Twenty years ago, Elle DeGeneres made television history on her eponymous TV show, when her character, Ellen Morgan, came out as a lesbian. But why was the two-part episode called “The Puppy Episode?”
At the time, Ellen had been on the air for several seasons and was running low on creative inspiration, especially as the main character seemed utterly disinterested in romantic relationships. So Disney honcho Michael Eisner even suggested that maybe the sitcom character should get a puppy.
“It was an indication of just how lost the show was that network executives would be excited by Ellen buying a puppy”, says executive producer Mark Driscoll. Scriptwriter Jonathan Stark used that reference when naming the episode, to help maintain secrecy.
It didn’t exactly work, though: Rumors about Ellen coming out on-screen started spreading as early as September 1996. GLAAD even launched an “Ellen Watch” website.
“It was hard to believe it would ever happen until four weeks before we shot it,” said director Gil Junger. “We thought the studio or network would come in and squelch it.” But in a meeting, Disney executive Dean Valentine told the crew the script didn’t go far enough.
“He said, ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s do it,'” Junger recalled. “Once he said to go as far as we could, it became great fun to write,” Junger added.
“The Puppy Episode” went into production on March 7, less than two months before it aired. It was a major critical, cultural and ratings success, garnering 42 million viewers and an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series.
There was backlash, though: The American Family Association urged sponsors to pull out of the show—J. C. Penney and Chrysler actually decided not to buy ad time during the episode, and Wendy’s stopped advertising on the show altogether. An ABC affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama, refused to air the episode, but a local LGBT group rented a 5,000-seat theater for a viewing party.
Perhaps most disappointingly, ABC ran a parental advisory before every episode of Season Five. “It was like this voice like you’re entering some kind of radiation center,” DeGeneres told EW. “It was very offensive, and you don’t think that’s going to affect ratings?” She show was canceled at the end of the season.