The Real Reason Ellen DeGeneres’ Comedy Was Cancelled, Part 2
The Punchline: ‘The Puppy Episode’ and the Aftermath
For all the flaws of Ellen as a series, I will not deny the power of ‘The Puppy Episode’. DeGeneres put everything she had in that episode, both as a writer and an actress. Everything about it was funny and powerful. She was smart enough to give a lot of the funny lines to Laura Dern (who won her first Emmy for that role), showed the struggle that her character was going through, had her admit the basic truth to herself in public, come out to her close friends, and finally face the truth with her therapist (Oprah Winfrey, who was also nominated for an Emmy) DeGeneres’ deservedly won an Emmy for writing the episode and the only reason she didn’t take Best Actress that same year was because the mostly conservative Emmy voters were not yet ready to give an Emmy to an openly gay actor for playing an openly gay character. (Two years, they’d cross that threshold when Sean Hayes won for Will and Grace.)
The rest as they say is history. The pressure from religious organizations became more intense in the show’s fifth season, the controversy that followed the series caused the boost in the ratings to deteriorate over the year, and the show ended almost as an afterthought in May of 1998. That’s the story. But it’s not the whole story.
As I said in the first part of the article, I watched Ellen before and after ‘The Puppy Episode’. And because I was fixed in my habits and didn’t care what people thought, I kept watching it through the final season. I admit the series remained daring — watching Ellen handle her homosexuality, her parents handling it, her finally having a relationship with another woman, and her first lesbian sexual encounter. What Ellen didn’t become was noticeably funnier after ‘The Puppy Episode’. All of the supporting characters remained more or less one dimensional with very conventional plots, and the jokes were not much improved for any of the characters. Ellen may have been a groundbreaking series, but not all groundbreaking series are necessarily great ones.
That said there was a hysterically funny episode that aired halfway through the final season that truly showed what DeGeneres was capable of. In it, Ellen and her friends are having lunch in an LA restaurant when they have an encounter with Emma Thompson. All are star struck, Ellen goes to the bathroom, and sees Thompson in a lip lock with another woman. Ellen is shocked that Thompson is gay, but her friends aren’t: one character says: “Half this town is gay and the rest are pretending to get in with David Geffen.” That got a huge laugh.
Ellen has a conversation with Thompson and spends half the episode persuading her to come out of the closet. Then she learns Thompson’s biggest secret — and it’s not that she’s a lesbian. “I was born in Dayton, Ohio.” The laugh went for fifteen seconds. As Ellen blunders to respond and talks about her career, in a perfect American accent, Thompson says: “I learned the accent from watching Julie Andrews’ movies!” Laughter and applause for thirty seconds. Ellen persuades Thompson to stay in the closet, not because she doesn’t think the country can handle that Thompson is gay, but rather that she’s American.
That night, at a movie premiere there’s a filmed segment where Sean Penn (who’s co-starring with her in her latest film) gives a powerful speech about a brilliant actress she is and how honest a person she is. Thompson is touched, and tells Ellen she’s going to say: “I’m gay and a Yank.” But before she can get up, Penn keeps speaking — and saying that her honesty has inspired him to come out of the closet. (Was he auditioning to play Harvey Milk back then?). Thompson is angry, but moves forward. The end credits sequence is funny but sad — Thompson is at a restaurant telling Ellen she’s glad she did, then she gets to her feet, and in her ‘real’ accent asks Ellen for her order. Thompson was nominated for an Emmy for this performance (I don’t recall if she won) and if the series had maintained this level of brilliance and daring, it might have kept running despite the controversy. It did not.
The series finale of Ellen attracted little attention, not so much because people had forgotten the series but because it aired the same month as two true classics of the genre closed up shop: Seinfeld and Murphy Brown. Even if it had aired at a more opportune time, I seriously doubt it would have gotten more attention. I saw it, and it deserves to be forgotten.
Rather than try to wrap up the storylines of her series, Ellen pretended to be a comic whose work spanned the generations. There were films of her in vaudeville, shows of her hosting a game show, and then segments of Ellen as if it had aired in every decade from the sixties to the nineties. It satirized every genre: from Norman Lear to animated series, and had a plethora of guest stars all saying how much the series meant to them at one time. It was truly wretched.
But the worst part — and I have no doubt this was especially true to the gay and lesbian community at the time — came in the last five minutes. Linda Ellerbee, who somehow got roped in to doing the ‘retrospective’ on Ellen was about to talk about the most famous moment. The showed the segment from ‘The Puppy Episode’ when Ellen is at the airport with Laura Dern. She gets to the point when she says she’s thirty-five years old, and…
The screen freezes. Ellerbee asks: “Don’t you want to show the important part?” DeGeneres’ says that was the important part: “I was the first person on TV to admit their actual age.” Ellerbee considers this for a minute: “Are you sure that was what important?” DeGeneres thinks for a moment, and shakes her head emphatically: “Nope that was it.”
Even as a cis male, I found that offensive then and now, and can’t comprehend why she did this. Was she rejecting her groundbreaking moment as something that she now simply considering a storyline that didn’t work? I know that DeGeneres has never made her sexuality part of her act the way so many future gay and lesbian comics have (something that has not changed after she returned to standup) but it’s hard not to look at this as a middle finger to everybody who had come to celebrate her that past year. I can understand why that generation and quite a bit of the LGBTQ+ community has never celebrated DeGeneres and Ellen the same way that did so many other series that came later — I may not have liked Queer as Folk or The L Word but the one thing neither series did was shy away from what its leads were. And both series were more than willing to break doors down — at its best, Ellen only knocked politely and was more than willing to walk away if no one wanted to let them in.
That’s the reason, at its core, why Ellen did not work. It was never a funny series, or even a particularly good one. Did DeGeneres’ pay a cost for coming out of the closet? I have no doubt. But part of me thinks the series would have inevitably been cancelled anyway. DeGeneres’ never fit easily into her role of trailblazer when it came to LGBTQ+ rights, and I have a feeling that the last five minutes of Ellen was flipping the bird more to the people who she thought only watched her show for the wrong reasons. That would be bad enough when you considered without them, there would have been no reason to watch Ellen.