25 Years Ago Ellen DeGeneres Came Out of the Closet. That’s Not Why Ellen Was Cancelled.
Part 1: The Setup
Twenty-five years ago, television and the LGBTQ+ community was changed forever when on an episode titled simply: ‘The Puppy Episode’, Ellen DeGeneres’ character — essentially an avatar for her — came out on national TV. There were immediate rewards — DeGeneres’ became an icon and won an Emmy for Best Comedy Teleplay that fall. The ramifications were immediate — Ellen became a subject of condemnation by the religious right, sponsors withdrew and ratings fell. Her series was cancelled the following May and DeGeneres’ career in pop culture collapsed for nearly a decade.
For many years, even after her hit daytime talk show, what happened to Ellen DeGeneres was considered a cautionary tale for gay and lesbian entertainers in America. Even after the success of series like Will & Grace it was a very long time before it was considered ‘safe’ to have a gay or lesbian character at the center of their own show. Even Ellen herself couldn’t do it — she had a short-lived series on CBS in 2001 that quickly collapsed.
Everything I have listed in the first paragraph is accurate. But even given the cultural landscape of the 1990s and much of the 2000s, I’ve never been entirely convinced it was the full story behind the demise of Ellen. Yes, she was the first woman to come out on her own television show, and yes the world may not have been ready for it in 1997. But I’m not convinced that was the complete reasoning behind the show’s collapse. So a quarter of a century later, I think it’s worth looking at Ellen DeGeneres’ career, the history of Ellen and why it may have been cancelled.
(Yes this article was inspired by the unfortunate passing of Anne Heche this week. I actually intend to write about that in a future article, but let’s concentrate on the present.)
Let us start with a truth: I am a white, cis male. I can not pretend to understand what is like to be a lesbian, then or now. Two things that make qualified to make judgments on this series : 1, I was a huge fan of DeGeneres during the 1990s, and 2) I saw four full seasons of Ellen, both before and after ‘The Puppy Episode.’ And as a critic, I think I am qualified.
First things first: thirty years ago and today, Ellen DeGeneres is one of the greatest stand-up comics I’ve ever seen. I remember seeing many of her HBO specials throughout the 1990s — most of which, unlike almost everybody else in her peer group, were G-Rated. I find many of her routines hysterical even today — I still chuckle when I remember her impersonating a goldfish or playing an air safety inspector blaming the victim of a plane crash for not putting her seat in an upright position. (“What was that, thirty-five, forty thousand feet? She could have walked away from that!) And I liked her in small doses. In an otherwise completely forgettable Fox comedy series Open House she demonstrated that she had genuine gifts as a performer.
During my teenage years, I spent many days of the week watching sitcoms, some classic, many forgettable. I spent many weeks in the 1990s watching Ellen mainly because of my admiration for DeGeneres’ work. And the reason it’s not in syndication, streaming or anywhere is not so much because of the controversy. It’s because it’s not very good.
The series was originally title These Friends of Mine. Perhaps foreshadowing problems DeGeneres would have behind the scenes later, there were recurring cast changes throughout the series. By the end of the second season, everyone from the original cast but DeGeneres was gone. That’s not the model for a hit show. Nor was the comedy particularly funny or memorable.
I know in hindsight what the problem was. After Seinfeld became a runaway smash, every other comedy being greenlit in the 1990s was for a stand-up comic in either a Seinfeld or Friends type setting. The fact that Jerry Seinfeld himself is now considering the weak link of the series — at least as an actor — was something that escaped every network executive at the time. It may very well have been why I still find much of the series cold; I can’t relate to Jerry at all.
And that was the biggest problem with Ellen. She was a terrible lead. I don’t mean as a heterosexual lead, which would have completely understandable. I mean as the lead of her own series. DeGeneres is a brilliant standup, but she’s a mediocre actress at best. There is a reason she never had a successful film career in the 1990s; no matter how she tries, her range is fundamentally one note. (That is why her career as a voiceover artist has been more successful; she doesn’t have to play to the camera.) She is a great writer, but she could not contort her strengths as a comedian to the static nature of the 1990s sitcom. (That’s also why, for every Everybody Loves Raymond in the 1990s, there were a half-dozen Mulaneys or DiRestas. Most stand-up comedians can not crossover from standup to traditional sitcoms successfully.)
Nor could she easily give successful comedy bits to her co-stars and she had quite a few good ones over the run. Ayre Gross was there at the beginning; John Michael Higgins and Clea Lewis were there for the remainder, and in the third season a relatively unknown Jeremy Piven joined the cast as her cousin. None of them were used well, either as straight people to Ellen (in the comic sense of the word) or characters in their own right.
Perhaps I am being cynical a quarter of a century after the fact, but part of me wonders if DeGeneres’ decision to bring her character out of the closet in the fourth season was done as much to bring a boost to the ratings of a comedy series on the brink of cancellation as it was part of DeGeneres’ coming out. Because at the time and looking back, the lead-up was done incredibly ham-handedly. At one point, dealing with the possibility of her parent’s divorcing, she asks: “What if everything you believed about me was a lie? What if I was really (long pause) left-handed?” Leading to the equally horrible reactions by her parents. (I don’t know how the brilliant character actor Steven Gilborn could say: “Are you a leftie?” without wincing.) There was a teaser for another episode which saw her actually saying she was coming out of the closet… and then coming out of her closet.
To be fair, the censors and sponsors for networks have never been particularly bold at the best of times; especially when it came to dealing with gays and lesbians in the 1990s. To be fairer, the network in question was ABC who in its own way had been groundbreaking with other series in recent years. Thirty-something had been the first series to show a gay couple in bed after sex and My So-Called Life was the first series on any network to have a gay teenager played by Wilson Vasquez, who was actually gay. I’ll also admit that when ‘The Puppy Episode’ finally aired, DeGeneres had her character’s therapist bluntly point out how heavy-handed she’d been. (Then again, everything sounds better coming from Oprah Winfrey.)
All I know is even at the age of seventeen, mostly divorced from the world of pop culture, with the Internet not really in existence, I was aware from publications about what DeGeneres’ had been hinting at for years. Other sitcoms (better ones, for the record) were actually being bolder at it. (At one point on Newsradio, a contemporary comedy series that at it’s peak was actually more entertaining than Seinfeld in my opinion, actually referred to it directly when two of its characters, one dressed in drag, kissed and Stephen Root’s said: “What is this: the Ellen DeGeneres’ show?” The laugh was far more sustained and genuine than anything I had ever heard on Ellen to that point.)
I don’t know if I had yet come in to a fully-formed opinion on what I thought I thought of gays or lesbians at the time, but I had a pretty good idea of what good comedy was, and Ellen sure as hell wasn’t showing it to that point. And most of what I saw sounded partially like the most unsubtle of hints at best or blatant posturing at worst. I can only imagine what the LGBTQ+ community of the time was thinking.
Now I have given the setup, the next article will deliver the punch line. I’ll deal with ‘The Puppy Episode’ and why I still don’t think that’s entirely why I think Ellen was cancelled.