‘The Puppy Episode’ Turns 20: ‘Ellen’ Writers Look Back

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·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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Ellen Degeneres and Oprah Winfrey on 'The Puppy Episode' (Photo: ABC/Getty Images)
Ellen Degeneres and Oprah Winfrey on “The Puppy Episode.” (Photo: ABC/Getty Images)

No puppies were harmed — in fact, none even appear — in “The Puppy Episode,” an hour-long installment of Ellen DeGeneres‘s eponymous ’90s sitcom, Ellen, which aired 20 years ago this week. Behind that innocent title is an episode that had a profound impact, not just on the television industry but society at large. DeGeneres’s onscreen alter ego, Ellen Morgan, had always been a lightly fictionalized version of the comedian’s genially goofy public self. With “The Puppy Episode,” she took that connection one step further: having “Ellen” come out of the closet at the same time that DeGeneres herself had famously declared, “Yep, I’m Gay.”

That announcement likely wouldn’t cause much of a ripple today, but in 1997, there were few celebrities, let alone lead characters on major network sitcoms, who were openly gay. In the years before “The Puppy Episode,” TV movies like An Early Frost and Doing Time on Maple Drive confronted the issue in more dramatic ways, but the creative team behind Ellen pursued an approach that was at once both traditional and radical: Using the conventions of a mainstream sitcom to bring a still-controversial subject to a mass audience in a way that would educate and entertain.

Not surprisingly, DeGeneres herself was closely involved with the writing of “The Puppy Episode,” coming up with a story that found perpetually unlucky-in-love Ellen Morgan embracing her sexuality after finally meeting a person who she felt genuinely attracted to: Susan (Laura Dern). In the first half of the hour-long episode, Ellen encounters Susan while enjoying dinner with an old pal, Richard (Steven Eckholdt). Later on, the two have a conversation in which Susan reveals that she’s gay and suspects that her new friend might be as well. But Ellen isn’t ready to say those words until a discussion with her latest therapist (guest star Oprah Winfrey) snaps her feelings into focus. Racing to the airport to catch Susan before she leaves, Ellen makes an unexpectedly public confession: “I’m gay.”

Forty-two million people witnessed that moment in real time when “The Puppy Episode” aired on April 30, 1997, and in the years since, those involved with the episode have often spoken about how it gave people the courage to say the words “I’m gay” to their own friends and family.

To mark the 20th anniversary of “The Puppy Episode” — which would go on to win two Emmys, for Outstanding Writing and Outstanding Editing — DeGeneres recently reunited members of the cast on her daytime talk show for a special episode that will air on April 28. For the following oral history, Yahoo TV spoke with four members of the show’s creative team — as well as a quick cameo from Dern — for their memories of how this incongruously titled but profoundly impactful episode came to be.

Celebrities showed up in force to support Ellen's coming out on 'The Puppy Episode' (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)
Celebrities showed up in force to support Ellen’s coming out on “The Puppy Episode.” (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

In the Writer’s Room
While it was common knowledge among Ellen‘s cast and crew that DeGeneres was gay, the comedian had yet to publicly come out. That changed in February 1997, when she officially broke the news on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, followed in April by that famous Time magazine cover. Meanwhile, behind the scenes at her sitcom, the writers worked to marry her real life story to her fictional alter ego for what would become “The Puppy Episode.”

Dava Savel (writer/showrunner): At the beginning of the season, we had a gathering at Ellen’s house. We were all eating and drinking and having a good time. Then she said: “Hey guys, I want to make an announcement.” We were all like, “Oh, OK.” So everybody shut up, and she said: “I want to come out this year.” I remember Mark and I just looking at each other like, “Wow.” You didn’t know what to make of it, because it was just the beginning. Obviously she’d reached a point in her life, not only in her own life, but in the life of the show.

Jonathan Stark (writer/co-executive producer): I was sitting out on her porch [during the get-together] enjoying the day, and all of a sudden somebody said, “Ellen just came out!” So I missed the actual moment of her saying that. But you almost felt that sigh of relief: Now we can write something real and we don’t have to do this heterosexual bulls*** anymore.

Mark Driscoll (writer/showrunner): The writers all knew that she was gay, and that she had a girlfriend. I don’t think she was particularly secretive about it, but Middle America had no idea. They could have seen her in public with a girlfriend all the time, and they wouldn’t put it together, because she was so much the girl next door.

Savel: Now, we couldn’t write any episodes where she met a guy, and she had a relationship. That was all off the table. She wasn’t gonna do that, so we were sort of treading water. The show would have been just another season of fun, but not really saying anything.

Driscoll: I’d been on the show for the first and second season, then I left for the third one and came back the fourth. One of the reasons I left was it was just so hard to come up with stories. [On the show] Ellen was a young woman who didn’t have much of a job, and she didn’t want to play any dating stories, so we just ran out of [material]. People were saying the show is really about nothing, but not in a good Seinfeld way. It just wasn’t that interesting. The stories were so hard to come by.

Stark: Ellen wasn’t happy, because we were all writing something that was so far-fetched. She was frustrated, and we were all frustrated. But the underlying feeling was that [ABC parent company] Disney was not going to go there, until Ellen said, “That’s it, I have to do this.” I admire her for bucking that trend, because Disney was a big company and they were paying for the show.

Savel: Once she made that decision, she had to make her case to Disney and ABC. Mark and I went with her to meet the higher-ups. And Disney, to their credit, was 100 percent behind her. You gotta remember, this was a hit show. They wanted to keep it a hit show, but they wanted to keep her happy. One of the first things that came up was, “When do we air this?” And the first answer was, “Not during sweeps.” Because that would have been too gratuitous, and everybody would have expected it. So we skipped sweeps.

Stark: I remember the idea of wanting to do it earlier, but then we thought, “Why don’t we do it a little later so we can build up to it?” That really became the arc of the season; as it went along, we dropped little hints and wrote to that in subtle ways. That made it exciting for all of us, to have this great moment that we knew were going to have, and just [postpone] it for a while until we felt we were in a place where it would land with real gravity.

Driscoll: I recall the studio at the time promising her, “As long as the episode is good, we’ll air it. We’re all behind it.” I remember hearing that, and just a red flag going up, thinking, “Uh-oh. We’re going to get thrown under the bus.” Because I thought they’d say, “Yeah, we didn’t love the episode. It’s not your fault, Ellen, it’s the writers’ fault.” A bunch of us really thought that was a possibility until we turned in a draft, and the executives at Disney read it and said, “Yeah it was good, but you could go further. You could really push this more.” That was kind of eye opening. We said, “Oh, they really are serious about it,” and that was a great feeling.

Savel: We had a great room of writers — 15 of us. Ellen got the story credit, obviously, because it’s her story, so she needed to be a huge part of it. She gave us a lot of notes, and lot of handwritten stuff that she had come up with. We also went to other people on staff and other actors who were gay, trying to get everybody’s stories about how they came out.

Stark: There were 11 or 12 writers on it, even though there are only four [credited] names. Tracy [Newman] and I wrote the first half, and Dava and Mark did the second half. But all the writers in the room were extremely important in that process. It could not have been done by just the four of us.

Ellen Degeneres, Laura Dern, Demi Moore, Bill Bob Thronton in ABC's Ellen. 'The Puppy Episode' April 30, 1997.
Dern, Steven Eckholdt, and DeGeneres in “The Puppy Episode.” (Photo: ABC/Getty Images)

Savel: Disney was very instrumental in how we structured the episode. It was an hour long and, at first, we outlined it for her to come out at the [first] ad break, and then show how her parents and her friends would react in the second half. Disney said, “No, we’re not worried about the friends, and we’re not worried about the parents. We want you to take this first act and make it the entire episode.” I really do give them credit, because it was like we just kept teasing and teasing and teasing and teasing but, in sense, it wasn’t a tease. It was a character who was just not ready to say those words until the very last second.

Stark: Dean Valentine, who was the head of Walt Disney Television at the time, called us into his office and said, “Look, I really like this, but the second part is Ellen telling her parents she’s coming out. I just don’t think that’s the important group at this point. We can do that down the line, but I want her to talk to her friends.” This is an example of how people at the network can have very good ideas! Originally, the show was called These Friends of Mine, so it changed the feel of it when it was just between her and her friends. I don’t recall that there was a lot of network or studio input apart from that. They were pretty good about it. [Ellen told her onscreen parents in the episode that followed “The Puppy Episode.]

Driscoll: At one point there was a pitch in the room — it might have even come from Ellen — that because it was going to be a very special episode, maybe it should be between Ellen and a to-be-named therapist, played by somebody important. It would just be the two of them talking. Ellen started to warm to the idea, and I remember one of the funniest writers in the room, Alex Herschlag, who had written standup with her before, just got very nervous. He said, “We can’t do that. It has to be the funniest episode we’ve done. It can’t be self-important or too serious.” I think that was a great note. Once we knew that, we were sort of freed up to make it funnier and more of a traditional episode of the sitcom.

Ellen Degeneres, Laura Dern, Demi Moore, Bill Bob Thronton in ABC's Ellen. 'The Puppy Episode' April 30, 1997.
Melissa Etheridge serenades DeGeneres in “The Puppy Episode.” (Photo: ABC/Getty Images)

Stark: Originally, Melissa [Etheridge] was supposed to sing to Ellen at the beginning of the episode. We all said, “Let’s not put that at the beginning, because that’s patting ourselves on the back before the show even starts.” You’d be setting yourself up for a big fall, because we didn’t know how people were going to accept it. The writers came up with a great idea to replace it; that opening scene where she jokes about having an hour to come out.

Stark: One of the most interesting things was the security as we were writing the show. Nobody wanted this to get out, so we didn’t photocopy any of the scripts, and we’d have to take our rewrites home and bring them back. At one point we had these dark maroon pages, because you couldn’t copy them. But the problem was you couldn’t read them either! So we’d have to hold them up to the light to actually be able to see the words. Finally we’d get pages and our initials would be written on each page with a marker.

Savel: At one point, the script did somehow get out. A radio station in L.A. was given the script. One of our writers was on his way to work and he heard the host say, “We have a copy of the Ellen show with her coming out of the closet, and we’re going to be reading it, so stay tuned!” Disney got their attorney to shut the whole thing down.

Driscoll: Everybody has a different story for the title “The Puppy Episode,” but I remember Dava and I had a meeting with the network executive at the beginning of the season because they were curious where the show was going. We knew at that point that we had this big surprise, and I think we just jokingly said at this lunch, “Well, what if she got a puppy?” You could just feel him sort of nervously saying, “OK. That doesn’t sound very exciting.” Once they were all on board, “The Puppy Episode” just seemed like a nice way of hiding what it was about. It started off as a joke, and the title just stuck.

On the Set
In the wake of DeGeneres’s Oprah interview, public interest was at a fever pitch as “The Puppy Episode” went into production in early March. A galaxy of Hollywood celebrities turned out to support the star, both on camera and behind it. Besides Dern, Billy Bob Thornton, Demi Moore, k.d. lang, Gina Gershon, and Oprah Winfrey all made cameos in the hour-long episode.

Gil Junger (director): The anticipation for this episode started percolating from the very beginning of the season, and then just kept building. It was held very secretive; nobody could leave the offices with the script. We had maybe two weeks of rehearsals, where we would make little tweaks on the stage. When we finally shot it, I must have had 10 microphones above me the entire time. There were so many news people there getting behind-the-scenes footage. Truth be told, it was just like doing another episode. The work itself was the work.

Stark: There were a lot of invited guests [in the audience], but the public was also in there. With a sitcom, you don’t want to have too many industry people, because they tend to be a little jaded and not laugh very much. So the effort was made to have an audience come and see the show.

Junger: One of the things that I loved about directing that show was how incredibly fast we would shoot. The average half-hour sitcom at the time would take anywhere between three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half hours. With Friends, which was obviously one of the best shows in television, their process would be, like, six hours, and they would load in different audiences because they would exhaust the first one. The average time it took for us to shoot a typical episode of Ellen was one hour and 20 minutes. No joke! There were times where the cast was so on fire, I wouldn’t say “Cut,” between scenes. Instead, I’d say “Go, go, go!” And the entire crew — four cameras, two booms, 12 operators, and the entire cast — would literally run to the next set, where I would say, “And action!” Oh dude, it was electric.

Ellen Degeneres, Laura Dern, Demi Moore, Bill Bob Thronton in ABC's Ellen. 'The Puppy Episode' April 30, 1997.
DeGeneres and Eckholdt in “The Puppy Episode.” (Photo: ABC)

Stark: I love the scene in Part 1 where Ellen is in the hotel room with Richard [Steven Eckholdt]. Tracy and I wrote that, and we had so much fun with the dichotomy of her wanting to be heterosexual, but not really feeling it. That’s one of those scenes that you love as a writer, because there’s so much going on and so many emotions you’re feeling at once.

Savel: I think the scene I enjoy the most is the one with Laura Dern where Ellen is drinking ice water, and she wants to get out of the room so badly. Ellen is a great physical comic. I love the way she’s so nervous as Laura Dern reaches over. It looks like she’s going to touch her face, but she just unlocks the door so Ellen can get out. It’s done so perfectly; that nervous, fumbly, bumbly person is Ellen’s forte.

Ellen Degeneres, Laura Dern, Demi Moore, Bill Bob Thronton in ABC's Ellen. 'The Puppy Episode' April 30, 1997.
(Photo: ABC)

Driscoll: With Oprah’s casting, we were looking for somebody who could say, “It’s OK” and sort of give their blessing to the rest of the country. It seems insane now, but [back then] it was a new idea.

Savel: We had set up that she was seeing a lot of different therapists, so we could have asked anybody. The pope would probably have been our therapist! Ellen made the final call to Oprah to see if she would do it, and she said, “Absolutely.” The truth is that it was if Oprah said it was OK to be gay, then it was OK to be gay. [Oprah] filmed her scenes early, but she came back and watched playback of what she had shot already, and started to cry. She said, “I’m so proud to be a part of this.” And at the end [of the shoot], she rolled out the cake, which was a replica of the “Yep, I’m Gay,” Time cover. It was very, very special.

Junger: I’ll tell you a funny story: We’re shooting, and Oprah is there and I haven’t met her yet. I’m on set waiting for her to get ready, and some big dude comes up to me and says, “Excuse me, Oprah would like to speak to you for a second.” I’m like, “Oh s***!” I go to her trailer, and she had all of her people there, from the makeup person to the publicist, you name it. We say hi, and then she said, “I have a question about the character.” My immediate reaction was, “Oh my God, she’s asking me about the character!” I’m a wreck. I was vibrating inside like, “Oh f***.” She says to me, “Who is this character? I don’t have a grasp of who she is.” I was like, “Come on, Gil! You can do it!” And I said to her: “She is the loving mother that you wished you had.” She looked at me for a second and said, “Great. Got it. Thank you.” That was it. That was the only time we ever spoke.

Driscoll: All of these stars starting coming out of the woodwork to be part of the episode. We heard, “Dwight Yoakam would like to be in it,” and we said, “OK, let’s put him in the supermarket scene.”

Stark: It’s funny, when we were doing Ellen, we always tried to get celebrities to appear, but nobody really wanted to do it. At that time, film people and celebrities didn’t want to do TV. So when those people started signing on to “The Puppy Episode,” it wasn’t just exciting, but also really moving. Because they weren’t doing it to be seen, they wanted to support Ellen and her decision. I learned later on that Laura Dern didn’t work for a year and a half afterwards. And Oprah got death threats and all kinds of hate mail.

Ellen Degeneres, Laura Dern, Demi Moore, Bill Bob Thronton in ABC's Ellen. 'The Puppy Episode' April 30, 1997.
(Photo: ABC)

Junger: We pre-shot that scene in the supermarket. Normally on pre-shoots, no one from the studio or Disney would ever show up. But on that day, let me tell you, I have never seen that many suits on one stage.

Savel: We had even more stars that we didn’t have room for. Everybody was incredibly supportive and behind Ellen. People just wanted to be a part of it. There were stars in the audience that just came to see the show. Tracy Chapman was in the audience! I said, “Why isn’t she on the floor? Why isn’t she in the show?” I still have the contract from when Laura Dern gets her toaster oven from Melissa Etheridge. I was like, “You know what? This might be worth something one day.”

Ellen Degeneres, Laura Dern, Demi Moore, Bill Bob Thronton in ABC's Ellen. 'The Puppy Episode' April 30, 1997.
(Photo: ABC)

Driscoll: The airport scene came up fairly late [in the writing process]. We had a draft that was pretty funny, and we were all happy with it, but somebody pointed out, “Boy, there’s not a big announcement. It’d be nice if there was some huge public embarrassing announcement.” So the airport scene came from realizing that we didn’t have the promotable moment that you would remember.

Stark: That was one of those moments where we felt it was going to be really good. That doesn’t mean that every time it is! Sometimes, you write something you think is brilliant, and the audience doesn’t react to it. But this audience was so ready to love the show. We were all onstage waiting, and when Ellen said, “I’m gay,” into the microphone, it wasn’t only really funny, but also such a moving moment. I don’t even know if the moment where she and Laura Dern hug was written in the script. The applause and laughter was going on for so long, they just improvised it.

Savel: The second she said, “I’m gay,” into the microphone, it was just screaming and applause, and a lot of crying. It was just like giving birth, you know what I mean? There’s a single shot on Ellen’s mother, Betty, in there, going like, “Huh? My daughter’s gay?” I wish I knew who I could credit for getting Betty in that moment.

Junger: I don’t even know if we shot it a second time, to be honest. And that cheering and screaming that you hear was maybe only 20 percent of what the actual audience reaction was. We had 200 people screaming, and crying, and laughing, and applauding for five minutes. It was goosebumps for everyone, everyone. I can’t even imagine what that felt like for Ellen to get such a loving reaction from that audience, I can only assume it was one of the most powerful moments of her entire life.

Ellen Degeneres, Laura Dern, Demi Moore, Bill Bob Thronton in ABC's Ellen. 'The Puppy Episode' April 30, 1997.
DeGeneres’s real-life Mom, Betty, witnessed the airport scene in “The Puppy Episode.” (Photo: ABC)

Laura Dern: You could feel it in the air, the importance of that moment for Ellen. To be the person whose eyes she was looking into at the moment where she said, “I’m gay,” brings the tears to my eyes. To have had that experience, and to watch her bravery as an artist and as a woman at that moment, it’s one of the most profound moments of my life, for sure.

In the record books
When it aired on April 30, 1997, 42 million people tuned in to watch Ellen Morgan — and, by extension, Ellen DeGeneres — come out. It was the highest-rated episode of Ellen‘s run, and, unfortunately, the series never reached that large an audience again. Ratings fell as the show progressed, and it was canceled after the fifth season. But “The Puppy Episode” remains a touchstone in TV history.

Stark: A couple days before it aired, Disney sent us a packet of reviews. There must have been a hundred of them, and 95 out of 100 were just stellar. I didn’t originally want to do it; I told Tracy, “If we get this wrong, we’re going to be crucified.” So I was hoping it was going to be well-received, and when I saw the reviews, they were beyond my wildest dreams.

Ellen Degeneres, Laura Dern, Demi Moore, Bill Bob Thronton in ABC's Ellen. 'The Puppy Episode' April 30, 1997.
(Photo: ABC)

Driscoll: I came home to watch the episode the night it aired. I remember driving from Santa Monica to Laurel Canyon, and the streets just seemed empty. I’d go by houses with 40 cars around them, and I was aware that there were viewing parties all over the city and all over the country. There was definitely a feeling in the air that this was a big, big deal.

Junger: The morning after the show aired, I got a phone call from one of the heads of production at Disney. He said, “Congratulations on a great episode. If your episode of TV was a movie, you would have had a $420 million opening night.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “42 million people saw the show last night. At 10 bucks a ticket, that’s a $420 million opening night.” What makes it more extraordinary to have that many people watching is that it was a show about something that the majority of Americans in this very Christian country did not look upon it favorably. There were plenty of people that refused to watch it, and there were plenty of people who refused to watch ABC afterwards.

Savel: Today, that episode would probably have been streaming, and everybody would have run right to it. There wouldn’t have been that kind of anticipation, which I don’t really think you can get anymore. How many causes are left? Especially in the light of reality television, which doesn’t even do it with any art form. We did it within a story structure, because we’re storytellers, you know? Looking back, you look at an All In The Family or a Murphy Brown, and there were all these shows that had these pivotal moments for these characters where they came up against these incredibly brave moments in their lives. There are so few of those left. Isn’t that a shame?

Ellen Degeneres, Laura Dern, Demi Moore, Bill Bob Thronton in ABC's Ellen. 'The Puppy Episode' April 30, 1997.
Ellen Morgan comes out to her friends on “The Puppy Episode.” (Photo: ABC/Getty Images)

Driscoll: I’ll tell you a personal story: When we did the show, I had three kids at the time and my youngest was a toddler. Cut to his junior year of high school, he came out. It seemed sort of effortless for him, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that show made it easier ultimately for him, you know? That he had so many teachers and friends and counselors he knew who were gay, and they talked about how important the show was to them. That gives it a very special meaning to me.

Stark: We received a lot of mail after that episode aired, and we heard that it was the first time that some kids sat down with their parents and said they were gay. That was worth every single ounce of effort we put into that show. Most recently, when I went on Ellen‘s talk show for the reunion, my wife and our daughter and her boyfriend came and watched the show from the greenroom. Afterwards, my daughter said, “Dad, I’ve always been proud of you, but I’m extra special proud of you for what you’ve done for the LGBTQ community.” I can’t think of anything more important to me than my daughter being proud of me for doing something for the world.

Dern: I could never have imagined in the years that have gone by that someone might come up to me and say, “My grandson came out to me, and I didn’t accept it well, but then I saw Ellen, and it gave me tolerance and understanding, and we have a beautiful relationship now.” Those kinds of moments in restaurants, walking down the street happen many, many times. One of the things I’ve talked about more than just about anything I’ve done is “The Puppy Episode.”

Junger: Shooting that episode was the best two weeks of my 40-year career. It’s that, and shooting of the pilot for Golden Girls, which was pretty extraordinary, too. That episode was the first time I really got how powerful television can actually be. I got it in my cells that you can literally change opinions and make people look internally just by an episode of television. That is powerful, dude. At the time, I told my agency, “Look, if I’m ever going to make the leap to movies, it’s going to be right after this show comes out. This show is going to take the entire country by storm.” And it worked! Within three weeks after the episode aired, I got my first movie, which was 10 Things I Hate About You. So it was a tremendous launch for a lot of the Ellen staff.

Ellen Degeneres, Laura Dern, Demi Moore, Bill Bob Thronton in ABC's Ellen. 'The Puppy Episode' April 30, 1997.
DeGeneres, Etheridge, and Dern in “The Puppy Episode.” (Photo: ABC/Getty Images)

Savel: I later worked on the first year of Will & Grace, and I know I got hired because I’d gone through the whole Ellen thing. When I saw Ellen at the reunion, she just went, “It still holds up. We did good.” And it does hold up. She’s amazing in it and, the whole message aside, it’s just a really funny hour-long episode to watch.

Driscoll: I’ve been doing Grey’s Anatomy, and we have so many gay characters and even guest spots where a kid comes in with [same sex] parents. It no longer seems gratuitous or like you’re reaching for something. You’re just trying to show a more accurate picture of society. No one would ever say, “I think we’ve got too many gay characters.” You would never hear that now.

Stark: It’s something that happened at a special time in the country’s history. Nowadays, it wouldn’t matter at all, and 10 years before we did it, nobody would have done it. People were ready to explore and take that first step to say, “Let’s start talking about this.” It obviously didn’t end [homophobia]; there’s still plenty of that out there. But at least it started a dialogue. Things happen in small steps in our society. As much as people say “The Puppy Episode” was a big step, it was a small step. But at least it was a step.

“The Puppy Episode” is available to stream for free on ABC.com and the ABC app, and all five seasons of Ellen are available to rent or purchase on Amazon Prime.

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