Originally 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.

Not 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.

The 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.

Then 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.

On 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."

We 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 Dem).

When 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.

I 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.

Across 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.

Back 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.

We may have to change our club date to Thursday nights.



©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved