The episode that liberated—then destroyed—Ellen

The episode that liberated—then destroyed—Ellen

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. This is the sixth of eight installments to focus on “controversial episodes.”

Ellen, “The Puppy Episode” (season four, episodes 22-23; originally aired April 30, 1997)

In which what everybody already knows finally gets said, out loud and out proud

Donna Bowman: As the fourth season of Ellen DeGeneres’ successful sitcom began production, ABC executives were uneasy about her. Early on, her character, Ellen Morgan, does what any single sitcom lead was expected to do: She answers personal ads, goes on blind dates, tries to reignite things with her high school crush, strikes up relationships with cute customers at her bookstore, has erotic dreams about Arye Gross, acts hip to impress her younger boyfriend Peter Krause. In short, her life revolves around trying to meet men, date men, and sleep with men. But in season three, those storylines faded away. Her friends keep on dating, having kids, and getting married, but all Ellen seems to do is come up with schemes to make her bookstore more successful. Ratings dropped. The network reportedly suggested she get a puppy.

DeGeneres and her writing team, though, wanted to go in a different direction. If the character came out, she would be the first lead character to do so in the history of American TV. Negotiations with ABC (and its family-friendly, conservative-pressure-sensitive parent company Disney) were leaked prior to the start of the fourth season, sparking speculation about when DeGeneres, too, would choose to announce her sexual orientation publicly. At the height of the culture wars of the 1990s, six months after the Defense Of Marriage Act was passed by a large majority in the Senate and signed into law by President Bill Clinton just weeks before his re-election, production started on “The Puppy Episode,” and the political firestorm followed immediately. Some advertisers bowed to pressure from powerful “family values” groups and issued statements that they would not be associated with the episode (or in the case of Wendy’s, any future episodes). ABC declined to accept ad buys from Human Rights Campaign and a cruise company catering to lesbian vacationers, and it ran “viewer discretion” cards before each half of the two-part episode (a practice the network continued for the rest of the show’s run). While gay-rights organizations arranged viewing parties, a Birmingham affiliate, unable to get permission to move the episode out of the “family hour,” declined to show it at all. Meanwhile, DeGeneres orchestrated her own coming-out in conjunction with the episode’s broadcast, appearing on the cover of Time (“Yep, I’m Gay”) two weeks before, and holding hands with her partner, Anne Heche, on Oprah’s couch in an interview aired on the same day.

Some of the controversial episodes we’ve explored in the Roundtable have trailed the general culture, breaking down television taboos that had long since fallen in everyday life. But “The Puppy Episode” was right in the middle of a raging conflict over open homosexuality, and as far as mainstream and middle America were concerned, it went much farther than the uneasy contemporary consensus, which might be best expressed as, “Don’t make us think about your bedroom business.” Sixteen years later, as the bulwarks against the gay agenda erected by conservative lawmakers fall like dominoes (including “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and DOMA), and as heartland states like Minnesota legalize same-sex marriage, sympathetic gay characters and storylines on network television probably deserve much of the credit for changing America’s mind. The flip, winking way the characters allude to the controversy (“Ellen, are you coming out or not?” one of her friends complains in the cold open) are nods to the progressive community that this is long overdue, and were in fact the culmination of a season-long series of inside jokes about the impending revelation. (Ellen emerges from a closet, wonders if “the rumors are true” about that comedian Ellen DeGeneres, fantasizes about becoming a rock star like the Indigo Girls.) But the episode also acknowledges the very real barriers that kept homosexuality hidden. Before coming to accept her feelings, Ellen astutely parodies homophobic convictions, like accusations that gay people are recruiting straights to join their ranks. (“I’ll have to call national headquarters and tell them I lost you,” Laura Dern’s character laments facetiously; “Damn! Just one more and I would have gotten that toaster oven.”) “There’s a lot of people out there that think people like me are sick,” Ellen tells her therapist, before lamenting that it’s entertainment’s fault: “Why did I have to watch Personal Best?” (“You can’t blame this on the media,” Oprah remonstrates.)

“The Puppy Episode” drew 42 million viewers and won a Peabody Award, but it also, in the short run, caused more turmoil than it solved. Ellen lost its identity as its storylines became dominated by gay issues, and was canceled the following year. Dern claimed her portrayal of Ellen’s love interest cost her work. My husband and I were fans of DeGeneres’ comedy and had watched Ellen from the beginning; it was painful to watch her simultaneously stand up for herself and lose her way. But looking back, I can’t help but feel that the premature death of an amusing sitcom was a minuscule price to pay for the leap forward that Ellen DeGeneres made and helped others make. Now that she and her syndicated talk show are appointment television for millions of women from the deep South to the progressive coasts, the remaining (but dwindling) disagreement in our culture over whether gay people are our enemies or our neighbors seems far less threatening. That’s my view from traffic-light-red Arkansas, anyway, a place that’s as officially and unofficially anti-gay as anywhere in the country, and yet seems perfectly happy to put out the welcome mat for Ellen and the many, many gay characters and celebrities for whom she paved the way. How does it look where you live, fellow Roundtablers?

Phil Dyess-Nugent: Because I remember this episode from when it was originally broadcast, I can’t separate it from its larger context. “The Puppy Episode” wasn’t just an hour of TV; it was the climax of a mass-media stunt that went on for months, and that included every interview DeGeneres gave leading up to the episode—the most famous of which was probably the one that came attached to that Time magazine cover—and every in-joke included in the show that season about what everyone knew was coming.

Does the word “stunt” imply something rigged and tacky? If so, you can swap it out for, I don’t know, “project.” I really think the whole thing was pretty remarkable: A woman using her TV celebrity to demand acceptance of her sexual identity, while trying to remain an entertainer instead of a spokesperson—and succeeding, though she may have ultimately done the movement more long-term good than she did for her career in the short term. I can’t think of anything else quite like that.

It was especially interesting to those of us who’d been following DeGeneres’ career and who checked in regularly on her show. For four years, starting back when it premièred as These Friends Of Mine, Ellen had been a middling sitcom that kept calling viewers back because it had a lot of appealing, talented people on it and a pleasant, loose vibe, and that stayed just this side of having good enough ratings to keep coming back. The most interesting thing about it was that it changed cast lineups and tones so often that it seemed in need of mood stabilizers. There seemed to be something wild and unstable going on behind the scenes at this slightly above-average comedy starring a comedian whose appeal was based on her likeability and her seemingly egoless personality. I never guessed that it might be connected to the fact that the star was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with her public persona and all the suggestions that her “character,” who had the same first name and same basic personality she had, needed to get into the dating scene and find a fella. 

The show really did get better when DeGeneres was using it to come out of the closet, presumably because the star felt better about herself and her relationship to her audience. And though DeGeneres was never accusatory in those interviews about what she had been through as a closeted woman, I think there was a subtle shaming effect for a lot of people in her coming out on the air. Yes, homosexuality was still a hot-button issue in 1997, but it had come a long enough way from the days when it was classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. Most opponents of gay rights who were to the left of the Westboro Baptist Church had retreated to the argument that, while gay people were mostly just like “normal” folks, they had no special right to make straights feel uncomfortable by “flaunting” their sexual orientation, and that just being quiet about it didn’t hurt anybody. Seeing the way DeGeneres just blossomed when she started being open and honest about her private life made it a lot harder for anyone to believe that.

It is funny that this strategy, which worked by building up to that one episode and turning it into an “event,” just collapsed when Ellen tried to go back to just being a weekly show. It was as if everyone said, “Great, you made your point, and some of us are happy for you. But now, you’re stuck on what’s officially a gay sitcom.” And that, it turned out, was something America wasn’t yet ready for. But they were happy as clams to have Will & Grace, which premièred only a few months after Ellen was canceled, and which I never thought was half as good a show. Now, we have the new Australian import, Please Like Me, which creator-star Josh Thomas says is based on how completely non-traumatic his coming out was, which, he says, isn’t how TV told him things work. But things don’t have to work like that anymore, on TV and maybe even in real life, because Ellen DeGeneres took the bullet.

Todd VanDerWerff: I’ve written a bit before about how Ellen DeGeneres coming out helped me come to terms with my own feelings on homosexuality, breaking with the fundamentalist Christian tradition I’d been raised in. Watching “The Puppy Episode” now is an exercise in watching 1997 have this conversation with itself. I had misremembered this episode as ending with Ellen leaning on that airport announcement microphone to tell everybody waiting for that flight to Pittsburgh that she’s gay, but that’s not the case. The first half ends that way—and the split between part one and part two in syndication probably contributed to my faulty memory—but the second half is what makes “The Puppy Episode” work for me. The first half hour is a touch too self-congratulatory, a touch too impressed with itself for daring to open up this territory (as well it should be). The second half hour is much more about the difficulty of proceeding forward once you know who you are and how being true to oneself can still be scary when it means losing friends or family who don’t understand. Ellen’s friends, of course, are all very welcoming and friendly, but the anxiety she feels over telling them contains most of the show’s acknowledgement that these things are rarely easy, that those who need to come out don’t always have Laura Dern and Oprah Winfrey there to help. And I loved the choice to have Susan be in a relationship, to have her be unavailable to Ellen. It gave the whole hour a bittersweet tone that underlined the life-changing nature of Ellen’s decision and the medium-changing decision Ellen DeGeneres made.

When 24 was entering its last act, it debuted its seventh season near Barack Obama’s first presidential inauguration. The producers, talking about Cherry Jones’ role as the latest fictional president of that universe, took a kind of smirking credit for Obama’s election. The idea of a black president had been around for ages, of course, but in David Palmer, 24 had invented a black president who came into viewers’ homes every week and became someone they were comfortable with, at least insofar as imagining him handling terrorist attacks. Now, it’s unlikely that David Palmer is the reason Barack Obama is our president, and I always hesitate to suggest that pop culture can have that sort of effect on the real world. But I think it’s undeniable that the relatively rapid normalization of gays and lesbians within American society (a struggle that continues, I should add) has been helped by how many popular sitcoms in the ’90s had a gay character, and then maybe a gay co-lead, and finally just a gay lead, and if people on TV didn’t seem too upset by it, then why should the viewers be upset? The real work has been done by gays and lesbians coming out to potentially hostile family and friends and building bridges in those regards, but people like Ellen DeGeneres smoothed the way, at least a little bit.

I sometimes think back on the media buzz surrounding this episode, and I remember when my father angrily, heatedly, said to me that people were not born gay, and they were just lying about it if they said they were. And now, he knows and is comfortable with all sorts of gay people, doesn’t mind when they are openly, happily themselves. Does he still judge them in his heart? I’ll obviously never know, but doors are open all over, and it’s affected even those whose hearts I would never have thought to be warmed. That “The Puppy Episode” increasingly plays like a curious historical artifact is its greatest quality. Here’s hoping when my children visit it for the 40th round of the TV Roundtable, it plays as innocuous to them as “Lucy Is Enceinte” does to us.

David Sims: I remember watching this episode as an 11-year-old, and I definitely remember its impact, although I was living in England at the time, so the whole thing was a little muted. Still, the episode did well to simply and effectively lay out Ellen’s dilemma to a preteen with a limited understanding of what it all meant. I was raised in an understanding household and had an openly gay teacher in my school who was beloved by all, so I wasn’t in need of the kind of eye-opening that Todd is talking about. What “The Puppy Episode” did for me was explain what a complicated and wrenching thing coming out can be. 

The 11-year-old me was also quite a fan of Ellen, which was a very gentle, benign watch and had Dave Higgins and Jeremy Piven and others being dumb and snarky. Great stuff! For current-day David, I have to say, “The Puppy Episode” is a bit of a chore to watch, especially the first half, which, as Todd wisely noted, feels self-congratulatory. This is one of the few self-congratulatory sitcom episodes that really deserves congratulation, but still, it gets a little boring to watch any episode of anything that seems to be holding for applause (which it continually receives). Laura Dern is more of a friendly, angelic avatar than a character—perfectly cast, but lacking any kind of dimension. 

The second half is definitely more engaging. It’s playing on tropes that would now feel very tired, but hey, these are pre-Will & Grace days. Ellen’s complete discomfort in the first half is gone—she’s still uncomfortable and nervous and neurotic, but that’s Ellen’s default setting. The mental shift she’s made in coming out is clear, and her happiness is kind of profound, which was what was most memorable about “The Puppy Episode” when I was a kid. 

I don’t remember the rest of the show, if I even watched it—I’ve read that it became so preoccupied with Ellen’s symbolic status that both quality and interest quickly dropped off, but I don’t actually recall any of those episodes. It’s too bad, but Ellen was always a bit of a mess as a show, always in search of an identity to compete with its much stronger network rivals. Will & Grace would debut just a few months after Ellen was canceled, and although that show certainly had its own jumble of problems in how it presented homosexuality, it was nonetheless a groundbreaker in its own right, and it’s hard to imagine it getting on the air withoutDeGeneres firing the first shot. 

Genevieve Koski: What I think is sometimes glossed over in discussions of “The Puppy Episode,” which is a groundbreaking moment for LGBT portrayals on television, is the “L” part of that initialism. Yes, Ellen, both the character and the person, is gay—but she’s specifically a lesbian, a distinction that has very different pop-cultural implications and associations than those of gay men. To channel Dan Savage for a minute, female sexuality is generally considered to be more fluid than male sexuality, which has given rise to the ideas of “lesbian dabbling” and “the converted lesbian,” which have both been the source of their fair share of jokes on TV, movies, and elsewhere. (And that’s not even taking into account the effect girl-on-girl porn has had on the idea that lesbianism is something that can be put on and taken off like a denim vest—something that comedian Cameron Esposito recently unpacked much more eloquently on her Tumblr.) Characters who are firmly, unequivocally lesbians are much more rare than characters who are gay men, and since The L Word went off the air, they’re all but extinct as main characters. (Orange Is The New Black being a major, important exception that’s nonetheless full of its own contradictions.) So yes, Ellen’s coming out was a major step forward for gay culture, but it was about seven major steps forward for lesbian culture. 

So I find myself appreciating “The Puppy Episode” even more for how it engages with the clichés, truthful and otherwise, associated with lesbians. The dream sequence featuring Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, and the rest is a nice, almost self-effacing nod to other women who paved the way to this moment, without being too self-congratulatory about it. The coffeehouse scene is a little rougher around the edges, packed as it is with women who are all slight variations on the Lilith Fair Lesbian, but it gets around that somewhat by making Ellen—who doesn’t really fit that characterization at all—feel out of place in that environment, and making her “first lesbian faux pas.” (Then it undoes whatever good it does by having a lesbian hit on Ellen’s straight friend, Paige, instigating a moment of minor gay panic. But hey, baby steps.) The episode gets a lot of mileage out of contrasting Ellen’s and her friends’—and by extension, the audience’s—expectations of what lesbianism is with what an actual lesbian feels when confronted with those expectations. But it does so in that friendly, rounded-edge way that typifies the comedy of Ellen DeGeneres.

That’s another thing that struck me while re-watching Ellen, a show I have vague memories of watching in my preteen years, but nothing else: how gosh-darn friendly it is. That’s always been a hallmark of DeGeneres’ comedy, which trades in silly observations couched in a welcoming, “We’re all in this together” inclusiveness. No one’s going to get hurt feelings from an Ellen joke. So despite a couple brief moments of what Phil calls a “subtle shaming effect,” there’s nothing remotely piercing or strident about this episode’s activism, nothing that plays into the cliché of the “militant lesbian.” It’s a big, rainbow ball (with pink triangles on it) of change bouncing its way out of the TV screen and into our hearts. Or something. While that approach may not have been enough to keep Ellen going much longer, it’s been enough to keep Ellen DeGeneres going, and then some, in the 16 years since. Viewed in hindsight, from a time when gay rights have greatly advanced while still being more contentious and divisive than ever, at least in the political sphere, it’s somewhat odd to see this seismic moment executed in such cuddly, unthreatening fashion. (There are probably a lot of LGBT activists who bristled, and still bristle, at DeGeneres’ approach here.) But it may have been the only way DeGeneres could have pulled this off on network TV, then or now.

Ryan McGee: When we talked about My Boys, Donna’s last pick for the Roundtable, I remarked about how damn nice that show was. So it’s funny for me to see Genevieve comment about how friendly Ellen is, since one could argue both shows are cut from the same cloth. Nowadays, shows have to either shout at the tops of their lungs or drench themselves in blood in order to be heard. But Ellen is the type of show, tonally speaking, that I like as part of my overall TV diet: Sometimes it’s just nice to hang out with people and not worry about understanding every cultural reference or fearing that someone’s throat will be slit and/or played like a cello.

Perhaps that’s why the first half of this episode doesn’t feel like quite the slog for me as it did for some others. There’s a time and a place for a Very Special Episode approach to television (and spoiler alert: we’re going there next week), but while there’s some didacticism in place here, it’s also couched within DeGeneres’ self-deprecating style of humor. Playing into stereotypes is one thing, but intentionally leaning into them in order to deconstruct them is another. “The Puppy Episode” never fully inverts the tropes it deploys, but its knowing winks go a long way toward making them palatable. It helps that DeGeneres is so damn likeable: This isn’t a Sam Kinison-type storming about and confronting us with the fact that he’s gay, and the attitudinal difference for better or worse helps at stages such as the one in which this episode aired.

Genevieve’s points about the importance of this being about a lesbian versus a gay man are key, and something I think still holds true 16 years after this episode aired. Audiences by and large still tolerate an onscreen romance between women more than one between men. (Bound, the 1996 film by The Wachowskis, gets a shout-out in this episode. But for crying out loud, Behind The Candelabra couldn’t get a cinematic release!) So much of this phase of the Roundtable focuses on episodes that deal with societal issues that have since dissipated. But even if coming out isn’t that big a deal anymore, dealing with the aftermath of that in the practical lives of our fictional characters still is. In particular, seeing gay characters physically affectionate, never mind intimate, is still verboten when it comes to most mainstream shows on network television, especially if those characters are male. (Modern Family is still one of the most popular shows on television, but almost had to sneak in its first kiss between Cam and Mitchell.) “The Puppy Episode” helped ease the start of contemporary conversations about homosexuality. But there’s so much still unsaid, and television is still wrestling with the best ways to further the conversation.

Erik Adams: “The Puppy Episode” and what DeGeneres expressed through it were watersheds for their time, crucial and cathartic moments for both an individual and a culture. But I think the former half of that equation tends to get swallowed up when we look back at these episodes and the events leading up to them. DeGeneres used the airport-terminal microphone afforded to her to express her true feelings to the whole world, an expression that ultimately became bigger than one person. But because this is such a personal declaration, the single image of this hour that sticks out the most in my mind is that big, beaming smile that flashes across Ellen’s face at the end of part one. It’s a great reminder that, as much as “The Puppy Episode” is a Very Important Statement, it’s also an episode DeGeneres needed to make in order to be her happiest self.

That it happened on an otherwise lightweight program is all the more remarkable. Though it premièred nearly six months before Friends (on my 9th birthday, according to most online sources), Ellen would likely be consigned to the post-Friends heap of young-singles-in-the-big-city ensemble sitcoms—shows like The Single Guy, Caroline In The City, and a few others that didn’t have the words “single” or “city” in their titles—without “The Puppy Episode.” The irony of this television event is that it gave an identity to a show forever in search of one—and then crushed the show under the enormous heft of that identity. There are points in “The Puppy Episode” where you can see why, instances where the episode functions as a great social commentary but a lackluster narrative. Like a lot of sitcoms that get a crack at occupying a full hour, it stretches 22 minutes of story—When Ellen comes to terms with her sexuality, how will her friends react?—to fill 60 minutes of airtime. In 1997, it got by on the spectacle of the whole endeavor.

But that’s the thing about “The Puppy Episode” and how it reflects on the coming-out stories of the Josh Thomases of the world: Ellen made the sexual orientation of its protagonist a major plot point so that other shows could present the matter as an everyday fact of life. I’m sure Susan would gladly trade in her toaster oven to live in such a world.

Stray observations:

You probably recognized some of the famous gay people and allies who showed up in Ellen’s “lesbian supermarket” dream sequences that opens Part 2 (Demi Moore, Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, Gina Gershon, Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam), but if you knew Jenny Shimizu—model, actress, and one-time Angelina Jolie love interest—then you are hereby invited to join my team whenever my local college bar gets around to holding Gay Trivia Night. [DB]

Fuck yeah, I recognized Jenny Shimizu. It was 1997! You think that copy of Giant Robot was just on my coffee table for show? [PDN]

Fruitopia, General Foods International Coffees, Bound, Sling Blade. Man, the ’90s actually were like some kind of I Love The ’90s clip show! [DB]

My favorite joke in these episodes (and I think there’s a lot here that’s very funny) is probably the one that most recalls DeGeneres’ stand-up act. Discussing the grind of her college friend Richard’s TV reporter job, she commiserates: “One day it’s a whale washing up on the beach, the next day it’s cloning, then it’s another whale washing up on the beach. You can only save one, but you don’t know which one is the original.” [DB]

When I say that “The Puppy Episode” was a mass-media event, part of what that means is that it was a marketing event, with companies lining up to declare their openness, and get a piece of the pie, by booking air time for that episode. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever known in my life to seeing the new commercials roll out during the Super Bowl. The one I remember best is this one for a car which, and you kids will just have to trust your Uncle Phil on this one, actually kicked off heated arguments—on the Interwebs and even in the pages of what was then my local newspaper, The New Orleans Times-Picayune—over whether the fact that the commercial had debuted during Ellen’s coming-out show meant that the two guys were supposed to be gay. It was all a lot of fun. Then, as I said, the show tried to just go on being a regular weekly show, and the news became all about which advertisers were scurrying to jump ship. [PDN]

Speaking of shows that made advancements for lesbians: While Roseanne is guilty of one of the biggest “lesbianism as ratings stunt” moments in TV history, it also deserves its share of credit for making lesbian lifestyles more visual on television, through the characters of Nancy and Beverly. [GK]

Am I right in reading Paige as being the lone character who’s not totally on board with Ellen’s announcement? She seems distinctly uncomfortable around Ellen following her coming out. I don’t remember if the show got around to resolving this at some point in a later episode, but I hope it did. Ellen’s coming out goes very smoothly here, as it needs to for this episode to work, but it would be nice to see her encounter some resistance other than her own self-doubt. [GK]

Genevieve, you read Paige’s reaction right. Her reservations about Ellen’s coming out are a major plot line in the last few episodes of the season. [DB]

Ellen’s fourth season confrontation with DeGeneres’ real life is announced in the opening line of first episode, making the entire year a series of in-jokes for those in the know. [RM]

The Enlightened fan in me kept thinking that Laura Dern’s character had just gotten back from Hawaii. [RM]

If “The Puppy Episode has any legacy beyond Ellen’s coming out, it’s the way her cover story pretty much led the way for Tobias Fünke’s particular way of speaking: “I guess I’m just a sucker for man-woman sex.” [EA]

It’s weird that there’s no hooting and hollering when Oprah Winfrey suddenly shows up, right? I wonder how much the studio audience for “The Puppy Episode” knew about the episode beforehand. [EA]

Am I wrong in thinking that every sitcom of this era came with its own Audrey? Or I am just conflating her with fuzzy memories of Kathy Griffin as Suddenly Susan’s Vicki? [EA]

Next week: Ryan McGee warns us not to enter the shop of Diff’rent Strokes’ “The Bicycle Man,” both partsof which are available on YouTube. After that, it’s Readers’ Choice—so start nominate your favorite episodes in the comments of this post.

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