A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
Were the 1990s the TV sitcom’s peak decade? If not then, when? The 1970s were revolutionary, with Norman Lear and Mary Tyler Moore’s production companies shaking up the situation comedy’s style and content. But their collective output was relatively modest, and by the end of the decade, their sophisticated, adult approach had been supplanted by shows that were cornier and catchier. The form really started to progress again at the end of the 1980s, when just about any stand-up comic who’d ever been on The Tonight Show got their own series. That influx of new comedy talent, coupled with the maturation of talented writers and directors who’d started on the likes of Taxi and Cheers, set the stage for a boom. Soon, the massive popularity of Roseanne, Seinfeld, and Friends had networks scrambling to fill as many nights as possible with comedies—most of them at least mildly enjoyable, and a few truly inspired.
For most of its run, Ellen DeGeneres’ Ellen fell on the “mildly enjoyable” side. In its early years especially, the show was a coaster, impassively riding various TV trends—from the presence of a stand-up in the lead to a premise that could best be described as “funny person hangs out with her kooky friends.” Ellen was never a big hit during its first three seasons, but it was a reliable performer for ABC and it had a solid fanbase thanks primarily to DeGeneres—a bright, likable screen presence whose motormouthed, endlessly digressive comic persona could be easily parceled out into one-liners.
Ellen’s writers, though, struggled to come up with stories to fit around the jokes—or at least ones that distinguished the show from every other contemporary sitcom about the petty daily gripes of middle-class white folks in their 20s and 30s. Often the lead just reacted to the latest folly of one of her pals: a shifting cast of characters played by TV vets like Joely Fisher, David Anthony Higgins, and Jeremy Piven. Occasionally the producers would try to force DeGeneres’ Ellen Morgan character into romantic plot-lines, but she was never that convincing playing boy-crazy, which cut off a lot of conventional sitcom avenues.
Then on April 30, 1997, ABC aired “The Puppy Episode,” an hourlong Ellen laden with cameos by Oprah Winfrey, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, and Gina Gershon. The most important guest star was Laura Dern, playing Susan, a woman whom Ellen would develop a crush on, which would help her to admit that she’d been suppressing her homosexuality her entire life. Rumors about the content of the episode spread for nearly a year before it aired, and the big revelation was winked at and teased throughout Ellen’s fourth season. Then on April 14, Time published a cover story on DeGeneres with the headline, “Yep, I’m Gay,” confirming what was already widely suspected. The subsequent hype surrounding “The Puppy Episode” drove viewership to over 40 million. The series went on to win an Emmy that year for Outstanding Writing, and “The Puppy Episode” is still considered a watershed moment in television, clearing the way for more LGBT content.
What’s sometimes forgotten is that Ellen stayed on the air for a full year’s worth of episodes after DeGeneres came out. There were two more episodes in season four, dealing with the aftermath of her announcement. Season five tested ABC’s commitment to airing a sitcom about an openly gay woman. As groundbreaking as “The Puppy Episode” was, Ellen’s fifth season went even further, as the writers explored the ripple effect of their heroine embracing her sexuality. Suddenly, they had a lot of stories to tell. How would this change affect the way Ellen interacted with her friends and family? Would she keep the same job? Would she get politically radicalized? And—most importantly—would she get a girlfriend?
Ellen did in fact find somebody early in season five: Laurie (played by Lisa Darr), a single mother with a sense of humor. In the season’s ninth episode, “Like A Virgin,” Ellen has sex with Laurie for the first time. This was an inevitable turn of events for any show about a healthy adult lesbian. But it was way beyond primetime network television’s usual handling of gay female sexuality, which tended to treat a woman lusting after another woman as something shocking, sinister, silly, or softly pornographic.
“Like A Virgin” is more tender than titillating. Its pacing and humor come across as a little stiff at times, but the way the story plays out still feels fresh and honest. The first half builds to what looks to be a conventional bit of Ellen-style farce, before taking an unexpected turn. When Ellen finds out that Laurie’s daughter is going away for a ski trip, she plans to invite her girlfriend over for a special weekend, which she sheepishly describes to her friends—who make fun of her for acting like the jittery virgin that, at this point in her life, she’s belatedly become. But then Laurie surprises Ellen with her own romantic night, and our heroine panics and makes up an excuse to flee.
The second half of “Like A Virgin” deals first with Ellen’s embarrassment over bailing—which she talks over with her gay friend Peter—and then follows her return to Laurie’s apartment. The latter scene in particular plays out in a much lower key than usual, as Ellen tries to explain how the idea of sleeping with a woman is both exciting and strange to her, and how she’s afraid she’s going to derail her first really important romantic relationship due to her own anxieties and hang-ups. The two women talk through the night on the living room sofa, where Ellen eventually falls asleep on Laurie’s chest—a more touchingly intimate image than any sex scene could’ve been. Then they wake up, take each other’s hands, and walk down the hall to the bedroom before the credits roll.
The script for “Like A Virgin” is credited to writer Jane Espenson, who was still fairly new to TV in 1997, and would go on to greater acclaim as a contributor to Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica, and is currently writing for Once Upon A Time. When I e-mailed Espenson to ask a few questions about the episode and Ellen in general, she was quick to point out that sitcom writing is highly collaborative, and suggested that I also get in touch with Ellen’s show-runner for season five, Tim Doyle.
Here’s some of what they both had to say:
AVC: How did you get involved with Ellen and how did you land the assignment for this episode?
Espenson: I was at the Walt Disney Studios, interviewing for a writing job on a show called You Wish, which I didn’t get. I came out of the meeting and ran into a friend of mine, the brilliant Tim Doyle. He said he was going to be running Ellen during the following season and suggested that my agent send my samples to him. Next thing I knew, I was hired.
I was assigned this episode in the usual way: It was my turn to write one. I was very happy to be assigned what I knew was an important episode for the show, and—I hoped—a landmark episode of television. Will And Grace had started airing the same year, but they weren’t telling dating stories and we were, which felt like an important advance.
By the way, a friend of mine suggested calling this episode “Maidenhead Revisited” (a play on Brideshead Revisited), which I thought was hilarious, but perhaps a little more obscure than “Like a Virgin,” which is the title we ultimately settled on.
AVC: In general, what was it like writing for sitcoms in the 1990s, peppering scripts with jokes and leave space for laughs?
Espenson: Ellen was very much a traditional “multi-cam” sitcom, taped in front of a studio audience. The actors hold until the laugh lets up, and the writers write the scripts short enough to accommodate an expected amount of expansion from the laughs. Sitcoms are restrictive in all the predictable ways. You have to write a story that uses a limited number of sets that can be built on a stage, you have to write a story that resolves in 22 minutes, and you have to make sure all of the actors get an opportunity to be funny. There can be somewhat more of a storytelling formula than on some other kinds of shows, I suppose. But every genre has its own restrictions.
What was special about that year on Ellen, of course, was that we knew we were telling stories that had never been told on television before. That felt liberating and important and big, because it was.
AVC: Were you watching the show all along, before you wrote for it? Did you have to keep any of that continuity in mind—the changes in the character over the course of four years?
Espenson: I was actually at the taping of the original pilot for the show, then called These Friends Of Mine. I had watched the show on-and-off after that, and of course I had seen the famous—and brilliant—coming out episode that aired shortly before I was hired. That revelation felt very much like a rebirth, and we didn’t worry too much about what had gone before. Writers need to know much more about where a character is than where they’ve been. We kept the things we loved, like Ellen’s parents, and we wrote a fun episode in which a boyfriend from a previous season returned. And we didn’t keep things that felt like they could use updating, like her work environment.
One of the things we added, of course, was the character of her girlfriend, Laurie. One of the things I loved about the character of Laurie was that she laughed at Ellen’s jokes. Ellen was a somewhat unusual sitcom character in that she didn’t just say funny things, she said them on purpose. She was a character who joked when she was uncomfortable or trying to impress someone. To have a girlfriend who appreciated these jokes—who laughed—turned out to be crucial to our portrayal of a solid supportive relationship.
Doyle: Part of our early plan for the season was that Ellen Morgan would find a girlfriend and eventually sleep with her. We introduced Laurie, who I named after Laura Petrie on the old Dick Van Dyke Show, and we wrote a series of carefully plotted episodes bringing them together and “earning” the relationship. “Like A Virgin” was its consummation.
Somewhere I have a framed Standards memo telling me that these two weren’t even allowed to kiss, and that Ellen and Laurie needed to “find another way of expressing their friendship.” I got almost daily calls from the bosses requesting more reticence in telling these stories, and urging me to go back to shooting episodes where Ellen was “just being funny.” We did quite a few “just funny” episodes that year, but also continued our Laurie arc, and along the way also shot a couple of scripts where I now believe the gay content got a tiny bit too heavy-handed. But, by and large, it was an extraordinary season of TV.
AVC: The whole last act of the episode, from Ellen’s return, to her and Laurie walking to the bedroom, is really lovely, reminiscent of something from a classic 1970s sitcom like Taxi. Did you have any specific tone you were looking to strike?
Espenson: TV writing, particularly on comedies, is extremely collaborative. The room as a whole comes up with every beat of the story before it’s written. And then after it’s written, the writers spend a whole week thoroughly rewriting it. I don’t believe it’s likely that enough of the original draft remains intact for me to have imparted a particular tone.
Doyle: Your premise seems to assume a kind of auteur version of TV writing, that the “Like A Virgin” script represents Jane’s creative message to the world and perhaps links thematically to some of the other wonderful things she has been involved with, from Buffy through Husbands and Once Upon A Time. That premise would be reductive. Jane is an ingeniously talented writer and comedy writer, and on that staff played an outsized creative role, but the “Virgin” story was originated by the group, outlined by the group, and rewritten by the group. I am certain Jane wrote her customary excellent draft and confident that an atypical share of her dialogue survived the process. But her ideas, jokes, and world view might actually be better represented in other scripts from that season because of the chaotic way these shows get puréed and reconstituted in “the room.”
AVC: How much input did Ms. DeGeneres have on scripts?
Espenson: I’m sure Tim ran each episode idea past Ellen before we started work on it. After that, she gave notes after the table-reads and rehearsals. If I recall, mostly she weighed in with ideas for changes to her dialogue and suggestions for physical bits. And I don’t remember any significant amount of ad-libbing. If she had an idea, she brought it to us, rather than throwing new dialogue in during a taping. I remember she was very aware of the significance of each episode of this crucial season, and very much wanted to make sure we were doing right by this story.
AVC: Did the network have any particular concerns about the content of the episode? Were there any limits to what you could and couldn’t say or show, beyond the usual expectations for a network show?
Espenson: Oh certainly. I recall we got lots of notes from Standards and Practices about what we couldn’t show and what we couldn’t say on lots of episodes. But we were able to tell dating stories that broke new ground, and ultimately the notes didn’t prevent us from doing anything we wanted to do. On this episode I recall there were notes, but I believe they mostly boiled down to “don’t show any sex on screen,” which of course we had no intention doing anyway.
Doyle: Disney/ABC struggled quite a bit that season with their feelings regarding the Ellen program. They had lured her back for another season after the famous “Puppy” episode with a promise that the show could continue to unfold the story of Ellen Morgan’s coming out. Unfortunately the creative executives seemingly didn’t communicate this commitment to the Broadcast Standards department, who continued objecting strenuously week after week to the show’s gay content and eventually attached a warning to our opening credits telling parents we might not be “appropriate” for the delicate eyes of their “younger viewers.” Ms. Degeneres felt particularly hurt and insulted by this advisory because the show was never especially sexual. Even in the “Virgin” episode we were extraordinarily subtle and discrete. Meanwhile, I recall, at 8:30 we were followed by Spin City, where sex jokes splooged in all directions and Michael J. Fox was allowed a vivid on-screen sex life.
These objections from Broadcast Standards continued through the season. But Ellen and I kept pushing forward, compromising here and there but mostly sticking to plan. A TV show in production is a moving train and I knew the network would get off the tracks as long as our ratings and critical response were decent. They were, for the most part, except for a hysterical minority which did their best to get in Disney/ABC’s ear.
Eventually we really did wear out our welcome both with the network and the public. By the spring of 1998 the tiny hysterical anti-Ellen/anti-Ellen backlash had broadened into a seeming cultural fatigue with the topic of Ellen’s gayness. Been there, done that. I remember Elton John actually saying something akin to “enough already.” Our ratings slipped a bit and our bosses had justification enough to pull the plug, replacing us with Two Guys, A Girl, And A Pizza Place.
So basically, had we not done what we did, our culture might never have met Ryan Reynolds. You’re welcome.
It’s not that surprising that the ABC of 1997 balked at the heightened gay content of Ellen. But it’s also not surprising that ABC aired the show in the first place. Throughout the 1990s, most of my favorite shows were on NBC: Seinfeld, NewsRadio, Friends, Frasier, ER, The West Wing, and Homicide in particular. But I probably spent more time overall watching ABC, which was taking more chances with drama—airing the likes of Murder One, NYPD Blue, The Practice, Nothing Sacred, My So-Called Life, and Cupid—supplemented by a full and consistently entertaining slate of sitcoms.
I only watched These Friends Of Mine sporadically, but I watched every episode of Ellen after the name change in season two, and while the show never would’ve made my Top 10 for any given year, it did fit nicely alongside ABC’s The Drew Carey Show, Spin City, and Dharma & Greg as another ingratiating, well-crafted weekly diversion. And I do think the series jumped up a level in season five, when in any given week I could count on seeing something I’d never seen on television before.
It’s entirely possible that I felt that way because I wanted to feel that way—because I was rooting for the show to succeed on its own terms. Apparently the network disagreed. And so did the viewers, who tapered off. (Though not to disastrous levels. This is an apples-to-oranges comparison, I realize, but a low-rated Ellen in 1998 would be a ratings smash today.) On May 6, 1998, Diane Sawyer hosted an ABC PrimeTime segment about the decision to cancel Ellen, in which she had this exchange with ABC president Robert Iger:
Iger: I think the audience left primarily because of sameness. Not gayness. Sameness… It became a program about a lead character who was gay every single week. And I just think that was too much for people.
Sawyer: Well, she is gay every single week, though. And she would say other sitcoms… Paul Reiser is heterosexual every single week.
Iger: Yes. And Jerry Seinfeld’s character in his program is a heterosexual male. Now, I think when you watch the program, you have a sense every week that he’s a heterosexual male. But the theme of each program isn’t that he’s a heterosexual male.
DeGeneres explained to Sawyer that she’d originally intended to keep the show as it always had been, with homosexuality as just a background note. She said she changed her mind after “The Puppy Episode,” which forced her to reckon with her own squeamishness about being out of the closet. She had people writing letters thanking her for helping them to feel better about themselves, all while she herself felt uncomfortable kissing her girlfriend in public, or even in saying, “I’m gay.” She indicated to Sawyer that she felt obliged to push herself, to take advantage of a rare opportunity.
“Like A Virgin” proves DeGeneres made the right choice. It’s not a perfect episode, by any means. Even for those of us who embrace the staginess of three-camera/live-studio-audience sitcoms, “Like A Virgin” is a little staccato with its statement-joke-laugh-statement-joke-laugh rhythm. But Espenson’s right when she talks about the huge difference it made for Ellen to have a girlfriend who thought she was funny. DeGeneres’ performances in her scenes with Darr are wonderfully relaxed, with genuine affection projecting in both directions.
And in the scene where Ellen wakes up cuddled with Laurie, the choice to have a history documentary playing in the background—with a narrator reciting the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—more subtly evokes Ellen’s season-five themes than Mr. Iger may have recognized. Almost no one thinks of Seinfeld as a show about a straight male because that’s the norm on television. So Jerry Seinfeld and his writers could do jokes about masturbation and threesomes and talking dirty in bed without being tagged as “subversive.” All DeGeneres was asking was for the same consideration—as another popular American comedian, living in the land of the free—to be allowed to spin humor out of sex.
There’s still resistance in some quarters to the idea that Hollywood needs to promote diversity. But while there’s nothing wrong with yet another TV comedy or drama about the minor woes of financially comfortable heterosexual caucasians (provided that it’s well-written and well-acted, that is), the omnipresence of those shows is the real “sameness” that Iger claimed to abhor. A lot of 1990s sitcoms are rightfully considered classics, and there are definite distinctions between the styles of Frasier, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, The Drew Carey Show, NewsRadio, and SportsNight. But the point-of-view of each is ultimately awfully similar. Back in 1997 and ’98, it was refreshing to turn on the television once a week and see something else.
Next time… on A Very Special Episode: Friday Night Lights, “The Son”