Monday, April 30, 2018

Today In 1997, the Coming Out Episode of 'Ellen' Airs

"The Puppy Episode" is a two-part episode of the situation comedy television series Ellen. The episode details lead character Ellen Morgan's realization that she is a lesbian and her coming out. It was the 22nd and 23rd episode of the series' 4th season. The episode was written by series star Ellen DeGeneres with Mark Driscoll, Tracy Newman, Dava Savel and Jonathan Stark and directed by Gil Junger. It originally aired on ABC today, April 30, in 1997. The title was used as a code name for Ellen's coming out so as to keep the whole episode under wraps.

DeGeneres began negotiating with ABC in 1996 to have Morgan come out. When word of the negotiations got out, DeGeneres found herself at the center of intense speculation about when she or her character, or both, would come out. With DeGeneres hinting at her and her character's coming out both off-screen and within the show, the rumors were confirmed when the episode went into production in March 1997.

Despite threats from advertisers and religious groups, "The Puppy Episode" was an enormous ratings success, won multiple awards and became a cultural phenomenon. Nonetheless, DeGeneres and her show quickly garnered criticism for being "too gay;" the series was canceled after one more season and DeGeneres and guest star Laura Dern faced career backlash.

With word of the episode out, backlash began. The studio received at least one bomb threat. DeGeneres was followed by car to the studio on at least one occasion by a "suspicious man." Some within the entertainment industry assumed that the coming out was simply a ratings stunt, to which DeGeneres responded, "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 in real life and have her character come out as well, including such sight gags as Ellen Morgan stumbling into an actual closet so that she could come out of it. She also invited comment with her off-screen actions, as when she kissed k.d. lang while presenting her with an award at a Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center function in early 1997. DeGeneres finally officially came out in Time magazine, with an April 14, 1997, cover emblazoned with the words, "Yep, I'm Gay." She appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show with then-girlfriend Anne Heche the day "The Puppy Episode" was set to air.

DeGeneres commented on her months of hinting at her sexuality and the media frenzy within the episode itself, giving Ellen Morgan's friends lines like "Ellen, are you coming out or not?!" and "Yeah, quit jerking us around and come out already!" Morgan's therapist comments that if Morgan does not come out she will "continue to have these dreams and then it's going to show up in your waking life as these little clues that get more and more obvious. And eventually tiresome." She also says that Morgan cannot blame her reluctance to come out on the media.

"The Puppy Episode" and DeGeneres's attendant coming out generated enormous publicity before the show aired. Right-wing groups like the American Family Association pressured ABC to drop the storyline and Ellen sponsors not to advertise; two occasional advertisers, J. C. Penney and Chrysler, decided not to buy time during the episode. Another sponsor, Wendy's, decided not to advertise on Ellen again at all. Despite these losses of potential advertisers, ABC turned away ads from two LGBT-oriented sponsors, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and lesbian vacation company Olivia Cruises. 

Jerry Falwell called 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." 

GLAAD organized "Come Out With Ellen" house parties across the United States and HRC created "Ellen Coming Out House Party" kits that included invitations, posters and an Ellen trivia game. HRC had initially planned to send out about 300 kits. Deluged with requests, they ended up sending out about 3,000. 

ABC affiliate WBMA-LP in Birmingham, Alabama, citing "family values", first sought ABC's permission to move the episode out of prime-time to a late-night slot. When ABC declined the request, the affiliate refused to air the episode at all. Local LGBT organization Pride Birmingham arranged for a satellite feed of the episode and rented a 5,000-seat theatre for a viewing party, with about 1,000 people attending. Local activists circulated a petition requesting that Abilene, Texas-area affiliate KTXS-TV not air the episode but were unsuccessful.

"The Puppy Episode" was the highest-rated episode ever of Ellen, drawing some 42 million viewers. "The Puppy Episode" won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series and a second for Outstanding Multi-Camera Picture Editing. The episode won a Peabody Award and DeGeneres won a GLAAD Media Award in 1998. 

Ellen Morgan's coming out has been described as "the most hyped, anticipated, and possibly influential gay moment on television." GLAAD credits Ellen with paving the way for such LGBT-themed programming as Will and Grace, The L Word, and Ugly Betty and it has been suggested that Ellen and these other series presenting LGBT characters have helped to reduce societal prejudice against LGBT people. The episode was ranked #46 on TV Guide's list of "100 Greatest Episodes of All-Time."

Following "The Puppy Episode", Ellen was renewed for another season. ABC prefaced each episode of season five with a parental advisory warning. DeGeneres strongly criticized ABC for including the warnings, saying in an interview with 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 demonstrable hypocrisy on the part of ABC, citing episodes of ABC series The Drew Carey Show and Spin City, which included two men kissing (the Carey episode was even promoted using the kiss). "There's no disclaimer on [the Carey show] at all, because it's two heterosexual men, and they're making fun of heterosexuality...[Spin City aired without a disclaimer] because neither (Michael J. Fox nor Michael Boatman) is really gay in real life." 

Episodes after "The Puppy Episode" dealt with Ellen's coming out to her parents and boss, quitting her job at the bookstore and finding a series of new jobs. Other episodes dealt with her search for a romantic partner and learning more about the LGBT community. Ellen was canceled after its fifth season.

Guest star Laura Dern faced backlash over her appearance on the show. In a 2007 interview for DeGeneres's talk show commemorating the tenth anniversary of "The Puppy Episode," Dern stated that she did not work for a year and a half because of playing Susan. Nonetheless, Dern said that she was grateful for the "extraordinary experience and opportunity" of being a part of the episode. Speaking of her experience, 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."

1 comment:

Sooo-this-is-me said...

I have always been a fan of Ellen's humour. That was a big moment in tv and after watching that clip, it's still to this day, so funny to watch!