"The Puppy Episode"

It’s almost impossible to remember a time when Ellen DeGeneres — the inoffensive pastel-palette comedian beloved by Pantsuit Nation moms and Holiday Inn lounges everywhere — was actually something of a radical.

On April 30, The Ellen DeGeneres Show will commemorate the 20th anniversary of "The Puppy Episode," the comedian’s landmark two-part coming out episode from her television series Ellen. At the time, anticipatory anxiety about the episode, which ultimately attracted 42 million viewers, reached such an intensity that the network decided to slap a spectacularly patronizing "parental advisory" warning on it.

Regardless of what you think about the actual quality of the episode itself (it’s phenomenal), you can’t deny its force.

For network executives, soon-to-be-queer teens and anxious parents, Ellen showed us that a woman could come out as gay and life would go on even better than before.

She didn’t just transform television, she changed American culture for good.

Never has a puppy episode caused so much hysteria

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"The Puppy Episode" is delightfully milquetoast (watch it here): The star lesbian character falls for a mid-level manager in a white pantsuit, played by Laura Dern. The most raunchy part of the episode consists of two women briefly hold hands at early bird hour in a lesbian coffeehouse (perhaps my favorite lesbian stereotype of all time).

It took months for ABC and its parent company, Disney, to even get that far. In Season 3 of the show, Ellen the character struggled to form meaningful relationships with men, but in lieu of letting Ellen come out, one producer suggested she get a puppy instead (frankly, a phenomenal trade-off). After months of negotiations, the network finally consented to let Ellen come out on the show, making it one of the first series in television history to feature a lesbian coming out story (L.A. Law and Roseanne had their moments a few years earlier).

Queer heartthrobs, including k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge, and prominent allies, like Oprah and Laura Dern, enthusiastically agreed to appear. But despite their star power, multiple advertisers pulled ads from the episode. Wendy’s chose to withdraw from the series altogether. Religious right crusader Jerry Falwell dubbed Ellen DeGeneres "Ellen Degenerate," continuing the longstanding conservative tradition of trying really hard to be funny and failing.

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LGBTQ groups like GLAAD and HRC fought back by planning "Coming out with Ellen" house parties across the nation. Their efforts were rewarded: over 42 million people tuned into watch "The Puppy Episode," the highest in the series’ history. The episode later won an Emmy Award and a Peabody award, and you know the rest: Ellen went on to dance with both President and Mrs. Obama.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t consequences for those involved. Dern later said she wasn’t able to get a job for the next year and a half because of the role. The show, which became even more explicitly gay over time, floundered in its following season.

Still, something about the episode resonated with people — and twenty years later, the story still works.

A coming out story that doesn’t make you want to vom

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What’s remarkable about the Puppy Episode is how little it embarrasses me twenty years later.

Television coming out narratives involve a painful assortment of tropes: a rejecting parent, a sympathetic teacher, a withholding gay crush, and some spiral notebook poetry too earnest for me to quote without hurling.

"The Puppy Episode" touches on a few of these conventions, but with considerably more grace. The storyline is predictable: Ellen goes on a date with a former male college friend, then realizes she has a crush on his hot female producer, played by Dern (who wouldn’t?), a lesbian who finally "sees the gay" in Ellen. When Ellen finally gathers the strength say the word "gay," she leans over and accidentally blurts it into an airport P.A. system, loud enough for hundreds of passengers to hear. Any anxiety viewers might have watching the scene is immediately drowned out by a deafening laugh track.

Image: ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

It’s the kind of comedy Ellen has mastered: moments of danger, followed by a self-assured self-deprecating joke. There aren’t even bad guys in Ellen’s world: mostly just well-intentioned characters who get it wrong. Critics call her "safe," which she is, yet it’s exactly this kind of safety that made the episode so comforting for its queer audience as well as straight viewers.

Ellen came out and, ultimately, came out O.K.

Ellen didn’t have to leave her friends behind when she came out — instead, she just made new ones who looked like hot Hampshire College dropouts. She didn’t have to buy some fair trade muumuu just because she was a lesbian. Her therapist didn’t reject her because her therapist was motherf*cking Oprah.

The episode doesn’t even gloss over details that might not make sense to viewers outside the queer community. At one point, Ellen makes the first known historical reference to "lesbian keys," one of the most "enduring sartorial symbols of lesbian culture."

Sure, Ellen’s coming out story is a fantasy, out of reach to members of the queer community who lack her privilege.

Still, it’s a deeply human fantasy so many queer teens needed, particularly in the mid-nineties when people were busy debating whether or not people like her should even be considered human.

I was 13 when the episode came out and no idea what a lesbian was or that I’d be one one day. Ellen was the first woman I remember learning about who was queer and not a man. "The Puppy Episode" was one of the first times I heard the word gay unattached to the word AIDS. My family and I watched it on the kitchen TV over a pot of spaghetti with tomato sauce. We never talked about it afterward. It’s part of the reason I remembered it.

It’s impossible to quantify the impact "The Puppy Episode" had on closeted kids of that generation. I imagine it left an indelible unconscious imprint, though, of a hilarious queer woman who wore comfortable pants and who everyone still loved, regardless of her sexuality.

Even more importantly, it ushered in a whole new era of gay-ish television, more influential than any piece of legislation in helping America to accept queer sexuality.

American culture becomes gayer than ever before

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After the success of "The Puppy Episode," network executives took note and welcomed more queer characters to the fold. Will and Grace, which safely introduced America to gay men and which became one of the most popular series in NBC’s history, premiered just a few months later.

Much like Ellen, Will wasn’t a particularly challenging character. Both Ellen and Will were white, cis, hilarious and affluent. You couldn’t imagine a more palatable representation of otherness. They lived to make you like them and, by extension, their community.

Image: ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

Still, they existed as gay characters — and that mattered. Queer as Folk premiered in 2000. In 2007, HBO introduced the L word, a love-hate series about queer women in Los Angeles. Ugly Betty premiered that same year and Glee was just two years later.

In 2016, GLAAD found that 43 out of 895 series regular characters were LGBTQ, the highest in television history.

Millennials are the most openly gay generation in history.

Of course, there’s plenty to whine about: television has a long way to go, particularly when it comes to representation of people of color, especially women of color and the transgender community. Lesbians and bisexual women just keep dying on television. Gay men are doing better, but Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is returning, which feels like a step backward.

But at least we’re having the conversation. And whatever you think of her, it’s a seismic cultural shift we can partially attribute to Ellen. It couldn’t have been easy. By every account, it was painful.

She was the one who turned down a puppy so she could tell a story that mattered to an audience half of the country didn’t want to exist but was taught — over the 20 years that followed — to love.

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