COMES OUT TO PROVINCETOWN
published in Provincetown Magazine, May 8, 1997
It was the last day of April, the temperature had reached 65 degrees, forsythia
burst from the hedges, and the energy of new life, of change, was palpable
in the streets. But this time, it was more than the awakening of a seasonal
village. This time it was more than the prospect of money in our pockets
again, the hammerfall of carpenters, the advent of tourists winding their
way through the shops on Commercial, the anticipation of summer's naked
spectacle on the pristine winter beach. This time, Ellen was coming out.
that we hadn't been prepared. First, there were just the rumors
that Ellen was coming out. Someone in P'town had talked to someone
whose roommate worked for ABC. Someone just back from LA had had
coffee with an old college pal who was a key grip on another ABC
sitcom and...well, you know the dish. That buzz went around for
weeks. A few hints in the show itself (a friend enters the room
calling for Ellen. Ellen comes through a door, answering "Here
I am. I was in the closet.") Then the teasers - snippets of
interviews to come and provocative clips of scenes from the show
aired on the TV celebrity magazines, veiled jokes on the late night
talk shows. The print media picked up what they could, mostly third
hand comments about comments about the episode, quotes from other
entertainers. Then there was the Time Magazine cover story
of April 14 when in response to Time interviewer Bruce
Handy's pointed question, "...are you yourself gay?" Ellen
answered, "Yes," and went on to talk candidly about the
decision to have her TV character come out and the relationship
of that event on the show to her own decision to live her life
openly as a lesbian.
hoopla ballooned into outcry from advertisers and the conservative
religious community. The Birmingham, Alabama, ABC affiliate refused
to air the show. Chrysler and J.C Penny backed out of their ads.
There was controversy about other advertisers. Olivia Cruise Lines
got more attention after that controversy than their syrupy slick
ad could ever have garnered. ABC rejected the national airing of
the Human Rights Campaign ad saying their commitment was to program
content and that the HRC public service ad on the continuing and
pervasive legality of job discrimination against gays violated
ABC policy against controversial issue advertising. Jerry Falwell
lived up to his family values with name-calling on Larry King Live.
we watched 20/20 with what some thought a steely and subtly condescending
Diane Sawyer probing Ellen's sexual history with the tired question, "Have
you ever been with a man?" We were gratified by Ellen's courage and honesty
and humor in acknowledging that yes, she had, a few, and all the while, a voice
inside her was singing the Peggy Lee refrain “Is that all there is?” Camille
Paglia, self-appointed spokeslesbian who can always be counted on to rise to
a media opportunity, appeared to take issue, saying she wished Ellen had treated
coming out more seriously and hadn't dragged the whole thing out so long.
Oprah, the day of the episode, Ellen said she hadn't meant for
it to be such a media circus, to drag out for so long. She had
planned only three interviews - the Time piece, 20/20, and her
appearance on Oprah. "It wasn't supposed to leak out like
it did, she said, "just a few subtle clues in the show, then
the three planned interviews. But you can't control the media." Anyway,
by the time the show aired that lovely last night of April, we
were all feeling a little like Joe, the guy who serves up the java
at Ellen's Buy the Book bookshop cafe, whose character opened the
show with the line "Quit jerking us around and come out already."
gathered at 7:30 pm with our covered dishes and brownies for a
multitude. Our regular Wednesday night meeting of the "Hook,
Cook and Book Club" was preempted by the Ellen viewing party
and our number expanded from the usual 7 to 10. We were not alone.
All over town, friends, gay and straight, were gathering in homes
and clubs to watch the first primetime television character, after
a classic final struggle with denial, and with the support of her
very perceptive therapist (Oprah) abandon the "man-woman sex
thing" and go for the magnetic connection, the "click" she
felt toward another woman, Susan (played by an awfully skinny Laura
the last Don finally arrived with the pasta, we sat down to eat,
hungry, glad to be together and excited to be participating in
the historic event. The supper talk revolved around the show--its
history as "These Friends of Mine" beginning in 1993,
the juggling of characters (she keeps changing her friends) and
story and title and time slots, not to mention the revolving opening
credit sequence, which makes me think of hoop-jumping poodles on
the Ed Sullivan show. Why did Ellen sell the bookstore, anyway?
And how come she still works there? Didn't her parents get a divorce?
Wasn't there an earthquake? How many therapists has she seen? Can
you get a new ‘best friend’ in one season? We realized
we were not Ellen experts. After all, more times than not we had
been hooking, booking and cooking on Wednesday nights and missed
the show entirely. But we agreed, considering the limits of our
exposure, that the quality of the show has been, well, inconsistent.
The cautious, people-pleasing Ellen Morgan could be more annoying
than funny and the storyline seemed to simply leap into space at
times and leave the viewers earthbound. But this episode vindicated
all past weaknesses. It was brilliantly written, the dialogue rising
and falling with perfect timing, from excruciating tension to comic
relief, turning one after another stereotypical perception of gays
inside out and back on itself with an intelligent and compassionate
humor until everyone in the room, (indeed, it seemed later, everyone
in town), felt included, affirmed and wholly satisfied. And when
Ellen finally confided to Susan through the airport microphone "I
think I’ve realized that I'm gay," adding ''That felt
great. That felt really great" a big sigh rolled around the
room like a choral response. It did feel great.
took to the sidewalks the next day and questioned the townies in
shops and on street corners. "Did you see the show last night?
What did you think?" To a person, they thought it was great
(funny, fabulous, fantastic). At Now Voyager bookstore, customers
were signing cards of appreciation to be sent to Ellen and enjoyed
recounting the lesbian coffeehouse scene where KD, in an awful
lesbian haircut wig, sang sister songs. Here I heard, too, that
the toaster oven joke was contributed by our own Kate Clinton.
At Waves, friends giving and getting a real haircut marveled at
the insightful writing, the jokes that zapped everyone, straight
and gay, without offending. Up at Shop Therapy, clerks wedged among
the, uh...sexually inclusive paraphernalia...were still laughing.
the street, the guys who run the guest house were tickled by the
eager, effusive Peter whose slip outed Ellen to her friends. At
Adam's Pharmacy, a customer bemoaned missing the show. Her boyfriend
wouldn't give up the remote and insisted on watching the Discovery
Channel. The line at the post office cracked up when the post goddess
at the window said to her customer buying stamps, "show me
the money, baby." At the corner of Ryder and Commercial, someone
had cleverly renamed the street Ellen DeGeneres Street and a friend
catching the scene from the Meet Rack raved over the Volkswagen
commercial with the two cute guys, so simpatico they didn't even
have to talk. Everywhere there was a feeling of celebration in
the air, as if the home team had just won the championship.
at the therapist's office, when Ellen is asked how she feels now,
she says, "For the first time in my life, I feel comfortable
with myself." We could all see that, the difference in Ellen
the person informing the character with a new energy. We're eager
to see how that will play out in the episodes to come. If the 42
million people across the country who watched the show feel anything
near like we do here in Provincetown, "Ellen" will be
the Hale-Bopp of sitcoms, streaking out of the dark night to light
us toward a new era of television comedy that explodes stereotypes
rather than creates them.
may have to change our club date to Thursday nights.