Did you know it is Ellen DeGeneres‘ birthday? Our Lady of Genuine Niceness turns 57 years old today! When we were brainstorming birthday posts — 20 Times Ellen and Portia Were So In Love They Made You Throw Up, A Definitive Ranking of Every Character Ellen Has Ever Played, Dory Motivational Posters for Your Office Wall — I found out a thing that surprised me. Half of our senior staff has never seen “The Puppy Episode.” I guess I shouldn’t be too amazed; it did air 17 years ago, after all. I meet queer women all the time who have never heard of the “The Puppy Episode.” I meet queer women who don’t even know that Ellen had a scripted TV series called Ellen!
So, to celebrate Ellen’s big day, Memaw Hogan has decided to recap probably the most important television episode in the history of gay media for you.
The story goes that during the early days of Ellen’s fourth season, ABC execs started feeling a little squirrelly about her character on her eponymously named sitcom. She wasn’t dating dudes. She wasn’t bemoaning the fact that she wasn’t dating dudes. She was concentrating on her career as a bookstore owner/manager while all of her friends (and Rachel and Monica and Phoebe over on NBC) did all the neurotic dude-dating things that ’90s comedies required. The solution, ABC’s bosses decided, was for Ellen Morgan to get a puppy.
Ellen DeGeneres had a different idea: She wanted her character to come out as a lesbian. It was well known in Hollywood, even by the media, that Ellen was gay; allowing her character come out as the first leading queer woman on television would also permit her to come out publicly in real life. “The Puppy Episode,” which aired in two parts on April 30, 1997 and coincided with Time‘s now-famous “Yep, I’m Gay” cover story on DeGeneres, pulled in 42 million viewers, making it the show’s highest rated episode ever. And it won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series. It also occurred at a time when the Republican Party was beginning to fully implement the Religious Right’s propogandic anti-gay campaign all over the country. “The Puppy Episode” aired on the heels of the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
You know the rest of the story. Ellen only survived one season after “The Puppy Episode.” The Ellen Show, a kind-of spin-off on CBS, only lasted 18 episodes. And real Ellen’s career tanked for a while. So did the career of Laura Dern, who played Susan, Ellen’s love interest in “The Puppy Episode.” And now here we are, nearly two decades later. DOMA and DADT have finally both been struck down; nationally recognized marriage equality seems inevitable, and soon; and Ellen DeGeneres is the whole world’s sweetheart.
But “The Puppy Episode” is still very important! And here it is, in recap form!
The Puppy Episode, Part 1
Ellen is in her office at Buy the Book getting ready to go to dinner with her old college pal, Richard. He’s a TV reporter in Pittsburgh, and is only in town to do an interview for a story. Her friends yell at her to hurry up and come out — much to the live audience’s delight! — or she’ll be late for the date. But she says she has a whole hour, and they need to calm down.
At dinner, Ellen and Richard laugh and chat comfortably, just like old times, until they are interrupted by Richard’s producer, Susan. She says she’s heard all about Ellen Morgan from Richard; he won’t shut up about how amazing she is.
Ellen: Hey, you just can’t compliment somebody and leave; sit down and have dessert!
Susan: Well, I haven’t had dinner, so, well, sure. Just keep talking, as you were before; pretend I’m not here.
Richard: So tell me about the bookstore. I mean, it sounds great.
Susan: [Takes some parsley from Ellen’s dish.]
Ellen: Well, that’s amazing! My parsley is just disappearing! That is the strangest thing! [to Susan] I’m pretending like you’re not here.
Susan: Who are you talking to? I’m not here.
Richard: That’s funny.
Susan flirts with Ellen, sweeping an eyelash off her face, and Ellen flirts back. Only, Ellen doesn’t know she’s flirting. They quote Slingblade together, and laugh and laugh. After dinner, Ellen lounges around in Richard’s room, drinking a Fruitopia(!), while he tries to snuggle up to her and convince her they should have gotten together college. He says he would have been much happier with her, long term, than all those cheerleaders and supermodels. Ellen says, “Uh, yeah. Yeah, that’s how I’m feeling with you. If there’s one thing I’m feeling right now, it’s comfortable.” (She is not feeling comfortable.)
When Richard makes a move, Ellen darts for the door. Out in the hallway, Susan finds Ellen talking to herself and invites her in for a five-dollar soda. Ellen accepts the invitation but not the soda, because she’s still full on Fruitopia. One interesting tidbit about “The Puppy Episode” is that advertisers were fighting over airtime like it was the Super Bowl, but by the next season, Ellen was bleeding ad revenue. Susan and Ellen banter adorably about how much they have in common. Ellen wonders if Susan and Richard ever had a thing, but assumes they didn’t because office romances are bad ideas.
Susan: No. I don’t date men.
Ellen: Oh. Why?
Susan: I’m gay.
Ellen: You’re gay? Oh. How about that. Gay. Good, good. I didn’t, I didn’t, I … That’s, um, good for you, of course. Why wouldn’t you be gay?
Susan: Wow, I thought you knew. In fact, I, um, thought you were gay, too.
Ellen: You thought I was gay? Why would you think I was gay?
Susan: Oh, wow, sorry, I just kinda got that vibe.
Ellen: Vibe? Like a “gay vibe”? Like I’m giving off some kind of gay vibrations? GAY! Yeah, that’s funny. No, I think what you’re sensing is a very, very strong “I like men” vibe and it’s throwing you a little bit, so, you know, you’re confused about that.
Ellen: You know it’s funny, because I think I know what’s going on, it’s not enough for you to be gay; you gotta recruit others.
Susan: Yeah, I’ll have to call national headquarters and tell them I lost you. Damn, just one more and I would have gotten that toaster oven.
Ellen: What is that? Gay humor? ‘Cause I don’t get it. That’s how un-gay I am.
Ellen rushes back to Richard’s room to prove to herself that she’s not gay. She dips him and kisses him full on the mouth.
The next day, she tells her friends all about the “man-woman sex” they had together, and how great it was, but when she goes to see her therapist — Oprah, obviously — she says she lied to her friends. “Oh, men! Men, men, men! Why do I love men so much?” is a lie she kept shouting to them over and over.
Ellen: You know what I hate? I’ll tell you what I hate. I hate when people make assumptions about you, you know? Especially when that you is me. It’s not like I haven’t had boyfriends, you know, just because I don’t happen to have a boyfriend right now. I’m choosy. What’s wrong with that? If I wasn’t choosy, I’d be Mrs. Larry Gladstone, wife of my eighth grade boyfriend.
Oprah: There is nothing wrong with being choosy, Ellen.
Ellen: Right. Exactly. And it’s not like I’m looking for perfection, you know. I just want someone special, someone I click with.
Oprah: And obviously you didn’t click with Richard?
Ellen: [Shakes her head.]
Oprah: Has there ever been anyone you felt you clicked with?
Oprah: And what was his name?
When Ellen finds out Richard is leaving town early the next day, she rushes to the airport under the guise of seeing him off, but is really just looking for Susan. After trying to get Susan to say again that Ellen is gay so that Ellen can confirm it, she desperately blurts out, “I did get the joke about the toaster oven!” And then, accidentally over an airport microphone, “I’m gay!” She and Susan hug and the live audience loses its mind. Ellen thinks Susan has to go back to Pittsburgh with Richard, but Susan doesn’t, so Ellen smiles as bright and happy as Christmas morning and leaves the airport with her.
The Puppy Episode, Part 2
The second part of “The Puppy Episode” is heavy on stunt casting. Apparently, everyone wanted to be on the show when they heard Ellen was coming out. In addition to Laura Dern and Oprah, Part 2 features: Billy Bob Thornton! Jenny Shimizu! Demi Moore! k.d. lang! Gina Gershon! Jorja Fox! Dwight Yoakam! Betty DeGeneres! And Melissa Etheridge! Ellen dreams most of them in a grocery store sequence, saying things like, “They’re having a special on melons!” And, “That’ll be a lesbian twenty-nine.” And, “Let me help you take these bags to your gay car.”
Ellen asks Oprah to decode her dream, and Oprah asks Ellen if she had any idea that she was gay before Susan. There were hints: A love of Gertrude Stein. There was this girl she was infatuated with in middle school who used to give her free curly fries at the skating rink. Ellen says she ignored it because she wanted it to go away, so she could live a normal life.
Oprah: And what is a normal life, Ellen?
Ellen: I don’t know. Normal. I mean, just the same thing everybody wants, someone to — a house with a picket fence, a dog, a cat, Sunday barbecues. Someone to love, someone who loves me. Someone I can build a life with. I just want to be happy.
Oprah: And you think you can’t have these things with a woman?
Ellen: Well, society has a pretty big problem with it. There are a lot of people out there who think people like me are sick. Oh God, why did I ever rent Personal Best?
Oprah says Ellen needs to come out to either her friends or her parents, so Ellen chooses her friends. (She comes out to her parents in the next episode, and it’s also wonderful.) She comes out to her gay friend Peter first, and he is so happy for her. She tries to come out to her group of friends next, but chickens out, so Peter accidentally outs her by saying, “For god’s sake, Ellen, tell them you’re gay!” Her friends seemed genuinely shocked, but really psyched for her.
And, it turns out, they’re not actually shocked. They had a bet going the whole time.
The next day, Ellen brings Susan to her bookstore, and they are cute and awkward and wonderful together some more. And then Susan confesses that she is in an eight-year relationship and can’t pursue anything with Ellen. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also sweet and kind of perfect. The thing I’m not getting across with my words is, these two episodes of television are timeless.
Ellen’s friends take her to a lesbian coffee shop to start mending her broken heart, and Jorja Fox immediately hits on Ellen’s best friend, Paige. And then, at therapy:
Ellen: So you know, even though this whole thing with Susan was kind of heartbreaking, I feel like this tremendous weight has been lifted off of me. For the first time in my life, I feel comfortable with myself.
Oprah: Ellen, that is wonderful.
Ellen: Yeah. So, I guess I’m not going to need you anymore. But I thank you so much for everything, and take care. [Stands up to leave.]
Oprah: Ellen, when do you think you’ll be ready to start dating again?
Ellen: [Sits back down.] You’re just trying to make more money, aren’t you?
“The Puppy Episode” aired when I was in high school and you know what’s funny? I was just as nervous re-watching it today as I was when I was hiding under the covers and watching it back then. The jokes still land. The emotions still ring true. And Ellen’s performance is so open and vulnerable that you’ll just want to hug her so close. And, in some ways, watching this now is like reaching through time to hug your young, closeted self, too.
You can actually watch “The Puppy Episode” on YouTube! Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. If this is your first time, or if you’re an old pro, I’d love to hear your modern day thoughts on one of the most important pop culture moments in gay history.
And happy birthday, Ellen! Thanks for reminding us all to just keep swimming!
Real Talk this is truly wonderful Heather; thank you.
I knew about this episode but havn’t seen it and thus did not know about the role of Laura Dern. In a way I’m glad for this chronology, because now when I watch it for the first time I will imagine her as the future paleontologist in Jurassic Park.
Oh my god, I’m going to go watch it and then report back!
i’ve never seen this but i’m about to and i loved this little recap!
I watched this for the first time a few weeks ago because I was writing a paper on coming out and it made me feels so many feelings. It was so good. And then I rewatched Ellen Page’s coming out speech because the Tale of Two Ellens article a few months ago has Page and DeGeneres permanently linked in my mind. And it was still lovely and made my heart happy and sad at the same time.
Sorry for the double-comment, but ALSO Oprah’s response to Ellen when she starts talking about how gay people experience discrimination is SO GOOD.
“And, in some ways, watching this now is like reaching through time to hug your young, closeted self, too.”
^^It was exactly this. Everything Ellen went through was so relatable; even the “I’m Gay” over the loud speaker, because I feel like outing oneself on Facebook is equivalent to that nowadays.
The only thing completely farfetched was how quickly that girl in the coffee shop sat down to flirt with Ellen’s best friend. She just popped out of nowhere, so confident and bold! :)
I really loved watching this for the first time. It’s so important. If I had watched this when I was younger, who knows what would have happened!
HOW HAS ANYBODY NOT SEEN THIS EPISODE OF TELEVISION
I know, right?! THIS IS YOUR QUEER HISTORY, PEOPLE.
Also I laughed extra hard at the “Memaw Hogan” comment because, yeah, knowing that there are functioning gay adults out in the world who weren’t old enough/alive to see this when it aired makes me feel a bit like a memaw, too. :P
Oh my god the airport scene I totally laughed and then I totally cried. UGH lol. Also she’s so funny; A+ comedy on top of A+ humanity.
Laura Dern <333
On to watch part 2!
WHY WAS THIS SHOW EVER CANCELED IT’S SO CUTE AND GOOD. The cameos in part 2! God bless the out 90’s dykes, and the people before them who helped make it possible. <333
I was in 5th grade when the “Puppy Episode” first aired, and so even though I remember the really big deal about Ellen coming out (it was all over every magazine/ tv/ etc), the details of the actual episode are really fuzzy to me.
What I’m trying to say is, recapping this episode to a whole group of us who are too young to otherwise remember it and/or want to reminisce down memory lane feels like the perfect thing to do to celebrate Ellen’s birthday. I’m so happy you guys went with this direction (even though I’m sad to miss out on Dora motivational posters. Maybe same time, next year?)
Happy Birthday, Ellen! Don’t worry, it took me another 12 years to get the toaster joke.
Back in June 2012 I was this gay woman who only just found Autostraddle.com and then found a new Straddler friend who also happens to be Filipino and then she sent me a CD of the 1st part of the Puppy Episode (I actually didn’t know there was a 2nd part until today, okay but to be fair back in the day I didn’t know there was even a series called Ellen) and my life changed for the better. I laughed and cried esp during the airport episode and admired Ellen more than ever. I’m still friends with her (Hi Krstn!), am still an avid Straddler, still a big fan of Dory and Ellen, still gay, what was I trying to say? IDEK now. Anyway, HAPPY BIRTHDAY Chico / Fabio / Bingo – I mean ELLEN!
Your passion is contagious, heather! I really like all your articles. Thanks for writing this one. Made my evening.
Wow. 17 years ago I was in a really dark place, and also living TV-free. So I’d not seen these before. But now I’m in my own time of “… I feel like this tremendous weight has been lifted off of me. For the first time in my life I feel comfortable with myself.” So this was exactly what I needed to watch right now.
Puppy episode! I have watched this a few times, an old umfriend had all of Ellen on DVD so we would watch it on rainy Sunday afternoons sometimes.
My best story about the puppy episode was how my 7th grade health teacher showed us the dream sequence from the puppy episode, and was like “one day someone will come out to you. So.” This was about the year after it had aired, and for years since I have been like “boy, health teacher, you were a really impressive human.”
I just went to look
DAMMIT. what I meant to say was, I just went to go look up health teacher on facebook, and could not find her, but did find the kid who was like “girls are bad at soccer” and I kicked him really hard in the shins to be like “no, you’re wrong” and he is a very fancy bartender in SF now! and not a bad dude, probably just a 13 year old boy who had never been kicked in the shins by a girl before.
Thank you so much for posting this recap. I watch the puppy episode every time I’m sad or heartbroken or even when I just want to laugh and your recap captures all of that.
I’m an old woman and saw the episodes live and remember the hype around them. They sure lived up to it. They were hilarious and poignant and important. And the endless guest stars were awesome. thanks for the great recap and the info that the episodes are on YouTube. I’m off to rewatch them.
Ok so in the UK channel 4 showed had coming out night in honour of Ellen’s coming out, we had it a year later here because of the usual transatlantic TV weirdness. I was a confused teenage tomboy who knew really she was gay but didn’t want to deal with it for all the reasons cited to Oprah by Ellen… I watched the whole coming out weekend and came out pretty soon after. No lie. Ellen coming out hauled my teen ass out of the closet. So did watching All over me in the wee small hours and various other shows and movies that channel 4 out on that weekend.
This strikes a very familiar chord! I too watched the entirety of Channel 4’s coming out weekend, stood with my nose approx one inch from the tiny TV in my bedroom, because some really incompetent house thieves had stolen my remote control some years previously and I needed to be able to switch channel pronto when my parents inevitably wandered by and asked what I was watching.
I think I remember doing something similar the previous year when they had the Queer Street season on too. Oh, Channel 4! I could wax lyrical for days about how good you used to be!
I’m on a sick leave and this made my day, thanks for the recap and link!
k. d. lang is dreamy.
I use the “I would have gotten that toast oven” joke and always just get stared at. I guess since it’s been 17 years, that makes sense. Regardless, it’s an episode I haven’t forgotten and I probably haven’t seen in since it aired when I was in high school.
As always, great recap. Your love for things is infectious.
I made that joke this weekend and got stared at.
I still make that joke pretty frequently. We should start a support group.
I was 2 when this aired…but I did come across it on TV around the age 12-14, where it was a great help to me. Essential viewing for sure, and so true about it being a wonderful and timeless bite of quality television. Brava~
Awww Ellen’s smile in that GIF when Susan walks past!
I used to be obsessed with Oprah. I have that giant anniversary box set. I watched her and Gayle travel across the USA in a Chevrolet series instead of studying for my final exams. Good decisions.
thanks for sharing gay tv history, heather! i was a wee elementary kid when this episode aired so this is really important to my queer education! i watched the first few minutes of the first episode and was laughing and smiling, can’t wait to watch the rest of it.
ALSO I am going to make my gf watch the puppy episode with me. She won’t know what it is!
Also, toaster oven jokes make more sense now. I always assumed it was a dirty joke I didn’t get and could never figure out like… What are you guys doing with your toaster ovens? I can’t comprehend this bit PLEASE be careful!
i didn’t find out about the puppy episode into well into a real bad depression i had maybe three years ago and man, did it help so much. like now, whenever i get into a bad place, i do like this whole marathon of ellen’s puppy episode, her interview with oprah after she came out, portia’s interview with ellen about her book, (then i cry for about two hours) and then go back and watch that whole little youtube series where they just gush about each other for like three years straight and talk/show how lucky they are and how happy they are they’ve found each other. makes me happy to be alive tbh. fantastic recap, it made my day, thank you!
I love when they gush about each other too :) I haven’t seen them do that lovely dovey stuff for a while though, I miss their PDA.
Ha, totally went through this exact cycle after watching The Puppy Episode for the first time.
Thanks for this! I rewatched the Puppy Episode (and then the best bits of seasons 4 and 5) just recently and loved them all over again. I really recommend season 5’s “just coffee” episode as well.
Plus LEISHA HAILEY is in the audience of the gay coffee shop in part 2! she’s got a dyed black pixie cut, but I’d recognize her anywhere
LEISHA HAILEY HOMING DEVICE
I was in 7th grade when the Puppy Episode came out. I remember it vividly because it was life changing. My mom, who was really into Ellen at the time, made a really big deal out of watching it with me. (she would, much later make a big deal about me being choosy and going through a phase, until I reminded her of Ellen’s mom’s reaction and we laughed) after we watched this amazing episode I flipped the channel to mtv where “the real world” was on and gay men were making out on TV. My mom made a face at the men kissing and I was all MOM HELLO!!! (lol ahh being a teenager!) You can’t be all people can be gay and it’s a historic moment for TV and then get grossed out when people are actually making out.
After this episode I had recurring dreams where I was friends with Ellen and I would come out to her and she was my Oprah and she was so sweet and so kind and funny.
Two years later my best friend kissed me and everything came back and I had those dreams with Ellen again, and ahem, dreams with other girls too.
Now that I’m recounting the whole thing it’s hard to believe I wouldn’t have officially come out until after college almost 10 years after the Puppy Episode.
After I broke up with my first GF I found the website AfterEllen and I was SO into it and Heather’s posts and now I am obsessed with Autostraddle AND Heather is HERE!! And recapping the Puppy Episode. It’s such a beautiful full circle. Cycle. The moon. Ugh I love you. Lesbian bisexual toaster feelings forever.
Happy Birthday Ellen! Thank you autostraddle for warming my little gay heart.
I watched this episode while getting over rejection from my first grown up crush on a straight girl.
By “watched” I mean I can quote almost the entire episode because I saw it like 10 times within a week.
I love this episode so much, especially how adorably dorky Ellen and Susan are. I liked Susan way better than Lorri, and I’m convinced the show tanked because Ellen ended up with buzzkill Lorri, whose only redeeming quality was her awesome kid. (That, and the viewership wasn’t as liberal as they thought they were; they wanted to hear about guy problems, but had no interest in hearing about gay dating. Also, coming out is a heavy topic, and it’s hard to work into a sitcom format.)
I remember watching them in the kitchen of my parents’ house, completely terrified. It’s amazing how things have changed.
I was 14 when this aired. I was a nervous wreck watching this with my parents.
How about the ep with the flower petals? That’s a few after this one right? Oh, and there is a nice documentary about the Puppy Episode. I’ll look for it and post it here.
Wow. I remember watching this when it aired. I was a senior in high school. The next day one of my teachers brought it up in class, and reccommended that everyone watch it if they hadn’t already – because she was super awesome – which was harder to do in those days, kids!
It aired when I was in High School. I remember watching it and being so nervous that my mom would walk in, catch me watching and ask questions. I taped it on my VCR so I could watch it again.
Ahhh I’m so glad you wrote this. That was so wonderful to read and watch. And so relatable on so many levels. The awkwardness, the anxiety. So heartwarming. Especially at 20:44. “Why is this so hard to say, why am I so ashamed? I can’t even say the word!” Ahhh… this may have been 18 years ago, but in 2015, it inspired me and gave me courage.
Straight after I came out as trans a couple of years back I was feeling this weird mix of sentimentality and terror, and watching The Puppy Episode totally helped with that. Having said that, I was also very high at the time and remember like nothing that happened in the episode so this recap is very useful!
I’ve been meaning to watch this episode but I never got around to it until I saw this recap, so I widdles out some free time and did it. So good! My parents were giving me such faces while I reacted to my computer screen. The toaster oven though!
Thank you for this, Heather.
“ice?! heterosexuals like ice”