In 1997, 42 million people tuned in to watch the character Ellen Morgan and the actor Ellen DeGeneres come out in an episode of her sitcom. “The Puppy Episode” is full of jokes referencing the rumors that Ellen was gay and the expectations of the audience at home. The audience in the studio cheered wildly at every one.
Ellen devoted Friday’s episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show to the 20th anniversary of her coming out to the masses. She opened with: “I’m Ellen, and I’m gay.” After the cheers died down she added, “Twenty years ago I said that. It was a much bigger deal then.” According to Ellen, there was a lot of discussion and difficulty in getting the episode where she first said those words made at all.
“It was called ‘The Puppy Episode’ because we wanted to keep it a secret until it aired,” Ellen explained, “And because ‘Ellen Throws Her Career Away’ seemed too on the nose. Actually, the real reason we called it ‘The Puppy Episode’ is because when the writers told the executives that they wanted me to come out, because my character needed to be in a relationship after four years of not being in a relationship, someone at the studio said, ‘Well, get her a puppy. She’s not coming out.’
The segment shows the huge reception, including massive viewing parties and a cover on Time magazine, soon followed by backlash against her show, which quickly sank in the ratings. Watching Ellen face off against angry audience members on Oprah who feel comfortable saying she’s shoving her sexuality down everyone’s throats gives a much clearer picture of what she was facing than the cheers during “The Puppy Episode” do.
Ellen was eventually cancelled, but Ellen DeGeneres rose to prominence again with her own talk show that has made her a household name beloved by moms across America. It’s easy to perceive her now as a somewhat toothless entertainer, gently pandering to the audience with goofy dancing and interviews with viral video stars. But her relentless presence as a warm, funny, and deft TV personality who was also openly gay did an enormous amount to change the landscape of popular culture.
Laura Dern and Oprah stopped by to discuss the repercussions of the airport scene for them. Oprah played Ellen Morgan’s therapist who talks her through realizing she’s gay, while Dern played the woman who awakens Ellen’s interest, Susan. Both immediately agreed to participate when Ellen asked them. Dern said she didn’t question it, but began to get calls from friends during filming, asking if she was sure she wanted to be part of the potential negative press.
Though Dern is straight, she apparently didn’t work for a year following “The Puppy Episode,” which Ellen attributed to people believing she was gay. Oprah joked that her appearance didn’t help with the rumors about her and Gayle. They laughed, but acknowledged how big a deal it felt at the time. Ellen said that she had rarely had the occasion to say “I’m gay” out loud before and during rehearsal, she’d burst into tears every time.
As a teen, I remember watching the episode with my family, and remaining blithely unaware of what followed for the star. But I felt her influence, as many straight and queer people have.
Ellen ended her monologue by saying, “It was the hardest thing that I ever had to do in my life and I would not change one moment of it because it led me to be exactly where I am today standing in front of all of you. Which is a joy, and the fact that all of you and all of you at home are watching me and willing to accept me into their homes every day when no one every thought that would happen again.” Then she did a little dance.