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!