It was a week after her famous Yep, Im Gay Time magazine cover, in an hour-long special episode of her sitcom, Ellen, called The Puppy Episode. The innocuous title served two purposes: to keep the actual mission of the episode a secret, and to flip a middle finger at a studio executive whose response to DeGeneres pitch for her character come out on the show and finally pursue a real love was to have her get a dog instead.
The episode, 20 years later, is still hilariousit won the Emmy Award for Best Writing in a Comedy Seriesand certainly still poignant, even if the weight of what was happening seems a little bit lighter today.
The first half hour finds DeGeneres Ellen Morgan on a date with an old friend of hers, but feeling an unshakable connection to his co-worker, Laura Derns Susan, instead.
She talks about it with her therapist, played by none other than Oprah Winfrey. Ellen laments that shes only truly clicked with one person before. And what was his name? Winfreys therapist asks. Susan, Ellen says.
Later, Ellen chases Susan down at the airport to confess, for the first time, her feelings. Susan, Im gay, she says, accidentally leaning into the airports P.A. microphone and blaring her coming-out on the speakers, a moment as perfectly comedic as it is momentous.
Its easy to forget, given DeGeneres status as daytime talk show queen and Americas resident BFF, how controversial, brave, and even damaging the decision to come out on an ABC sitcom was in 1997, the first time a character ever did so. It was at the height of the 90s culture wars, six months after the Defense of Marriage Act was signed into law, that The Puppy Episode went into production. Advertisers pulled out of the show. A viewer discretion warning ran before each half hour.
More than 42 million people watched the episode, which won a Peabody and an Emmy. Yet for years, DeGeneres career suffered for it. The price of liberation was having her career nearly destroyed.
In a special about the episode that will air Friday afternoon on her talk show, DeGeneres explains the need to remind people of just how big a move this was: This was before Will & Grace, before Mitch and Cam on Modern Family, before Neil Patrick Harris, which is why I thought it was important to celebrate the anniversary and to remember what it was like back then and to appreciate how far weve come.
The episodes first half hour was written by writing partners Tracy Newman and Jonathan Stark, who shared an Emmy for the episode with Dava Savel and Mark Driscoll, who wrote the second half hour, and DeGeneres, who is credited with the story.
To find out what it was like to write the monumental Im gay moment, a moment that changed not only television, but culture as we live in it today, we spoke to Newman and Stark. Heres what we learned.
Before Season 4 of Ellen started production, DeGeneres had the shows writers and other key members of the staff over to her house for a party. It was there she announced that, after tough conversations with the network and studio, her character would come out as gay that season.
NEWMAN: Everybody was excited about it, pretty much.
STARK: I do remember thinking, Oh thank god because there was no way we could write another heterosexual love interest. I thought, oh, this is great. It gives us an arc for the season that we can play to and work up to.
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