It was a week after her famous “Yep, I’m 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 hilarious—it won the Emmy Award for Best Writing in a Comedy Series—and 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 Dern’s Susan, instead.
She talks about it with her therapist, played by none other than Oprah Winfrey. Ellen laments that she’s only truly “clicked” with one person before. “And what was his name?” Winfrey’s therapist asks. “Susan,” Ellen says.
Later, Ellen chases Susan down at the airport to confess, for the first time, her feelings. “Susan, I’m gay,” she says, accidentally leaning into the airport’s P.A. microphone and blaring her coming-out on the speakers, a moment as perfectly comedic as it is momentous.
It’s easy to forget, given DeGeneres’ status as daytime talk show queen and America’s 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 we’ve come.”
The episode’s 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 “I’m gay” moment, a moment that changed not only television, but culture as we live in it today, we spoke to Newman and Stark. Here’s what we learned.
Before Season 4 of Ellen started production, DeGeneres had the show’s 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.
NEWMAN: My partner [Stark] actually was nervous about it. Not because of what it was doing, but because it meant that we would be under a great deal of scrutiny. Which was true! We were.
STARK: I said I just don’t think we should, because a lot of people don’t remember that the show wasn’t a darling with the critics. I thought this is just going to give them more fodder to crucify us, and I don’t know that I want to do that. Tracy said, “No, I think we should do it.” I always listened to Tracy and figured she was the coolest head of the two of us. But I was scared the whole time because, if we were under the microscope before, god, we’re going to be put on the petri dish and everyone is going to watch us.
The episode begins with a tongue-in-cheek wink to the media coverage and cultural anticipation for Ellen’s coming out. The first scene is Ellen getting ready for a date, and her friends, played by Joely Fisher, Clea Lewis, and David Anthony Higgins, teasing her while they wait: “Ellen are you coming out or not?” “Quit jerking us around and come out already!”
STARK: That was an afterthought! What we originally had was Melissa Etheridge playing her guitar with Ellen at the beginning. And I remember saying, “I don’t think we should do this at the beginning. We shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back before we do the thing. That’s painting a target on our back, you know?” I was really against that.
The scene with Etheridge was moved to kick off the second half hour.
STARK: Ellen felt we should do it, but I was like, “I think it’s great. It’s a wonderful thing. But can we not do it at the beginning?” I wasn’t in the room when they wrote that eventual opening. The other writers came up with that and I saw it and thought, “Oh my gosh, this is fantastic.”
It was DeGeneres who “broke the story,” an industry term for developing the outline and major story points that the writing staff would then flesh out with dialogue and structure. The decision to have the big “I’m gay” moment be accidentally spoken into the microphone for the entire airport to hear—that was all DeGeneres.
STARK: We sat down one day in the room and she kind of said, “Here are the things I want to hit,” and then kind of left it up to us. All the things she had were good. They were great points. But then we had to put the puzzle together in a story form that had a beginning, a middle, and an end.
NEWMAN: That was all Ellen. Somebody said that it had been on Wings. Not that somebody had announced that they were gay, but they announced something personal over the P.A. I hadn’t seen that episode, but that was going around at the time that she had seen it on Wings.
STARK: I don’t think I’ve felt anything that amazing on a stage before. And I’ve been on a lot of sitcom stages and watched a lot of shows being shot. That was one of those things that just washed over everybody: the audience, the crew, the writers, the actors. This moment, I just felt like we were one entity just experiencing this together. It was so powerful and so moving.
NEWMAN: The character is so careful and so nervous about it, and to announce it to the world, essentially, and a bunch of strangers, we thought it was a great idea. When you’re taking a big political step like this, the funnier you can make it and the lighter you can make it the better. Ellen was the perfect person to do this, by the way. Everybody loved her. So we were able to write it very light, this serious subject. And she was able to act it that way. The lightness didn’t reflect how Ellen felt as a person. She was very emotional the whole year.
The applause after the “I’m gay” line was rapturous, and went on longer than anyone anticipated. In the midst of it all, Dern spontaneously embraces a visibly emotional and shaken DeGeneres.
STARK: I’m not even sure if that was in the script. She may have just done that because the applause was going on so long and she was so moved by it. We expected something big, but I don’t think we expected anything like that.
In the writers’ room, DeGeneres had a reputation for promising big guest stars, but failing to deliver. “The Puppy Episode,” however, was an exception. Everyone DeGeneres wanted to participate said yes. Others were clamoring to be a part of the major moment. Oprah Winfrey was cast as the therapist, Laura Dern as the woman Ellen falls in love with, and Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang shot cameos.
NEWMAN: We were used to Ellen saying she could get anybody. “I’ll get Brad Pitt for that show.” Then we’ll start the reality of trying to get the person and could never get anybody. But everybody wanted to do this episode. We were not used to that. So when she approached Oprah, the fact that Oprah said yes right away is amazing. We knew that we had something different going on here.
STARK: When you get celebrities and people that people know involved in an episode like that, you think, “Wow, this is a big deal. And we’re going to have to really measure up and give them everything we got.”
On Friday’s episode of DeGeneres’ talk show, Dern calls the episode the highlight of her career: “[There is] no greater gift than being the person that was with you and looking in your eyes as you said those words,” she said. She remembers that DeGeneres burst into tears every time she said “I’m gay” during rehearsals, and whispered to her, “Maybe I’m not going to say it, because I haven’t said that out loud.”
Dern says that in the end, “Watching you have this catharsis and the audience support, literally holding each other up during this very emotional moment, it was so profound.” But the moment didn’t come at a price. Dern faced a career backlash because of her participation in the episode and didn’t work for more than a year.
STARK: I heard that Laura Dern didn’t work after that for a year and a half. And Oprah got horrible hate mail afterward. So they put a lot on the line for that show. I will always respect them both for that.
When Barack Obama awarded DeGeneres the Medal of Freedom last year, he reminded everyone in his speech of the intensity of the hate she received after the episode and how harmful it had been for her career, up until Finding Nemo and her talk show debuted in 2003.
“It’s easy to forget now, when we’ve come so far, where now marriage is equal under the law, just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost 20 years ago,” Obama said. “Just how important it was, not just to the LGBT community, but for all of us to see somebody so full of kindness and light, somebody we liked so much, somebody who could be our neighbor, or our colleague, or our sister, challenge our own assumptions. Remind us that we have more in common that we realize. Push our country in the direction of justice. What an incredible burden that was to bear, to risk your career like that. People don’t do that very often. And then to have the hopes of millions on your shoulders…”
NEWMAN: It was so sad to see her be so successful with this episode and see so much of the country, in a way, turning its back on her. It seemed that way, at least. I’m sure the country wasn’t actually turning its back on her, but television was. Studios didn’t know what to do with her. In fact, I was at a party at her house. I was kidding around. I said, “You should do Murder She Wrote, or something like that. No one will care who you’re dating because you’re solving crimes.” She said, “Well why don’t you write it?” She didn’t know what to do.
The show itself suffered, failing to live up to the major moment it created with “The Puppy Episode,” and unsure of how to navigate a sitcom in which the lead character is gay, when that had never been done before. At the end of the season, Newman and Stark left the series.
NEWMAN: We didn’t stay. She cleaned house. She had always threatened to clean house every year but my partner and I had always survived the purges. We didn’t survive this purge, but anyway John and I had already talked about leaving because we felt like now that there’s this elephant in the room, what do you do? You can’t just have a regular dating show, can you? We just didn’t think we could, because she had too much personal feelings invested in it. I didn’t know what kind of show it would be, but I didn’t think I could write it.
STARK: I remember thinking, what’s the next year? I said, I think in the next year, soap boxes are not going to work. What we really need to write is, OK, now she’s in a relationship, but relationships are hard no matter what your sexual preference. They’re never easy. Even though she’s in a relationship with a woman, we shouldn’t make the show much different. Just have the relationship. Write that. That wasn’t exactly what happened.
Twenty years later, it’s comforting to know that the episode still holds up.
Stark: It still makes me laugh, and I know the jokes that are coming. My daughter watched the episode and wrote this thing on her Facebook, saying, “I’ve always been proud of you dad, but because you did so much for this movement I’m even more proud of you than I was.” She’s so much wiser than me. I went into that episode thinking, “Oh this will be fun,” but because she was so proud of it, I became proud of myself. I did do something really cool.