Long before everyone in Hollyoaks was gay, bi, lesbian, trans or a serial killer, and Queer As Folk introduced the world to rimming, there was Ellen.
Now, you probably best know superdry Ellen Degeneres for her star-studded daytime chat show on ITV2 (UK), but that isn’t what we’re talking about here.
Twenty years ago, long before many of you were born, her sitcom, Ellen, was a ratings smash in the US and a cult hit over here in the UK.
Although she was openly gay among her close friends and production team, in public Ellen had remained firmly in the closet. Meanwhile, on the show, her character Ellen Morgan was happily having doomed romances with guys.
But in the spring of 2006, Ellen decided to do something that would change US TV and the lives of gay men and women around the world forever.
Ellen invited her writing team over to her LA pad for a bit of a telly conflab and announced that she felt it was the right time for her to come out publicly. She was, she said, tired of hiding herself away from people and just wanted it out there. “I realised that as long as I had this secret that I worried about all the time that it made it look like something was wrong,” she would tell Oprah.
While her team weren’t particularly shocked by her plans, they were surprised that she also wanted her character Ellen Morgan to come out as gay on the show too. Why? Because at this time, there was still no openly gay lead character on mainstream TV show, so they knew a storyline like this would change the TV landscape for ever in one way or another.
Excited by potentially breaking new television boundaries, the team jumped on board and set about writing the groundbreaking episodes for season four that would lead up to the coming out show.
To keep the content of the coming out episode under wraps until transmission, writers dubbed it “The Puppy Episode”. Why? Because when the writers told studio execs what they had planned, the head honchos were beside themselves and told the production team to get Ellen a puppy because “she’s not coming out.”
After much to-ing and fro-ing, the execs finally agreed with the controversial plot line and worked with the team to ensure the episode would be a massive surprise to viewers.
As the series hurtled toward the exciting episode, the witty scribes began to pepper scripts with hints.
In one scene, her pals ask an off-screen Ellen, “Are you coming out?” The next thing we know she leaps out of a coat cupboard explaining,“I was in the closet.”
There was a real excitement among the team as the The Puppy Episode approached.
Exec producer on season four Mark Driscoll remembers that they were all proud that they were about to make such groundbreaking TV and were not really worried what the public reaction would be because the world seemed so enamoured by Ellen.
“[She] was so loved by audiences;” he said. “She was so much the girl next door and so sweet. She was the perfect person to dispel people’s fears about what a gay woman might be like.”
As the TX date of the episode approached, speculation about Ellen Morgan’s coming out was the talk of Hollywood. One radio station even told their listeners that they had managed to get their hands on a rare script and planned to read it out live on air. ABC slapped them with a legal and the station’s plans were thwarted.
In spite of the positive interest and coverage surrounding the potentially controversial episode, there were rumblings of discontent from certain religious quarters who claimed the episode was a “blatant attempt to promote homosexuality”. Some TV sponsors threatened to pull out of supporting the show.
Death threats were made, and every time an episode was recorded, the studio was checked for bombs, while audience members were thoroughly searched for anything sinister.
A month to two before the episode aired, Ellen appeared on the cover of Time magazine in which she finally came out to the world.
“I don’t think I could have done this a long time ago,” she told the magazine. “and I don’t think people would have accepted it as readily as they do now. Now I feel comfortable with myself, and I don’t have to be fearful about something damaging my career if it gets out, because now I’m in control of it—sort of. No one can hurt me now.”
When the two part episode finally hit screens, during which Ellen hilariously came out by accidentally announcing it into an airport microphone, 44 million people watched on as history was made, almost three times the show’s usual ratings.
The brilliant episode attracted mixed responses. Some homophobic critics bleated on about how Ellen’s public admission would bring about the end of the world, while the devoted viewers were overwhelmingly supportive. Ellen would later tell Oparah that following the show she had received letters from fans who thanked her for her stance and had rescued them from suicide.
The episode went on to win an Emmy, a GLAAD Award while Ellen herself received a Peabody Award for “groundbreaking humor.”
However, a year later, ratings began to dip and Ellen the series was eventually cancelled. Critics felt the show had become one about a woman being gay, instead of a woman who just happened to be gay and people slowly grew tired of it.
To this day, the episode is still regarded as one of the most groundbreaking moments in TV. And even though some said after the series’ cancellation Ellen had committed career suicide, one critic said, she was “certainly going out in style.”
While Ellen’s sitcom may have disappeared, it mist certainly opened the doors to shows with a strong LGBT element.Eighteen months later, NBC launched Will and Grace which paved the way for other dramas with gay characters at the heart of their story like Glee and Modern Family.