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Friday, September 16, 2011

TGIF Episode Spotlight: 'The Puppy Episode' from Ellen

I have always admired people who have natural courage.

I also admire people who are absolutely true to themselves and who aren't afraid to admit who they are, even if they may suffer public backlash as a direct result of it.

In the case of today's subject, this woman was faced with exactly that.

Imagine having a very successful sitcom airing on one of the big three networks. Having millions of people tuning in to watch you act in a sitcom, and you're enjoying the fruits of your creation. And then something happens where you decide to let the world know something about yourself that may be considered taboo, and before you know it, your sitcom is being cancelled. And somehow you have to start all over from scratch.

The above situation happened to stand-up comedienne and current talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.

And Ellen DeGeneres is the subject of the very first 'episode spotlight' for this edition of TGIF.

Watching Ellen on television now, it seems a little hard to believe that she could ever have been on the forefront of a maelstrom of controversy and criticism. Her talk show recently debuted the premiere of its ninth season on daytime television, and currently pulls in millions of viewers all over the world. With a mix of witty conversations with A-list actors, the various games that she plays with her audience and her snappy, hilarious monologues that she performs at the beginning of each episode have helped make it the great talk show it is. Especially compared to some of the other ones out there that deal with chair throwing, hair pulling, and dozens and dozens of paternity tests.

I mean, with spontaneous moments like this one appearing on her talk show daily, it makes the show even more fun to watch.

But what some people may not realize was that Ellen DeGeneres' big break came years earlier, when she was a young woman.

Ellen DeGeneres began a career in stand-up comedy shortly after she graduated from high school in 1976. Like most people wanting a career in comedy, she started off performing at small local clubs and coffee houses around her hometown of New Orleans. By 1981, she had already become the emcee at Clyde's Comedy Club in New Orleans, and in 1982, she was awarded the honour of being named Showtime's Funniest Person In America. Four years later, Ellen DeGeneres appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and she proved to be such a hit that Johnny had asked her to sit by his desk for an onscreen chat (the first time that a comedienne had been given the honour). Below is a clip of that memorable appearance, which first aired on November 28, 1986.

That appearance on Johnny Carson's show was her very first appearance on network television, but it certainly wouldn't be the last. She would make several appearances on comedy specials, and had small roles in the movies Coneheads and Wisecracks.

By 1994, Ellen DeGeneres' star continued to be on the rise, and it was in that year that the opportunity for her to star in her own sitcom would come up.

On March 29, 1994, Ellen's sitcom debuted on ABC, under the original title of 'These Friends Of Mine'. Set in Los Angeles, Ellen played the character of Ellen Morgan, who worked at a bookstore called 'Buy The Book'. Ellen was considered by everyone around her to be cheerful and likeable, but she had a tendency to be clumsy. She also tended to ramble on and on when nervous or embarrassed. As the original title suggested, the show focused on Ellen and her friends. These friends included Holly (Holly Fulger), Adam (Arye Gross), Joe (David Anthony Higgins) and Anita (Maggie Wheeler).

After the first eleven episodes that made up season one, the show was retooled, and Holly and Anita were phased out, with Adam leaving at the end of season three. The show's name was changed to simply 'Ellen', and new cast members included Joely Fisher, Clea Lewis, and Jeremy Piven. The show did very well during its run, scoring within the top 20 shows watched during the 1994/1995 season alone. The show averaged over eleven million viewers per season, and helped catapult Ellen to success.

But then The Puppy Episode aired, and with the airing of The Puppy Episode came a time that was filled with many personal highs and lows for Ellen DeGeneres. One may end up calling the whole episode a bittersweet one for Ellen, as it provided her with the most viewed episode of the entire series.  At the same time it ended up making her the target of some rather unfortunate and unfair criticism as a direct result of this episode.

The Puppy Episode's concept was born during the filming of the show's fourth season. During a meeting in late 1996, Ellen DeGeneres began negotiating with the ABC network to have the character of Ellen Morgan come out as a lesbian. Word got out about the negotiations, and soon she found herself in the middle of intense speculation. People wondered whether Ellen's character would come out on the show, or whether Ellen DeGeneres would come out in real life, or possibly both.

As we all know, in the real world, Ellen DeGeneres did come out as openly gay in early 1997. She disclosed this information in an interview in TIME magazine, as well as talking about it on the Oprah Winfrey show. And in March 1997, production of The Puppy Episode began, confirming the rumour that Ellen's character would come out as a lesbian.

Already even before the episode aired, the backlash began. Conservative groups like the American Family Association pressured ABC to drop the coming out storyline, and a couple of advertisers decided not to have their commercials air during commercial breaks of the episode. The studio where Ellen was filmed received a bomb threat, and critics of the storyline claimed that it was nothing more than a ratings stunt.

To her credit though, Ellen DeGeneres stood firm on the decision to have The Puppy Episode go ahead. To the critics accusing her of doing it solely for ratings, she had said this at the time, “I did it selfishly for myself and because I thought it was a great thing for the show, which desperately needed a point of view”.

And this was true. As much of a success Ellen was, the show was often criticized for having a lack of focus, and Ellen Morgan was criticized for having a lack of interest in romantic relationships. When the suggestion was made by a producer that Ellen should get a puppy to compensate for her dry romantic life, executive producer Mark Driscoll had stated that the suggestion for Ellen to get a puppy was just one of the many indications that the show had lost its focus.

So when the coming out episode was being planned out, the producers decided to give the episode the title of “The Puppy Episode”, in response.

When the green-light was given by ABC to go ahead with the episode, many guest stars were desperate to get a role on the episode.

As it so happened, lots of famous faces ended up being on the show. Probably the biggest name to sign on to be a guest of the show was Oprah Winfrey, who had the first interview with Ellen on her show since coming out as a lesbian. On the show, Oprah played Ellen's therapist who helped her come to terms with the revelation. Other famous faces who guest starred on the episode included Laura Dern, Steven Eckholdt, Billy Bob Thornton, Demi Moore, Gina Gershon, Melissa Etheridge, Dwight Yoakam, Jorja Fox (before CSI fame), Jenny Shimizu, k.d. lang, and even Ellen's mother Betty made a cameo appearance.

The Puppy Episode debuted on April 30, 1997, and the episode started off just like any other episode of Ellen. In the episode, she goes out with an old friend named Richard (Steven Eckholdt), who happens to be in Los Angeles to cover a news story. During dessert, his producer comes to join the couple. The producer happens to be a woman named Susan (Laura Dern), whom Ellen seems to strike an instant friendship with. After Susan leaves, Richard invites Ellen up to his room, where he immediately tries to come on to her. Ellen, however, is uncomfortable with the idea and leaves the room. In the hallway, she happens to run into Susan, and Susan invites Ellen inside where the two of them enjoy each other's company. Things take a sudden turn when Susan tells Ellen that she happens to be gay, and she just assumed that Ellen was too. Ellen is taken aback by Susan's comment, and outrightly accuses her of trying to 'recruit' her. Susan sarcastically retorts that she would call the national headquarters to let them know that one more got away, and that she was just one away from getting a free toaster oven.

Ellen is left even more confused by this encounter, so she quickly leaves Susan's room and makes her way back to Richard's room, determined to prove to herself that she isn't gay. The following day, she's telling her friends that the date with Richard went extremely well, and that they had a fantastic night together.

But to her therapist, Ellen reveals the truth. She didn't sleep with Richard. She couldn't go through with it. Deep down inside, she wanted to be with someone that she really clicked with. And that person happened to be Susan.

So when Ellen gets a message from Richard, saying that he is being forced to leave Los Angeles ahead of schedule, Ellen rushes to the airport. But not to see Richard. Rather, she wants to try and get a hold of Susan before she leaves with Richard. It is here that she finally admits the truth once and for all.

Okay, so maybe it wasn't the most ideal way for Ellen to reveal such personal information. But that wasn't what mattered. The truth was finally out. And Ellen had felt much better for admitting it once and for all.

The rest of the plot involves Ellen coming to terms with who she is now, and what was next for her. She had to tell her friends that she was gay, though for the record, all of them were accepting of it with exception of Paige who was hesitant to accept it. This didn't last long though, and by season five, even she had come to terms with it. She also had to deal with her feelings for Susan, and what the future might hold for both of them. Although the ending for the two women wasn't a happy one, Ellen still felt good about her decision to finally admit that she was gay once and for all.

In a case of life imitating art, Ellen DeGeneres was feeling good about her decision as well.

And why shouldn't she? Let's forget about the fact that The Puppy Episode was the highest rated episode of the season, as well as the whole series. An estimated 42 million people tuned in to watch The Puppy Episode (and I'll admit to being one of those who watched the episode when it first aired as well). The episode ended up winning a Peabody Award, and Ellen herself won a GLAAD (The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) award in 1998. The Puppy Episode was seen as paving the way for television shows such as 'Will & Grace', 'The L Word', and 'Ugly Betty' (all shows having at least one character who is openly gay or lesbian), and many people believe that this episode was pivotal for reducing the social prejudice against people who are in the LGBT community.

Sadly, for all the positives that this program had to offer, there were some negative media associated with this episode. Although Ellen was renewed for a fifth (and final season) in 1997, ABC began prefacing each episode of Ellen with a 'Parental Advisory' warning, a move which Ellen herself strongly criticized. Jerry Falwell referred to Ellen DeGeneres as the rather cruel and uncouth nickname of Ellen 'DeGenerate', but Ellen took the insults in stride, saying this about the remarks, “I've been getting that (name) since the fourth grade. I guess I'm happy I could give him work”.

Some conservative groups took great steps to try and boycott 'The Puppy Episode'. An ABC affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama, for instance, said that the episode was an attack against 'family values', and they lobbied to have ABC show the episode in the late night slot as opposed to the prime time slot it usually aired in. When ABC refused to budge, the affiliate refused to air the episode at all. This decision did not stop a LGBT organization based in Birmingham from arranging a satellite feed of the episode, and hosting a viewing party of the episode. Five thousand people showed up to the event in Birmingham the night the show aired.

Something similar was attempted in Abilene, Texas, where a group of people protested the affiliate airing The Puppy Episode, but the network went ahead with broadcasting the show anyway.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the fallout after The Puppy Episode aired on television was the fact that after it aired, Ellen's show only lasted one more season. After the episode aired, people accused Ellen of being 'too gay', with every episode featuring Ellen looking for a romantic partner, or learning more about the LGBT community. After the initial buzz of The Puppy Episode, ratings took a nosedive, and the show was finally cancelled in May 1998.

Ellen's career seemed to stall after her show was cancelled, largely because of the criticism she still faced from right-wing and religious groups for having come out. Even guest star Laura Dern was blacklisted in a way, telling Ellen in an interview on her talk show that she didn't work for a year and a half after appearing on that episode. Nevertheless, Laura Dern also admitted that she was grateful for the opportunity of even being a part of that episode.

And after rewatching the episode on video-sharing sites, I have to say that the episode was a fantastic one to watch. I was barely sixteen years old when that episode first aired, and I found it quite funny. Yes, one might argue that The Puppy Episode could be held in the same regard as the tired old television cliché of 'very special episode'. But I think it was a brilliant episode myself. I know that there was talk of boycotts and lots of negative attention flying towards Ellen DeGeneres at the time, but I didn't feel that any of it was warranted. In fact, I was quite proud of Ellen for having the courage to look inside herself, accept that she was who she was, and OWN it.

The whole episode may have been a political maelstrom in the making, but the end result was something quite beautiful. The episode wasn't overly campy (well, aside from the grocery store dream sequence), and had some rather witty moments. It was even ranked at #46 on TV Guide's list of 'Top 100 Episodes Of All Time'.

Most importantly, I think the episode was trying to get the point across that whether a person is straight, gay, or bisexual, they are still people, and they are still worthy of getting respect and love. Ellen's friends and family accepted her regardless, and in the end, Ellen's life (on the sitcom at least) didn't really change all that much as a result of her coming out. Ellen even said this about the episode.

I think people sensed the honesty in it. I think it helped a lot of people, and to this day I hear about parents and children being able to have an honest conversation through watching that show. That's ultimately what television can be. It can get conversations started.”

Bravo, Ellen. You could not have said it better yourself.

It has been almost fifteen years since that episode aired on television. Since then, Ellen tried once more to get a sitcom up and running with 'The Ellen Show' in 2001, but the sitcom didn't last. On September 8, 2003, The Ellen DeGeneres talk show debuted, and has been on the air ever since. So Ellen has rebounded quite nicely, and is now thriving in her career.

And Ellen has become a real role model to the LGBT community by supporting such organizations as 'The Trevor Project' and filming promos for the 'It Gets Better' campaign against the bullying of LGBT teenagers in schools.

And although Ellen Morgan never did find real lasting love on her sitcom, Ellen DeGeneres managed to find love with former Ally McBeal actress Portia de Rossi. During the time when gay marriage was legal in California (before the passing of Proposition 8 in November 2008), Ellen and Portia got married on August 16, 2008, and have remained together ever since.

The Puppy Episode was one of those episodes that whether you loved it or were against it, still went ahead as planned. Ellen DeGeneres would not have wanted it any other way. It was of great importance to her that this episode came forward so that it could help people come to terms with who they were, be it gay, straight, bisexual, or transgendered. The episode showed people that they didn't have to be afraid of who they were. They could embrace who they were, and own it just like Ellen Morgan did on the episode (and the way Ellen DeGeneres did it in real life).

If anything, The Puppy Episode was a risky episode to air at the time, but Ellen DeGeneres thought the risk was worth it. In the end, not only was it a rather enjoyable episode to watch, but it also showcased the bravery and the passion that Ellen DeGeneres had for the episode. She was very proud of the way the episode came together, and even years after it aired, it remains probably one of the best things that Ellen DeGeneres has ever filmed, if not the most personal.

I know that I respect Ellen DeGeneres immensely because of it. She stood up to the critics and the bullies, told them all who she was and made absolutely no apologies about it because there really was nothing for her to apologize for.

If only everyone in the world could feel as secure and as confident about themselves as Ellen DeGeneres does, I have to think that the world would become a lot better of a place.

The Puppy Episode was a fine first step for a lot of people. I just hope Ellen DeGeneres knows just how many people she helped along the way by filming it. She probably helped a lot of gay and lesbian people come to terms with who they were. But in addition, I think the episode taught people of the straight community some lessons as well.  I know she taught me that no matter who tries to bring you down, as long as you stay true to who you are on the inside, it doesn't matter what other people think.

And that is one lesson that for me personally is worth its weight in gold.

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