Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay on April 30, 1997, through her TV sitcom, Ellen, in an episode cryptically titled “The Puppy Episode.” DeGeneres recently revealed the meaning behind the name on her popular talk show.
Ellen is marking the 20th anniversary of her coming out as a lesbian both personally and on her ’90s sitcom. The monumental TV moment was also a broadly comedic one, with Ellen’s titular character at an airport revealing to Susan (Laura Dern), a woman she is naturally drawn to, that she is gay. Unfortunately, she accidentally leans into the P.A. microphone as she’s coming out and broadcasts the big news to the entire airport. The instantly iconic sitcom moment, which has now come to symbolize a milestone in LGBT acceptance, almost didn’t happen.
Speaking with her audience at Friday’s episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the host reveals that they chose to call this “The Puppy Episode” as a jab at studio executives who weren’t keen on the star’s titular character coming out.
“It was called ‘The Puppy Episode’ because we wanted to keep it a secret until it aired 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.'”
Ellen did, indeed, come out, and “The Puppy Episode” earned numerous awards, including the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, as well as Outstanding Multi-Camera Picture Editing. The episode also received a Peabody Award. The comedian also faced an intense backlash at the time, with an anti-gay televangelist calling her “Ellen Degenerate” and conservative groups blasting ABC for allowing her to be on the air. Following the backlash, ABC started placing viewer discretion warnings before subsequent episodes of Ellen.
“It just felt so degrading,” DeGeneres admitted to Diane Sawyer in a 1998 interview. “It’s my life. It’s how I live my life. I love someone, and because of who I choose to love, I get a warning label.”
Now, 20 years later, DeGeneres has established herself as a talk show mainstay, having hosted The Ellen DeGeneres Show since 2003. She also voiced forgetful regal blue tang Dory in 2003’s Finding Nemo and 2016’s Finding Dory, both of which went on to massive box office success. She married fellow actress Portia de Rossi in 2008.
Friday’s episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show features many key figures involved with “The Puppy Episode.” Oprah Winfrey, who played Ellen’s therapist, speaks with her fellow talk show host about having the courage to come out at that time.
“You wouldn’t have been able to open hearts and touch hearts and change people’s minds and make a difference in the world had you not had the courage to do that,” Oprah tells a visibly moved Ellen.
Laura Dern admits to Ellen that she was happy to be part of such a huge, influential moment in pop culture. Other guests include de Rossi and Ellen regulars Joely Fisher, Clea Lewis, and David Anthony Higgins.
“You are here on a very special day. Today we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the coming-out episode of my sitcom,” Ellen tells her cheering audience. “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.”
[Featured Image by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images]