“Really, he called me that? Ellen DeGenerate? I’ve been getting that since fourth grade. I guess I’m happy I could give him work.”— Ellen DeGeneres, Newsweek, 1997, regarding Jerry Falwell’s personal, anti-gay comments.
True story. No, really, this is good. Well, it doesn’t have to be “true” to be “good”, does it? I mean, there are a lot of really good stories out there that have nothing to do with what really happened. Or will ever happen. It’s like the writer who made up a good story that isn’t really real but still, it’s a good story, but he got the idea for it from somewhere — like he just pulled it out of his hat. You know, the bunny out of the hat trick. I can just see that bunny, being held up by its ears, wondering, “How the heck did I get inside that hat?”, and “Where am I now?” Doesn’t it look like that would hurt? The bunny, I mean. Being held by its ears like that. That must feel pretty real for the bunny with that fist clenched so tight around its ears — probably doesn’t seem made up at all.
But I ramble. Or rather Ellen DeGeneres, of Ellen rambles. That’s part of her charm (and her improvising talents). Her nervous, one-sided, digression-prone banter rapidly fills in uncomfortable silences, pauses in conversation that she perceives as a nerve-wracking void that, if not filled with conversation, could allow too much time for something to be completely misunderstood. She wants to be understood. And she just wants people to like her so badly — especially at this time when she’s so nervous, so terrified in fact (as it seems, was ABC), in this pivotal year, season four, of the Ellen sitcom.
This is 1997 — not so ancient history but still, seemingly ages ago — the year when the first central television character, 35-year-old Ellen Morgan, came out as gay. Oh, undeniably gay-in-their mannerisms gay boys Peter (Patrick Bristow) and Barrett (Jack Plotnick) had been on the show for some time in the usual supporting roles allotted such characters. But this time, this year, this was different.
But really, Ellen — the person and the character — is not so different in this season compared to any prior since the show’s inception. And that’s a point she’s trying to make. Mainstream America, it seems, simply had no idea that plucky, likeable, cute Ellen who could be anybody’s sister, was gay. And not just Ellen Morgan the fictive owner of a comfy little Los Angeles neighborhood bookstore, Buy the Book, but Ellen DeGeneres, herself. (Ellen DeGeneres had already come out as lesbian on The Oprah Winfrey Show and in Time magazine earlier that year.) To “out” Ellen Morgan on mainstream TV in 1997 took a lot of career-defying nerve. (See “Audiences debate Ellen’s coming out” CNN, May 1997) Hot on this season’s heels would come the debut of Will & Grace (1998), but by then a lot of the hard work was already done on Ellen.
The evening the Ellen coming out episode — incongruously named “The Puppy Episode (Part 1)” was aired — I was in The Closet. This is true. (Sometimes true stories are better than fiction.) The Closet, a lesbian bar in Chicago is, like its namesake in most urban environs, a tiny place. Short, wearing round spectacles on my freckled face, and shyly single, I squeezed into The Closet’s dark and crowded space to watch the long-awaited “coming out” episode in the company of kindred spirits. TVs (usually showing dance videos) were mounted above the bar and at every corner of the rectangular room except for in the back, where the tiny dance floor was tucked away, between the bar and the washrooms (two very small single stalls and a sign affixed to the wall “One at a time only, please”). There, at the corner of the dance floor, an old video game machine took up a lot of space; Space Invaders, I think. And there I was. Little me. Sipping a nerve-soothing glass of jet fuel on the rocks (aka scotch), looking around, wondering if maybe, this evening, I’d make a new friend.
This was the first season of Ellen with a story arc, rather than just a series of stand-alone episodes as typical of sitcoms. And throughout that arc, for months, now, Ellen teased her viewers relentlessly — especially her lesbian and gay viewers. Episode after episode she’d dangle double-entendres and visual puns that simultaneously flaunted gay subtext (doublespeak we were all quite fluent in) with our assumptions — “our” being gay and straight viewers — about what signified “gay” versus “straight” behavior.
Indeed, “Give Me Equity or Give Me Death” reveals that a pair of boxer shorts do not belong to her male cousin, Spence Kovak (Jeremy Piven) — but to Ellen. Boxer shorts worn by a woman? No doubt at the time most young, straight (or at least, straight-acting) men married to women thought nothing of it beyond the chuckle it induced; their young wives slouched around the place quite comfortably on a Sunday morning, wearing boxer shorts, all the time. We weren’t quite at the point of finding boxer shorts in the Women’s section at Target, yet — but we weren’t that far away from it, either.
“A Deer Head for Joe” has Spence and Paige Clark (Joely Fisher) in bed with Ellen (completely nonsexual, of course). As Ellen converses with either, her head turns from side-to-side; the man on one side, the woman on the other. Comparably, in “Ellen Unplugged”, during a discussion of first-ever rock concerts Ellen declares her first was AC/DC. And perhaps most deliciously, in “Bowl Baby, Bowl” Ellen is seated comfortably, having a conversation with someone off camera.
“Well,” she says, “First I was with a man. Then a Woman. Then a man, again. Another man. Then a woman, a woman, a man, a woman, then another man. Lately, I’m beginning to think it doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman. It’s the person that counts.” I could see the queer and queer-friendly among us throughout the nation just holding our hands to our hearts, you know — in a heartened gesture. “But one thing I know for sure,” Ellen quips, “I can’t keep going from therapist-to-therapist like this.” Oh! The tease!
Notably, the perpetual therapy sessions in Ellen, wherein a therapist is swapped out at every episode, are critical: it was around this time that the American Medical Association declared its opposition to treatments intended to “cure” homosexuality. (Much earlier, in 1973, The American Psychiatric Association decided that homosexuality should no longer be classified as a mental disorder. However, it wasn’t until 1994 that The American Medical Association adopted a statement removing all references to ‘sexual orientation related disorders’ from its official policy — this statement had been used for years to justify ‘therapies’ for `treating’ homosexuality.)
Back at The Closet for “The Puppy Episode (Part 1)” where, it seemed, the therapist of our choice that evening came poured in a cold glass or wrapped in a warm sweater, there were lots of gorgeous lesbians: like the one wearing a white suit strikingly similar (well, of a more confident cut and firmer fabric than the soft, fuzzy version we’d soon see), to that which would be worn by Ellen’s love interest, Susan (Laura Dern). And another, wearing a black suit with wide cuffs flashing gold links, smoking an at-the-time fashionable little cherry-scented cigar. I forgave the stench of the cigar for how incredibly Marlene Dietrich-sexy she looked while smoking it.
There were not-so-gorgeous lesbians (but no less ‘hot’); the ‘softball contingent’ whose members looked like they either drove or worked on the city busses by day. They were the blue-collar class that hadn’t (and still doesn’t have) a dollop of fashion sense — oh, those mullets. And then there were the sweet little fems; simultaneously trussed up yet nearly bare, sipping their rum and tequila-based fruit drinks, saving the alcohol-soaked maraschino cherry for last. Come to think of it, Ellen‘s perpetually bedecked in pink, squeaky-voiced Audrey Penny (Clea Lewis) who quips “Are we supposed to call you ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’, now?” — and who, incidentally, is one of the most fearless characters in this show — could have easily fit in to The Closet, among her fellow femmes. What a wonderful array of women.
Indeed, desire is a delicious, undeniable aspect one is taken by, when taken by same-sex attraction. But in the Ellen motif, in what appears to be an effort to delicately broach this ‘controversial’ subject with mainstream America, the writers made certain that Ellen’s confusion about her sexual identity had less to do with desire for women (that aspect of Ellen DeGeneres was between her and then lover, Anne Heche – and the lesbian tabloids), and more with the alienating feeling of being the perpetual ‘outsider’. Of course, feeling ‘outsider’ is a critical component of growing up homosexual in a predominantly (and dangerous) heterosexual world, but Ellen Morgan merely tosses about her absolute lack of desire for men — quite contrary to all the straight women around her — as one would a hacky sack, kicking it about nonchalantly while carrying on a conversation with a friend.
This approach, although accommodating to straights, is also a perfect tease for gays; it’s simultaneously alluring and frustrating. Such as in the first episode, “Give Me Equity or Give Me Death”. Ellen’s promiscuous realtor (Nancy Lenehan, whose character is so straight, although she admits a lesbian dalliance) shows Ellen houses by slide show. She picks up a little figurine of a woman, and like a puppet, holds it to the walkway projected onscreen as if it’s walking up to a new home. Then, she picks up a little figurine of a man to represent Ellen’s husband. “Oh I think that puppet is in the wrong show,” says Ellen.
Notably, there is another real issue, thematic current running through this series that should be appreciated: the true story about hard economics. Ellen has to sell her bookstore in order, as a single woman, to come up with the down payment for a modest house. Economic hardship is handled in the usual light-hearted, stone skipping across the surface sitcom manner; but eventually, that stone sinks into the depths, allowing for a not as simple as it may seem situation. There’s the obvious nod to monetary difficulties (now there’s a unifying concept between homos and heteros); and there’s the subtext going on in that storyline — for those paying attention — that suggests that gay people are moving from their gay ghettos to the neighborhoods of the middle class.
No doubt the country’s virulently homophobic nemesis of 1997, Jesse Helms (then-Republican Senator and one of the leading figures of the modern Christian right), was quite in tune with the implications of this subtext. It was bad enough that television was implying gays are moving into mainstream neighborhoods: by this very show it was opening the door and letting all the queers waltz right into people’s homes! Comparably, “The Pregnancy Test” might have been viewed by straight people as addressing the single parent issue (ala Murphy Brown‘s ’91/’92 season foray into single parenthood, which had then-Vice-President Dan Quayle all up in a self-righteous rage). Whereas gay people (and Helms — geez, he was astute) may have seen it as raising the issue that gay people may want to have and raise children, too.
Ellen – Season 4 is important, but it’s not all heavy. Most of the season is filled with the usual chuckle-inducing, sometimes dated, non-challenging sitcom humor. Watching it can sometimes feel like scratching an easy-to-reach itch; the chuckle invoked by the silly humor feels good enough, but it’s quickly forgotten. The show is also sprinkled with an occasional Lucille Ball-like physical comedy scene and that’s sometimes fun, sometimes roll-your-eyes ridiculous, as in “The Parent Trap”, which carries an ongoing storyline about Ellen’s anxiety over the failing of her parents’ Harold (Steven Gilborn) and Lois Morgan (Alice Hirson) long-term marriage. This episode has Ellen looking most ridiculous in a floral skirt and bedecked with plastic fruit. Straight viewers may have been reminded of Lucille Ball, but gay viewers could also see that this was Ellen dressed in drag.
For the most part, Ellen Morgan served as the quintessential “Is she a lesbian?” lesbian; the girl-next-door kind of woman whom those without gaydar would have never, ever, in a million years, guessed was gay. She was quite unlike the more muscular among us at The Closet whom, when seen walking down the street, would hear someone yell “Dyke!” from a passing car. Indeed, that Ellen Morgan’s own parents had no clue she was gay, either [addressed in “The Puppy Episode (Part 2”)] was, sadly (and of course, still is), entirely believable.
That “is she a lesbian?” lesbian is the kind of girl I spotted at The Closet while we patrons chatted and drank, waiting for Ellen to come out on Ellen, already. She was the girl next door kind of girl; the kind of girl who made me wonder if I could be her friend. Kayla; of long, wavy brown hair, lots of nice curves, and a smile that would’ve knocked me off my stool, if I only had one to sit on. As it was, I stood beside Kayla, enjoying small talk with her as she sipped the rum and coke she requested, after I worked up the nerve to stroll over, catch her eye, smile, and offer to buy her a drink. We had a sweet, nervous rapport going and then suddenly, everyone in the bar heard the squeaky-voiced Audrey shout “Ellen! You’re gonna be late for your dinner date with your old college friend, Richard!” And so ensues the opening banter about “coming out” that, if not already known to you, is a scene entirely worth the price of this DVD set.
In-between shared eruptions of laughter, The Closet was so quiet. Like we were all holding our breath. This was not the usual episode opening of Ellen. Thus far, the show would begin with a skit among the central characters, then cut to a delightfully playful skit with pop artists ranging from the ephemeral, such as the jump roping “Rebel Ropers” to the legendary, such as a brief, oh-so-sweet snippet with Aaron Neville. All season, the musicians featured in these skits did their own riff off a portion of the Ellen theme song, “So Called Friend”, sung by the lovely Sharleen Spiteri of the Scottish band, Texas (if she is not a lesbian, she should be). Breaking artists on a primetime sitcom was a new phenomenon that musicians Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats, Captain & Tennille, ZZ Top, Queen Latifah, Devo, Me’shell Ndegeocello, Trisha Yearwood (to name just a few) would enjoy, thanks to Ellen and Sharleen. (Hilariously, Ellen’s get-up while dancing to Boogie Nights during one of these skits has her looking her most androgynous.)
But in keeping with a common motif, “The Puppy Episode (Part 1)” quickly had us girls at The Closet in yet another therapist’s office. This time, the therapist was Oprah of those big, brown dreamy-eyes Winfrey. Oprah was there as somebody who was going to tell America that “being gay is OK”. By this point (as learned later in the extras) during one taping of this show the studio received a bomb threat and the studio audience had to be cleared out and bomb-sniffing dogs brought in. This was the year before the young, gay Matthew Shephard was crucified near Laramie, Wyoming — the term, nay, the concept “hate crime” had not yet been absorbed into this nation’s consciousness, and it was certainly not yet a phrase in our legal lingo.
Oprah-as-therapist asked Ellen whom she ever felt she connected with. “Susan”, Ellen replied, recalling her encounter with the slender blond. Naturally, we all loved that. But puuhhllease, a girl like Ellen would’ve had a crush on Julie Andrews when she was a kid decades before this encounter with Susan. Didn’t every baby dyke of Ellen’s generation have their first crush on Julie Andrews? (See the delightful skit about recruiting lesbians for a toaster oven, and you’ll understand my allusion, here.)
Alas, for all its bravery for the time, Ellen could be accommodatingly timid, too. In “The Puppy Episode (Part 2) it is her long-time friend, Paige — the girl who works in the film industry — whom we’re to believe suffers angst over her friend’s coming out. It’s as if Ellen kept a deep secret from her best friend and now she rocks Paige’s world and Paige just doesn’t know if she can handle it. This seems the producers’ attempt to “be sensitive” and “talk mainstream America” through their difficulties of learning someone they know and love is gay. But it’s pegged on the wrong character; someone who in real life, would probably say “Oh, I knew that!” Whereas smart-aleck bookstore employee Joe Farrell (David Anthony Higgins), is the friend who, although not explicitly expressed, is clearly the non-gay character who could’ve told Ellen she was gay years ago (since gay boyfriend Peter doesn’t do the deed himself).
You know how when you know someone who’s pregnant, suddenly you see pregnant women everywhere? Well, “The Puppy Episode (Part 2)”‘s opening skit set in a grocery store populated by pop culture’s lesbian icons (such as Melissa Etheridge and kd Lang) makes you feel just like that: lesbians, lesbians, everywhere. The show also has guest appearances by pop culture icons who support lesbians (such as Billy Bob Thornton and Demi Moore), and a host of other celebrities who called, wanting to be on this episode. We learn in the extras that Mick Jagger really wanted to make a supportive appearance on “The Puppy Episode (Part 2)”. The reason why we never see Mick? The writers couldn’t figure out the best role for him. (He’d make such a dreadful drag queen!)
Speaking of extras, the extras for Ellen: Season 4 are little more than self-indulgent blather, albeit with a few gems, as mentioned above, for those with patience. But mostly, it’s just chatter of little interest to anyone but those doing the talking (some of the show’s producers). Their input comes along almost ten years after “The Puppy Episodes” were aired — plenty of time to look back with historical insight, and to provide insightful commentary. Sadly, they’re not nearly as good at blathering as Ellen. I wish the extras would have included interviews with key actors and guest stars discussing the societal pressures of the times. That would help give this DVD some extra historical weight, and ideally, more appeal to the collector. Season 4 of Ellen tells an important story in this country’s social history. Why? Because the true story about Ellen – The Complete Season 4, is that it’s really not about gay people at all: it’s really about straight society USA, circa 1997.
There’s a little bit more to tell you about the story I started, back there in The Closet. I swear, it’s true as I remember it. While at The Closet during the airing of “The Puppy Episode, Part 1” — right at that famous scene where Ellen’s declaration of her sexuality is amplified for all in the airline terminal to hear: the power went out. The TVs blanked, the lights went out and for one simultaneous, unbelieving moment, all the girls in The Closet sucked in their breath. A moment later, a unanimous “Awwww…” was heard. The Closet’s famous to every lesbian and gay man in Chicago bartender was on the phone with ComEd in seconds, shouting, “I’m losing customers!” over the scrape of metal stool legs on uneven linoleum, the rustle as women collected their things.
Those who left headed to bars directly across the street — the boy bars — where the lights were still blazing. I took a now empty barstool and, scootched a little closer to her, and to the soft light of a hastily provided candle, I lingered with Kayla well past the time the Ellen show ended. The only other sounds were that of a handful of other women talking softly among themselves; women who, it seems, already knew stories of coming out, including Ellen DeGeneres’. They’d catch up with Ellen Morgan’s story, later.