'The great thing about Ellen being the person to play this part was that she was so accessible,' Mark Driscoll says

By Dan Snierson
April 28, 2017 at 11:11 AM EDT

It was the revelation that begat a revolution, or certainly an evolution: Twenty years ago on Sunday, Ellen DeGeneres — as Ellen Morgan, the cheery, neurotic bookstore owner turned manager at the center of ABC comedy Ellen — reached deep into her soul and pulled out a few historic words that rolled right off her tongue: “This is so hard, but I think, I, I, I’ve realized… that I am… I can’t even say the word. Why I can’t say the word? I mean, why can’t I just say… I mean, what is wrong? Why, why do I have to be so ashamed? I mean, why can’t I just… say the truth, I mean, be who I am. I’m 35 years old, I’m so afraid to tell people, I mean, I just… Susan, I’m gay.”

What that admission lacked in brevity, it more than made up for impact. (And not just because Ellen blurted out those last three words accidentally into the microphone at the airport gate for everyone to hear.) With that declaration — which was preceded by DeGeneres’ coming-out interview on Oprah, a “Yep, I’m Gay” Time magazine cover, and months and months of speculation — DeGeneres took herself and the show into brave, new territory: Ellen Morgan would be the first gay or lesbian lead character on a U.S. network TV show.

DeGeneres had been dodging and weaving around questions about her own sexuality for awhile. But her private and professional lives began to converge as word leaked that she was negotiating with the network to have Ellen Morgan come out. Finally, in March 1997, ABC announced that the episode would indeed happen, in an hourlong installment titled “The Puppy Episode.” (DeGeneres recalled this week that it was named as such because an executive’s response to the proposed storyline was that she get a puppy instead.)

RELATED: 10 Pop Culture Coming Out Stories

There was the requisite backlash to the news. A few advertisers pulled commercials. A Southern affiliate refused to air the episode. Jerry Falwell called her “Ellen Degenerate.” But ultimately the voices of support proved louder than the ones of fear and hate. GLAAD announced a “Come Out With Ellen” Day. Oprah Winfrey, Laura Dern, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, and Melissa Etheridge were among the famous faces signing up to appear in the episode. And so the innocuous show that featured a likable lead but had struggled to find a creative direction over its first few seasons and had swapped in different cast members, suddenly shot into the spotlight: Forty-two million Americans tuned in to see that punchline-happy, raucous, cathartic hour of TV (complete with a viewer discretion advisory): Ellen tried her darndest to deny feelings for a friend of a friend, Susan (Dern), after their charged meet-cute, but ultimately came to terms with those feelings — and her sexuality — though it turned out, bittersweetly, that Susan was already in a relationship. And after she came clean to her friends, they lovingly embraced her (some more clumsily than others) for who she was. In short, by making it through okay, she’d made it okay.

The episode would win an Emmy and a Peabody, and though the show was canceled after the following season, it was clear that a way had been paved: Will & Grace debuted a few months following the cancellation. Just last year, DeGeneres — who went on to host both the Oscars and her own very successful daytime talk show — was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, for the journey she began two decades ago by taking a huge risk and revealing her real self to the world. “I never wanted to be the spokesperson for the gay community — ever,” said the comedian, who married Portia de Rossi eight years ago. I did it for my own truth.” And truly, thanks to “The Puppy Episode,” TV would never be the same.

While DeGeneres is paying tribute to that moment in time today with a special episode of her talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, EW asked former executive producer Mark Driscoll (now a co-executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy), who co-wrote “The Puppy Episode,” to reflect on that landmark installment.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s go in the way-back machine. This episode aired 20 years ago, near the end of the show’s fourth season. When was the first time that you heard Ellen talk about Ellen Morgan coming out?
MARK DRISCOLL:
It was the very beginning of that season. I came on to [the show] six episodes into the first season when it was still called These Friends of Mine, and it was purely an ensemble show and it was, frankly, was just a knock-off of Seinfeld that everyone was doing. It was a show about nothing, but it just wasn’t very impressive and it wasn’t a showcase of her talents at all. So they brought in a few writers in the middle of the season — they knew something was wrong, so I stayed there for the rest of that. And then in the second season, they brought in new actors but it still seemed like the show had no direction because the best episodes were the ones where she was dating someone — an awkward date, or a bad date — and she was starting to feel like they were untrue to herself. She didn’t want to do those anymore, so we were kind of out of ideas. And I was happy to leave at the end of the second season.

It was the smartest thing I ever did because they thought, “He must be good if he’s leaving,” so they brought me back in the fourth season, and they said, “Do you want to run it with Dava Savel?” I had never met her before, but she was delightful. So we assembled a great team of writers and we thought, “Oh, we can change things. But immediately: “Oh god, it’s the same old thing. She doesn’t want to date, but that’s the only thing that’s interesting. We put her in a bookstore but she doesn’t seem like somebody who spends a lot of time in bookstores.” So that didn’t lead to any stories. We were so relieved when she called a meeting. She invited us all to her house and she made the announcement. She said, “I want to come out. I’m going to do it personally, and I’m going to do it on the show at the end of the season, and we’re going to write to that and build toward that.” So we were all thrilled. It just gave us direction for the whole season.

How much of those discussions of Ellen Morgan coming out were tied to Ellen’s considerations about revealing more about her personal life? Was it always going to be a situation where if the character came out, she would come out as well? Or vice versa?
It was a dual announcement to us, anyway. I guess I was just not attuned to exactly how things were. Because I thought, “Is that such a big deal? Don’t people know that you’re gay?” But there was no social media then, there was no internet like we have it now, so I guess the inner circle knew, but people in Des Moines didn’t have any idea. It was a huge deal.

ABC and Disney had been looking for ways to give the show more direction. How would you characterize the process of getting ABC and Disney to sign off on this?
We had a meeting with Disney first and I remember Disney saying, “We’ll do this if the script is good. We’re all behind it.” And all the writers heard was, “If the script is good.” It sounded like a great loophole, no matter what the script was like, for them to say, “Oh, we can’t do this. The script didn’t come in as well as we’d hoped.” So I thought we were all going to get thrown under the bus. For a long time, I had a cynical attitude about it. But then we started writing a couple of drafts of the episode, and Disney gathered us and said, “We love it. You can go deeper.” And by that point, we thought, “Oh! They’re really behind it.” So that was exciting.

There had been speculation about the sexuality of Ellen DeGeneres and Ellen Morgan. You had some fun with it on the show; Ellen had joked about a character named Les Bian joining the show, and that she was Lebanese. She went on The Larry Sanders Show and had sex with Larry (Garry Shandling). What was that period like leading up to the episode?
We went from a show that nobody was talking about except to mock — ”Oh my god, when are they going to cancel that thing?” — and suddenly we were in the news all the time. And it was really fun. And the little jokes or hints in the early episodes [that season] would get such huge responses that it just had a snowball effect. And we loved itWe had to pull ourselves back sometimes because it was so tempting to put those things in every scene. We thought, “Oh, people will get tired of that.”

NEXT PAGE: Why wasn’t there a big kiss in the episode?

That was a time when we were starting to see more gay characters on TV. But we hadn’t seen a gay or lesbian lead character and one that was coming to terms with her sexuality and embracing it. Was that open road enticing, intimidating, or both?
I think it was probably a little of both. We wanted to move slowly, and the great thing about Ellen DeGeneres being the person to play this part was that she was so accessible, and she was such a lovely comic. She’s so funny. She’s somebody that anyone would say, “Kids, listen to this woman talk about animals.” It was never off-color, it was never too edgy, so I think people just loved her. She’s the daughter you’d love to have. Or the next-door neighbor. Or the niece. So she was the perfect person.

There was an impressive guest roster for “The Puppy Episode” — Oprah as the therapist, Laura Dern as Susan, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, Gina Gershon, Melissa Etheridge, Dwight Yoakam, KD Lang. Normally a series will stunt cast to draw in more viewers. But was there was also something greater here, in wanting to show the audience this acceptance, that many of their favorite celebrities were supporting Ellen? Especially someone like Oprah with her influence and following?
Oprah was just this stroke of I would say genius but I think it was just good luck. She was so behind it, and she embraced it so completely. To have this extremely accessible Ellen DeGeneres and to have this high priestess like Oprah say, “It’s okay,” it was perfect. We lucked out.

RELATED: Ellen ‘Puppy Episode’ Costars Oprah, Laura Dern Reunite for Anniversary

How did you go about assembling the guest stars, many of them who were friends of Ellen? And was there anyone on the wishlist that came close to happening but just didn’t work out?
Sean Penn’s name was kicked around. He ended up doing the show the next season. In that last week, people were calling out of the blue, and we had no parts for them! (Laughs.) We just kept sticking them in scenes. There’s that scene in the grocery store with Demi Moore and Dwight Yoakam, and people were lining up to do the show and at a certain point, we had to stop — we didn’t have room.

There seem to be various variations on the story of how exactly the episode got its title, ranging from an executive’s suggestion that Ellen should get a puppy if she wasn’t going to date, to one responding that she could get a puppy instead of coming out….
It’s funny, I think every person associated with the episode has a different memory of how the title came about. I remember a lunch Dava Savel and I had with Stephanie Leifer and the other execs from ABC at a restaurant in Studio City. They asked us what we had planned for Ellen and we jokingly said, “Well, what if she gets a puppy?” And they looked at us nervously for a beat before we said we were kidding. But they were nervous about the show meandering around for another season and I don’t think we were at liberty to discuss the big plan, so we just made that joke. And it stuck. That’s how I remember it. But as I said, there are probably 30 other versions as well.

There was no big kiss in the episode. Ellen said at the time, “I don’t want people to watch me kiss somebody. That’s not what this is about. Ellen Morgan is scared to death. She just found out she’s gay.” Did everyone on the writing staff feel that same way, or was there more discussion about whether or not there should be a kiss? And, as you mentioned, Disney and ABC were ultimately accepting of the story line, but was that something that they were more apprehensive about?
I don’t think anybody ever said that. There was one draft that was pitched [that] was going to be like a very special episode just between Ellen and a therapist. It wasn’t even Oprah at that time. TBD. A big name. And there was one writer in the room — he was absolutely the funniest guy there, Alex Herschlag, who had written a lot of Ellen’s stand-up and they were old friends and he’s great friends with her brother, Vance — and he just started to perspire in the room and he said, “No, it’s a terrible idea. This has got to be the funniest, straight-on sitcom episode that we’ve ever done. It’s gotta be full of jokes and it can’t feel like a special episode.” And I think that kind of released everybody. It was a great piece of advice, and Ellen got it right away. That really helped us.

In terms of the kiss, there was a draft where it all played out, but there was not that big airport moment of her saying “I’m gay” —that became so iconic. And I can’t remember who pointed it out but somebody said, “There’s no big moment in here. It just kind of happens and unfolds.” So we went back and found that airport moment and built to that. That was such a big thing that I think a kiss might have just been — you’d want to save it. That would be for down the line. But I don’t remember the network or the studio saying, “No, you can’t do it.”

Leading up to the “Susan, I’m gay” line, there are several sentences of Ellen-esque stammering. How much fine tuning and agonizing did you do over that very particular moment?
That kind of stammering thing that she would do — qualifying, qualifying, qualifying — that was her voice and that was the kind of go-to monologue in every show. And you’d give her something, you’d think, “Oh, this is so funny,” and she would make it exponentially funnier by doing that. She just could not have played that any better. The amazing thing about Ellen as an actress is if something wasn’t working, she’d say, “Give me a monologue.” And we’d all huddle and write something that could be a page long, and she would look at it, and then go out and deliver it and add to it and it would be so funny and so spontaneous. She’s amazing.

What sticks out to you about filming the episode? It seemed like there was an electric energy on the stage and in the audience. There’s almost 30 seconds of applause when she finally says “Susan, I’m gay.”
It was so electric. I think we had two ridiculous bomb threats and at the time I thought, “Ooh, there are nuts out there!” Everybody had to leave the stage. But nobody in the audience was nervous. It was just such a supportive crowd — it felt like you were at a rock concert. You couldn’t get enough of it.

You’d think that bomb threats would add an air of tension. But the feel-good energy overcame all of that?
Yes, absolutely. There was not a person there who seemed nervous or who thought, “Maybe I’ll go home and watch it on TV.” Everyone was just so behind it by that point.

What was the feeling inside the writers’ room about how America would react to this? Were you bracing for a polarizing response?
It’s almost as if by the time it aired, everyone knew it was happening, so in a sense, it had almost happened. I remembering doing a series of radio interviews. I went to a station somewhere in town and I just sat in a chair with headphones and they said, “Okay, in five seconds you’re on in Pittsburgh,” and I would catch the DJs talking about it. And they would say something either very supportive and something so disparaging: “This is the last thing we need. This loser sitcom is now trying to make headlines. And here we have Mark Driscoll, executive producer!” So I got a crash course in some of the places where, boy, they weren’t very excited about it. But out here [in Los Angeles], we’re in such a bubble that people were really excited and happy.

What were the lines and moments from the episode that still resonate with you — and that you are most proud of? The humor really pops when she finds out that Susan is gay and tries to play it straight.
That whole airport scene I loved, and every time Ellen would say something like, there was a joke where she said, “What is that? Is that gay humor? Because I don’t recognize that. That’s how straight I am.” Things like that were getting huge responses. There was a line when her cousin [Spence, played by Jeremy Piven]: “Even as a kid, I thought she might be gay. She could always throw a ball farther, and run faster,” and Joe [David Anthony Higgins] says, “Did you ever think you were gay?” Those things got electric responses. We were all happy.

There was a meta, winky feeling to the episode, from that opening scene where Paige (Joely Fischer) says, “Ellen, are you coming out or not?” to Oprah as her therapist, saying, “You can’t blame this on the media.” Was that a situation where you had even more of them in the first draft because those kind of lines were fun to write?
I think we probably pulled some stuff out, and we thought that these moments would pop more if we didn’t overkill them with others. We knew we’d have a moment like that, a teaser where they’re yelling at her to come out of the closet already. I’m sure we tried to show restraint and pull others out.

NEXT PAGE: Driscoll on Ellen: “She was probably going through a lot more scary stuff than she was letting on to us”

You mentioned the problem with an early draft where there was no big moment like the airport scene. What was the toughest scene to break in the writers’ room?
It was probably leading up to that. Ellen, to her credit, picked the idea of having the first half [of the hour] be the one last ditch, futile attempt at being straight and showing that disaster. And that was really fun and it was a way to sort of ease into it. But I think just making the moment seem big but not too sitcommy or hokey, and getting up to that was probably the hardest.

Jerry Falwell called her “Ellen Degenerate.” An affiliate in Alabama refused to air the episode after being denied a request to move into late night. How did she handle all of the outrage? At the time, she said, “For me, this has been the most freeing experience because people can’t hurt me anymore,” but what do you remember about her mindset?
She’s a very private person, and I think she was probably going through a lot more scary stuff than she was letting on to us. So with us, it was always about how the show’s going and how it’s perceived and is it sharp enough, but I can’t imagine the phone calls and letters that she was getting. Because we weren’t talking about that with her in the room. And I saw recently that old clip of an Oprah show where people are just yelling at [Ellen], “They don’t have to shove that in our face!” You could see their veins popping out; it looked like those people lined up during the Civil Rights Movement where the African-Americans are trying to go into a school and these people are just red in the face screaming [at them] and it was absolutely that big and horrible.

Since that time, I had three kids at the time — my youngest, Ian, was a toddler. Cut to 17 years later and he came out in high school and it was just wonderful and easy, and you have to think that that episode helped somehow to pave the way for so many kids to do that.

Your son knew that you co-wrote this episode. Did he mention that to you?
When it happened junior year, I think that was the first time I said, “Hey, I’ve got to show you this episode,” and that’s when we first watched it. I don’t know that he had seen it before, but he said that so many of his teachers or camp counselors or people he knew that were gay had cited it as being so pivotal in their experience.

Laura Dern said she felt like she couldn’t find work for awhile after the episode, but called it an “extraordinary experience.” Were you surprised to hear about that?
Very surprised. And again, these people put up with a lot of flak and kept it to themselves. We didn’t really know how bad that was. I’m sure we got crates of angry letters to the studio, but you just kind of look at those and laugh at the ones that are outrageous. But they’re not attacking you personally. I know Oprah got letters saying, “Go back to Africa, you so-and-so,” and it was just so ugly. And this is Oprah! It’s hard to believe.

There was so much media attention around this while you were all inside the bubble making the show. Were you like, “Look, we have this important message we want to get out, but we’re also just trying to make a funny show”? How historic did it feel to you at the time?
I think at the beginning we were oblivious to it. We were like, “Is this really that big a deal?” If I thought about it, I would say, “When you see a gay character on TV, they’re kind of over-the-top, like a crazy neighbor or a funny uncle.” But I don’t think I ever saw the historic nature of what we were doing until we were just about up to it. And honestly, it’s in the years that followed that you’re constantly running into people who find out that you had something to do with it, and they’re saying, “Oh my god, that is so important.” But at the time we were trying to do the best job we could for Ellen, because it was clearly so important to her, and we didn’t want to be the writers who couldn’t deliver the script or turned in the script and the studio said it wasn’t good enough. There was that kind of pressure.

Forty-two million people saw something unprecedented that night, and the episode went on to win an Emmy, beating out Seinfeld’s “Yada Yada” episode and three episodes of The Larry Sanders Show. What do you remember about the aftermath of the episode?
It was amazing. For the first few weeks after, you felt like you were the toast of the town. It’s all anybody wanted to talk about. It just seemed incredible because suddenly everybody’s talking about [the show] in the same breath as they’re talking about Larry Sanders or Seinfeld. That was magical.

What did that episode do for the show creatively? It seemed to give it a raison d’etre, a point of view, and a drive that it needed. But that also imbued it with a sense of responsibility.
It just gave it a reason to be. And you didn’t question it. There was never any sense of, “Oh, what crazy plot are they cooking up this week?” The shows just seemed to follow very organically and you wish they could have been longer….  I think it gave, especially Ellen, a sense of responsibility. She was suddenly the spokesperson for an entire movement, and that must have been very difficult for her. I think it was also difficult for the show because the show changed a little bit maybe too much too soon. It went from being a show about nothing to being about one thing in such a big way that it may have just a little much at the time. But [it paved the way] for the shows that followed. It’s like when you’re starting a business, it’s always easier to come along second. Maybe the country just wasn’t ready for the issue to be front and center in so many episodes that followed, but I’m sure that shows like Will & Grace that came along so quickly after owe a big debt to that [final] season of Ellen.

During that final season, ABC continued to run a “Parental discretion is advised” warning before each episode, which is extremely hard to fathom now.
It seems ludicrous.

Did you feel like that went directly against the message of acceptance that the show was seeking to promote? Ellen told EW at the time, “It was like this voice like you’re entering some kind of radiation center. It was very offensive.”
Right. I can see her taking it personally. In those days, I think that warning kind of made it seem like, “Oh, this is going to be more interesting than we thought.” But maybe it was a way to appease some of those rural or Southern stations that said, “We’re not going to air it.” I’m sure there was pressure from affiliates to come up with that warning. I didn’t have that visceral personal response. And it’s interesting now, as a parent of a gay child, I think I probably would have had, “Wow, that’s terrible.” But it seemed so silly at the time when you knew what the episodes were about.

I was very happy with that episode and I was very happy with the two episodes that followed, of her coming out to her parents. I thought that those were very sweet and funny. And just hit the right tone. That was a very happy memory in television, those three episodes.

You had no idea where TV might be 20 years later in terms of inclusiveness of LGBTQ characters. How much progress do you think TV has made?
It seems like it’s light years ahead. When you do show it to your kids, they look at you, like, “What was the big deal?” It is hard to explain. I got a call recently; somebody wanted to interview me about the episode, and I was actually on set at Grey’s Anatomy, and we just happened to be shooting this lesbian love scene and we were just trying to think of how much to show, post-coital, or are we doing a bunch of shots. And this discussion was all going on very calmly and the crew was kind of yawning — they’ve done this a thousand times — and I get this call about this episode, and it’s just like going back in time. It’s really hard to believe.

When the book of TV history is written, what should be said about “The Puppy Episode”?
I think it led to this new wave of tolerance for characters who are different from us, and you could make a comparison to the way we look at some Middle Eastern characters. If you look at them 10 years ago, they’re just saying, “Hands up or I’ll blow up the plane!” And now we see more three-dimensional views of people who are different from us — and “The Puppy Episode certainly helped lead that way, I like to think.

To mark the anniversary, ABC, which aired the series from 1994-1998, is releasing all episodes of Ellen in the “Throwback” section of the ABC app.

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