“The Puppy Episode.”
It sounds completely innocent, and perhaps that was the reason for the title, but it turned out to be anything but……It was the episode of the TV show Ellen, when Ellen Morgan comes out of the closet. And brought Ellen DeGeneres with her.
Ellen had been on for three years, and both Ellen DeGeneres and the writers and producers, were unhappy with the lack of focus in the show. It wasn’t the usual single-girl-sitcom-about-the-trials-and-tribulations-of-dating; one producer suggested that since Ellen Morgan showed no inclination toward dating, she should get a puppy.
Executive producer Mark Driscoll: “It was an indication of just how lost the show was that network executives would be excited by Ellen buying a puppy.” But then it took on a life of it’s own, and soon “The Puppy Episode” was born, though it had nothing to do with dogs.
In the summer of 1996 DeGeneres and the shows other writers began negotiating with ABC, and its parent company Disney, to have Ellen Morgan come out during season four. Word of the secret negotiations leaked in September of that year, sparking a storm of speculation as to whether the character, the actress, or both would come out.
Disney rejected the first draft of the script, though not because it would be controversial; Disney exec Dean Valentine said the story did not go far enough. With Disney fully onboard, “The Puppy Episode” was written, and ABC announced on March 3, 1997 that Ellen Morgan would be coming out.
But all wasn’t happy and, well, gay, at the time. Believe it or not, there were some people who were upset that Ellen Morgan was going to utter those words….”I’m gay.” The studio received bomb threats and phone calls came in declaring that anyone and everyone associated with that show would be going to Hell. And even people in the entertainment industry questioned the need for Ellen Morgan to come out.
Ellen DeGeneres: “I did it selfishly for myself and because I thought it was a great thing for the show, which desperately needed a point of view.”
DeGeneres began dropping hints in the episodes leading up to “The Puppy Episode” that she was planning to come out on the show and in real life, including such sight gags as opening the show with Ellen Morgan actually coming out of a closet; and DeGeneres even kissed k.d. lang while presenting her with an award at a Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center function in early 1997.
Finally, in April 1997, came the Time magazine cover, featuring Ellen DeGeneres uttering the words, “Yep, I’m Gay.” Ellen, and then-girlfriend-and-future-crazy Anne Heche, appeared on Oprah the day “The Puppy Episode”aired to discuss their relationship.
Ellen was out. And Ellen was out.
“The Puppy Episode” and Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out generated enormous publicity before the show even aired. Right-wing-nut groups like the American Family Association [AFA] pressured ABC to drop the storyline and urged Ellen sponsors not to advertise. Two such advertisers, J. C. Penney and Chrysler, decided not to buy time during the episode, and another, Wendy’s, decided not to advertise on Ellen ever again.
This was just twelve years ago, people.
Of course, even asshat Jerry Falwell had to get in the picture, and took to calling Ellen DeGeneres, “Ellen Degenerate”, to which DeGeneres responded, “I’ve been getting that since the fourth grade. I guess I’m happy I could give him work.”
Still, support for Ellen and Ellen was huge. GLAAD organized “Come Out With Ellen” house parties, and the Human Rights Campaign [HRC] created “Ellen Coming Out House Party” kits that included invitations, posters and an Ellen trivia game. HRC initially planned to send out 300 kits, but response was overwhelming, and they upped that number to over 3,000.
When ABC affiliate WBMA in Birmingham, Alabama, citing that old chestnut “family values”, asked for the networks permission to air the show in a late-night slot, ABC refused; the affiliate then refused to air the episode at all and the local LGBT organization Pride Birmingham arranged for a satellite feed of the episode and rented a 5,000-seat theatre for a viewing party, which sold out. Activists in Abilene, Texas circulated a petition requesting that their affiliate, KTXS, not air the episode but were unsuccessful.
“The Puppy Episode” was the highest-rated episode ever of Ellen, drawing some 42 million viewers; it won an Emmy for Best Comedy Writing, and won a Peabody Award for Excellence in Television, and a GLAAD Media Award.
Ellen Morgan’s coming out has been described as “the most hyped, anticipated, and possibly influential gay moment on television” and is credited with paving the way for such LGBT-themed shows such as Will and Grace, The L Word, Ugly Betty and others. It has also been suggested that Ellen and these other series have helped to reduce societal prejudice against LGBT people.
Following “The Puppy Episode”, Ellen was renewed for another season, but ABC, possibly faced with more advertisers withdrawing, began to preface each episode with a parental advisory warning. DeGeneres criticized the network for including the warnings, telling Entertainment Weekly: “It was like this voice like you’re entering some kind of radiation center. It was very offensive, and you don’t think that’s going to affect ratings?”
DeGeneres further noted hypocrisy on the part of ABC which aired episodes of The Drew Carey Show and Spin City, featuring two men kissing, with no disclaimers at all. Was it because the men, and their characters were heterosexual, and so the joke was okay?
So, many say, Ellen DeGeneres took it a step further. Episodes after “The Puppy Episode” dealt almost solely with LGBT issues: Ellen coming out to her parents and boss, quitting her job at the bookstore and finding a series of new jobs, searching for a girlfriend, and learning more about the LGBT community. Even some members of the LGBT community criticized this new Ellen. Chastity Bono, working for GLAAD at the time, was quoted as saying, “[Ellen] is so gay it’s excluding a large part of our society. A lot of the stuff on it is somewhat of an inside joke. It’s one thing to have a gay lead character, but it’s another when every episode deals with specific gay issues.” Bono would later say her comments were taken out of context.
Ellen was canceled after its fifth season.
With the cancellation of Ellen, DeGeneres went back to stand-up comedy, where she had begun her career, and returned to television in 2001 with the short-lived The Ellen Show, in which her character Ellen Richmond was openly lesbian from the start. She has since found enormous success with her talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Speaking of “The Puppy Episode”and it’s aftermath, DeGeneres said, “It was a huge step in my life. I think people sensed the honesty in it. I think it helped a lot of people, and still to this day I hear about parents and children being able to have an honest conversation through watching that show. That’s ultimately what television can be: It can get conversations started.”
I agree. I was out, way out, when this show aired, but I teared up when Ellen Morgan uttered those words, because I had teared up the first time I uttered them. And I teared up because this was one of the first times I had seen one of ‘us’ on TV who wasn’t a joke, or a villain, or dying of AIDS. It was a gay character, just a normal gay character. And I’ll always remember the one line I loved even more than the coming out line; it happens when Ellen Morgan tells her therapist that no one gives you a cake with the words “Good For You, You’re Gay” on it. And when she finally admits that she is gay, her therapist says those words to her.
I say that to everyone I know who’s come out since that show aired:
“Good for you. You’re gay.”
And the march goes on.
On This Day In LGBT History
October 30, 1976 – The first gay civil rights group in Quebec, Association pour les droits de la communauté gaie du Québec (ADGQ) is formed.
October 30, 1987– A panel discussion on gays and the constitution was held during the inauguration of the new Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale University.
October 30, 1992 – New Ways Ministry, a Mt. Rainier Maryland group led by three Roman Catholic bishops, announced it would release a statement of disagreement with the Vatican’s call for gays and lesbians to be barred from becoming adoptive or foster parents, teachers, coaches, or military personnel. 1,500 lay persons signed the statement.