Sitcom Was True to Star’s Style
Groundbreaking Episode Worked Because of Her ‘Girl Next Door’ Quality, Creators Say
When Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom “Ellen” first aired on March 30, 1994, no one—not even Ms. DeGeneres—had any idea that it would change the American cultural landscape.
The early days of “Ellen,” originally titled “These Friends of Mine,” were modest. In the show’s often amorphous plots, 30-ish Ellen Morgan, a former bookstore owner, contends with her quirky friends while also dealing with her overbearing parents. The show’s open format gave Ellen a chance to riff on whatever came up, one of her comedic strengths.
“Her ability to create funny out of nothing, on the spot, is staggering,” says Gil Junger, who directed 42 episodes of the show. “That’s not smart, that’s comedic brilliance, and it really was a gift.”
Writer-producer Mark Driscoll joined the staff of “Ellen” after the first five episodes, working in the writers’ room with David Rosenthal, who had written the pilot. Mr. Driscoll relates how, in the early days, no one was certain the show would survive—or how it would take shape. “It was at Sony, far from the Disney executives, which was a lot of fun,” Mr. Driscoll said. “There was a sense that we were on our own.”
Nonetheless, the studio did do some tweaking after the first few episodes, rearranging the cast, the showrunner and writers’ room.
“When they brought in [executive producer and writer] Warren Bell and [writer] Suzanne Martin, and I came on, there were other writers who remained, but it was a small staff,” said Mr. Driscoll. “The studio liked the new emphasis on Ellen out of the gate. And Ellen was happy, and with the star happy, the studio was more relaxed. It was nice and mellow, and I remember getting [high] ratings that would be unimaginable today.”
By the second season the title had changed to “Ellen” and the show was on the Disney lot, under closer scrutiny. Crafting storylines, Mr. Driscoll said, they started with some dating stories and later tried “wild things” to generate plots in the bookstore.
Bottom line, what made the show work was Ms. DeGeneres’ natural talent. “She was always so funny when she came out and did her thing,” he said. “She brought a lot to the performance. We loved her talent.”
Famously, Ms. DeGeneres was consummate in her ability to warm up the audience. “When the studio audience came in, she’d walk out and address them for five minutes before the show, and do what a 45-minute warmup would do,” Mr. Driscoll said. “Audiences loved her. They all felt like they knew her. There was all this chemistry and goodwill.”
Mr. Junger said by the time he began directing episodes, “The production was a well-oiled machine. The script would come in, if Ellen approved it, we’d get to work and we’d work four days because of the skill of the cast. It was the fastest show I’ve worked on.”
As the sitcom found its groove, everything was in place for the April 30, 1997, premiere of the two-part “The Puppy Episode” during the third season, when character Ellen Morgan and, simultaneously, Ms. DeGeneres came out to a national audience—and sparked a cultural firestorm.
“It was hard to believe it would ever happen until four weeks before we shot it,” Mr. Driscoll said. “We thought the studio or network would come in and squelch it. We had a big meeting with Dean Valentine at Disney and Ellen expressed how personal the project was, and he responded. When we turned in the first draft of the script, the studio told us we didn’t go far enough. He said, ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s do it.’ Once he said to go as far as we could, it became great fun to write.”
Ms. DeGeneres recalls the experience of working on that episode as “wonderful,” she said. “I worked with great people and was able to not just do a sitcom but do something that was groundbreaking—to actually watch someone who is gay come out simultaneously with her character and discover she’s gay.”
In the writers’ room, said Mr. Driscoll, it became obvious that the episode needed to be a very funny story. “If it was going to work, it would be that Ellen would seem like the girl next door who you find out is gay, but you like her because she’s just like you,” he said. “It gave people an ‘in’ to understand and like it.”
The episode “built slowly” during the second half of the season, Mr. Driscoll said. “It did start to develop a voice, and the lines and thoughts and ideas came from absolutely everybody. We had staff writers who’d never written a line for TV who were as important to the final product as the most seasoned writers.”
In fact, one of the episode’s best-known jokes—about Laura Dern winning a toaster oven for getting Ellen to declare she is a lesbian—was pitched by the writers’ assistant, Sylvia Green. “It was a great atmosphere,” Mr. Driscoll said. “We were open to everyone and everything.”
When it came to casting the episode, the show was deluged with offers. “Suddenly all these talented actors were lining up to be in the episode,” said Mr. Driscoll. “It had a buzz around it that it would be an historic episode. When Oprah came on—and she was so wonderful and open and giving—it suddenly had this great weight to it.” In the end, Ms. Dern, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Melissa Etheridge, Gina Gershon and k.d. lang all made appearances.
For Mr. Junger, who directed the episode, the experience was among “the most exciting two weeks I’d had in television. The audience was screaming and laughing, they were so excited,” he said. “My heart was pounding for two weeks. Wherever we went, there were six or seven microphones ahead of us. The outpouring of support from the artistic community was astounding.”
Still, a bomb threat was phoned in to the studio, and Mr. Junger recalled getting a phone call from someone who told him he was going to hell. “There was no question in my mind that we were doing something extraordinary,” he said.
And it was. “The Puppy Episode”—so titled in an apparent attempt to avoid revealing the episode’s true content in the weeks leading up to the broadcast—paved the way for other actors and entertainers to come out of the closet. It also changed how gay people are represented on television.
“Hers was the first show where the leading character was gay and played by a gay person,” said Damon Romine, entertainment media director for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). “That alone was historic. It set the tone for how gay people are portrayed on TV, and [now they are] treated like all other characters as opposed to being marginalized. Ellen led the way for a new era of storytelling. She was a catalyst of change.”
“Ellen” also opened the door for its creators to go on to fruitful careers. Mr. Junger said “The Puppy Episode” in particular helped him launch his feature film directing career. The writers and producers landed on hugely popular TV shows, including “Will & Grace,” “Without a Trace,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “According to Jim.” And Ms. DeGeneres has gone on to host the Emmys and Oscars as well as her award-winning talk show.
“It was a huge step in my life,” she said. “I think people sensed the honesty in it. I think it helped a lot of people, and still to this day I hear about parents and children being able to have an honest conversation through watching that show. That’s ultimately what television can be: It can get conversations started.”