and severe with the contestants. The American version of the show burned itself out within a year because contestants started goofing with her, and the show lost its tension-appeal. I never met Ms. Robinson at the tryouts in Baltimore, but that’s where I got my first taste of humiliating yourself to get on the TV. During my audition taping, the guy who was running the test questions and playing host did not pay attention to me while I was answering questions and then he dismissed me. He wasn’t even mean to me or anything, he just kinda ignored me while I was pretending to be on TV with him. It made me feel bad, realizing I was but a single grain of corn in the great game show mill, and it probably showed on my face during the taping, so I totally understand why I didn’t get to be a The Weakest Link. Years later, I tried out for another game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and I have set down at length a detailed recollection of the various minor humiliations I willingly and enthusiastically subjected myself to in an attempt to become a Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, so when I watched Ellen’s Game of Games I felt every twinge of the contestants’ suffering, and could not help but notice the person being entertained the most on this show is its grand inquisitor and operator of the buttons and switches employed in dealing out punishment for incorrect quiz-answers.
Contestants on Ellen’s Game of Games are jacked beyond belief to be on the show. They are amped to the level of people who run screaming down the aisle on The Price is Right, except people who play The Price Is Right are not secured in dunking chairs that turn upside-down before slamming into a tank of smelly water, or strapped onto giant foam targets that are then violently propelled by a giant boot into a tub of bubbles and foam blocks, or blasted in the face with water. People are jacked because they want to play and win, and they know the game show’s host is on their side, because a big part of Ellen’s brand on her main enterprise, The Ellen Show, is Helping.
The philanthropy-driven content aspect of The Ellen Show awards cars to broke people, does “dream reunions,” pays off student loans, helps military families, and, somewhere in a vast list of solicitations, offers you a chance to try and get on Ellen’s Game of Games and “go face to face with the One-Eyed Monster.”
Every one of the contestants I watched on Season 2, Episode 2: “The Stink Tank Strikes Back” absolutely kicked ass at being enthusiastic and compelling as they presented their brief little bio/interesting anecdote. I appreciate the way they presented themselves because I was not good at it in my audition experiences, trying to project how I would be a good contestant. Here are some contestant/host exchanges at the beginning of the “Blindfolded Musical Chairs” segment, one of several games leading up to the final “Know or Go” big-money quiz.
Kayla: “I’m from Inglewood California, I manage an art collection, and I’m a total daredevil, and I’m looking for something more to do.
Ellen: “Wow, that’s very impressive.”
Danielle: “I am a middle school librarian, in which time I’ve taught myself to say all 50 states alphabetically, in under 15 seconds.”
Having an easily-demonstrated talent is an important tool in auditioning to become a game show contestant, and I can’t say for sure, but I think I auditioned for Who Wants To Be a Millionaire with Danielle, because I recall a woman performing the 50-states skill during auditions.
Chad: “I am assistant dean of students slash dean of residential campuses, and I have lived on college campuses since 1998.”
Ellen: “Really? Only lived on college campuses?”
Marianne: “I’m a graphic designer, and in high school I was unofficially awarded [cups hands around mouth] THE MOST LOUDEST STUDENT!”
Jeff: “I’m an interactive DJ, and [come from] a family of magicians, I perform with my daughter and my son.”
Contestants in “Blindfolded Musical Chairs” are blindfolded with rigs that make them look like they have goofy, bulging, dopey eyeballs, and are then set loose upon a padded playing field where they alternate energetic dancing with dropping to their knees to feel around for seating areas, which are hassock-type pedestals that rise up from the surface upon the host’s pressing of a button.
“At least the losers of Blindfolded Musical Chairs don’t get humiliated any more than performing the dancing and the crawling and the feeling around for a chair,” I thought, but at the conclusion of the musical chairs competition, Ellen deployed one of the hassock-pylons under the midsection of still-blindfolded contestant Chad.
Ellen: “That was an accident. That was mean, but that was an accident.” That was mean!
Another game in the runup to the final quiz is the “Oh Ship” competition, so titled because when you get blasted in the face with a simulacrum of seawater (water with some kelp-looking material in it) you might exclaim “oh ship,” or something close to that. Contestants in this segment are dressed as a cross between a beach ball and a sailor, wearing snorkeling flippers, safety goggles, and a ridiculous hat. They are asked a question, and then they sprint toward objects that look like those tuba/horn things on the deck of a cruise ship, each one adorned with a different answer to the question, one of them correct. They lean into the horn, and as the correct answer is announced, the folks whose heads are inserted into the wrong-answer horns are blasted in the face with the water.
For maximum humiliation, there are cameras inside the horns, recording the contestants’ faces, and the ejaculation of water is slo-mo replayed with hilarious sslllllooooow reaction sound. The winner of the event is also blasted in the face with water, and, in fact, because Ellen is mean, the winner of every event, including the ultimate winner of $100,000, is subjected to the same punishment meted out to the losers. The big winner is Ellen.