ICYMI: Sam Lake on Ellen (The Sitcom)
Previous winner of the Leicester Square Theatre New Comedian of the Year Award, and a now-familiar face on the Scottish comedy scene, Sam Lake gives us his take on ground-breaking Ellen DeGeneres sitcom, Ellen
Brief caveat: this article isn’t about Ellen’s talk show or her recently discovered toxic behaviour. Yes, she’s problematic. Yes, she wants everyone to be kind to each other but also not make direct eye contact with her. This article is about the 90s sitcom that made Ellen a household name. My only prior knowledge of it was watching a clip of an interview between pre-talk-show-Ellen and Oprah after Ellen came out (as lesbian, not talk show host) both in real-life and on her sitcom, which was creatively titled Ellen.
In the Ellen Sitcom Universe, herein known as the ESU, Ellen plays....well, Ellen. Except in the ESU, Ellen is a bookshop owner, living in Los Angeles with her quirky friends who get up to all kinds of comical escapades. It's not a wild format, but perhaps this was intentional, allowing the focus of the show to be on Ellen and her quintessential Ellen-isms. As far as sitcoms go, it’s genuinely very watchable. Admittedly, season one is a bit of a chore as it finds its feet. Other than that, the writing is sharp, well delivered and the whole cast are giving delicious, characterful performances.
Ellen’s main trait is being nice (foreshadowing much?). She’s always the one trying to do the right thing and to keep everyone happy. Her friends around her are forever getting into crazy situations, and the comedy comes from how Ellen awkwardly tries to make everything right. You watch for her one-liners, her reactions. Her only continuing pursuit is trying to find the right man to settle down with (we’ll get onto why that might prove problematic for her in a moment).
For the first three seasons Ellen doesn't get up to anything too outlandish. Sure, she competes on American Gladiators, gets convinced her new boyfriend is a cocaine dealer, and walks in on her best friend cheating on her fiancé on their wedding day. This is standard ESU. Then season four comes along with a different energy.
We’re drip-fed little clues about Ellen’s sexuality throughout the season. She makes jokes about not needing a husband and hides in a literal closet, then bursts out all “I was in the closet lol.” These teases culminate in The Puppy Episode, which was pretty monumental when it first aired in 1997. In this two-part special, Ellen comes out as lesbian, making her the first prime-time sitcom character to be openly gay. Everyone thought this was just terrific and no-one had any issues with it. At all.
JUST KIDDING, this was America in the 90s. Tolerance of gay people hadn't been invented yet. That wouldn't come until 2009 when Obama told everyone gays were actually, like, so chill. Ellen didn’t work for three years after the show finished. She was blacklisted in Hollywood, often called 'Ellen Degenerate' in the press. DeGeneres claims there was even a bomb scare on the day they recorded this episode, which just goes to show what attitudes were like.
Public backlash aside, the episode itself is genuinely funny. Ellen meets Susan, a proud lesbian woman who sends Ellen into a spiral of questioning her sexuality, culminating in accidentally announcing she’s gay to an entire airport. (FYI: Ryanair charge a fee if you out yourself on one of their flights). My favourite line comes when Ellen, desperate to appear as straight as possible, tells her friends about a wild night of hotel-room passion, which is so obviously made-up when Ellen utters “God I’m just a sucker for man-woman sex.”
After that historic episode, Ellen lasted one more season, which tackled a lot of queer issues. Many critics said the whole show was “too gay”, which seems unfair. Having said that, there is one episode where Ellen learns to rock climb so she can go on a date with a lesbian spin instructor called Barbara. Fair play, that is textbook (stereotypical) lesbianism. But the same humour that made the first four seasons work hadn’t gone anywhere, just the storylines were about things lots of people didn’t want to hear about at the time.
As a sitcom, Ellen is really enjoyable. It’s witty, it’s quick, it’s funny. It shows why Ellen was so beloved... I’d recommend a watch of at least the coming out episode, combined with the Oprah interview to understand the impact it had. Especially the bit where Oprah goes “Everyone look under your seats, it’s HOMOSEXUALITY!”
Sam Lake brings his latest Work-In-Progress show, Cake, to Monkey Barrel Comedy, Edinburgh, 22 Jan, 8pm, £7
Catch Sam's podcast, I've had a Rosé, Let's Talk about Feelings, wherever you get your podcasts
Sam's other upcoming gigs can be found at linktr.ee/samlake