Jun 22, 2013

The Puppy Episode: Ellen Comes Out

As you get older, childhood memories remain crisp and clear, but recent memories sort of fade away.  I remember every detail of the 1970s, but the 1990s are hazy.  Who would have believed that, just 15 years ago, a gay character on tv would be such a big deal?












During the mid-1990s, just before or after The Drew Carey Show, you could watch Ellen (1994-98), a sort of kinder, gentler Seinfeld with bookstore owner Ellen Morgan (Ellen Degeneres) as the center of a group of quirky friends (Joely Fisher, Holly Fulger, Arye Gross, Joel Anthony Higgins, later Jeremy Piven, below).  

I actually never watched, but according to the episode guide, they had Seinfeld-esque problems, often involving heterosexual romance:



The guy Ellen is dating is a bad kisser.
Ellen tries to act cool to impress her younger boyfriend.
Ellen falls for a guy who delivers pizzas for a living.

In the third and fourth seasons, the focus moved away from Ellen's boyfriends; she rarely if ever dated or mentioned guys.  Then Ellen Degeneres got an idea: why not make Ellen gay, and come out herself in the process?

It was a bold move -- there were no gay characters in starring roles at the time, and gay actors were invariably advised that to come out was career suicide.  Producers said "Couldn't Ellen just get a puppy?"

During the 1996-97 season, in an atmosphere of intense media scrutiny and breathless anticipation -- "Will she or won't she?" -- Ellen's coming out came at glacial speed. Hint after hint -- Ellen walks out of a literal closet.  At a rock and roll fantasy camp, she pretends to be the lesbian singer k.d. laing.  Her friends try to trick her into admitting it.  The actress came out herself on the Oprah Winfrey Show in February, and made the cover of Time magazine with the caption "Yep, I'm gay." 

Finally, at the very end of the season, on April 30th, 1997, came "The Puppy Episode."  Ellen the tv character Said The Word -- at an airport, over a loudspeaker.  

And the media went wild.

I watched some of the fifth season (1997-98).  Apparently thinking that her show wouldn't last long with a gay titular character, Ellen spent the season trying to educate the audience on gay issues. She encounters nonstop homophobia.  She preaches on myths about lesbians.  She becomes dour, humorless, morose, constantly depressed.  Wow, who knew that being gay was so awful?

When the show was cancelled, anti-gay pundits rejoiced, saying "See! Good Americans won't tolerate a pervert on tv!"  Actually, good Americans won't tolerate a bitterly unfunny, preachy sitcom.

Not to worry, though: Ellen Degeneres bounced back as a renowned talk show host, thus proving that Middle America is fully capable of watching tv programs with gay actors -- and gay characters.