How Ellen DeGeneres' Coming Out Episode Changed TV Forever

Ellen DeGeneres decided in 1996 that she wanted to come out on the fourth season of her show, so she invited Dava Savel and the other writers to her Los Angeles home for a "meet and greet" before starting the new season. And so, on the episode that aired on April 30, 1997, Ellen proudly told her audience that she was gay.

The New York Post reported that Ellen's self-titled sitcom Ellen and that memorable episode on April 30, changed television forever.

During that meeting with her writers, Ellen said, "I want to talk to you about something. I want to come out on the show." Of course, everyone already knew that Ellen was gay, but, as Dava Savel noted, they were still quite surprised that she wanted to come out publicly.

"You had to be living in a cave not to know she was gay."
But, never before had a gay actor who played a heterosexual character made such a public admission. It meant an entire repositioning of what was now a major hit series.

Ellen had an average of 16 million viewers at the end of its third season. Savel and the other writers left Ellen's home knowing that they couldn't write the show as it was.

"If you have 26 episodes to write, it gets tedious without a romantic arc. And she didn't want to be with a guy. We needed something. We had nothing."
Another potential obstacle was that Ellen DeGeneres needed approval from Walt Disney, the show's parent company, before being able to move forward.
"It really was her fight and on her to present her case. We had to walk to corporate offices with Mark Driscoll. It was like the Bataan Death March."
Dean Valentine was the President of network television and TV animation at the time, and Savel recalled that their meeting with him was surprisingly positive.
"He said, 'Let's do this.' There were tears rolling down Ellen's face. She was so relieved that she could do this and move on."
Joely Fisher played Page, Ellen's best friend, for several seasons. She said there was an immediate change in Ellen.
"There was a change in her gait. She felt like she was lifted. Her eyes were sparkling more blue. She was kind of flushed. You felt she was living in her true self. It was scary and wonderful at the same time."
The next step was to determine at what point during the fourth season the big reveal should occur. Savel said the intention was to surprise the audience. People gathered in Ellen's office, and episodes were storyboarded, while the writers invited gay cast and crew members to share their perspectives.
"We wanted a feel for what people went through. It had to be relatable."
Trying to keep the plot a secret was difficult. Scripts and their revisions were distributed on dark red paper, then collected at the end of the day. And despite all their careful planning, a script was leaked to a local radio station where an announcer said they would be reading from the script on air. According to Savel, the Disney lawyers pounced and put a stop to it.

And so, it was "The Puppy Episode" that aired on April 30, 1997, and there were two factors that helped increase audience interest. The first was that Ellen made the cover of Time magazine on April 14 with her famous accompanying line "Yep, I'm gay."

In addition, viewers were teased by Savel and the other writers, hinting at what was about to happen. You may recall the scene when Ellen was in the bathroom preparing for a date with a guy, while the cast - who are waiting in the living room - tell her to "come out already."

Ellen has dinner with Richard in Part 1 of "The Puppy Episode." Richard, played by Stephen Eckholdt, was a television reporter on assignment in Los Angeles. He and Ellen are joined for dessert by his producer, Susan. Susan, played by Laura Dern, and Ellen immediately hit it off, and at one point Susan reaches across the table saying: "You have a little eyelash on your face." They've established contact, and Ellen is in shock!

The next day, and still in shock, Ellen tells her friends that she and Richard had amazing sex, but she then confides in her therapist, played by Oprah Winfrey, that she's looking for someone she can "click with." When asked by her therapist if she's ever clicked with anyone, Ellen replies "Susan."

On hearing that Richard and Susan are leaving town early, Ellen rushes to the airport where she decides to let Susan in on a secret. Then, as she leans over a microphone for the airport's public address system, she announces: "I'm gay."Jolie Fisher said that, when rehearsing this particular episode, the cast did the script as written right up until the final scene.
"She never said, 'I'm gay,' until we were in front of the audience. She actually wanted to feel that moment with this audience."
Savel remembers that moment very clearly. As the show's executive producer, he was on the studio floor with director Gil Junker.
"When she finally said the words, the audience roared. They went ballistic. What can somebody say now that would have that kind of effect?"
It's interesting to note that Oprah Winfrey stayed on the set all day. She was actually there to interview Ellen for an installment of her talk show to be aired later.

Part 2 of "The Puppy Episode" turned out to be a hilarious episode, with Ellen coming out to her friends. At one point, Ellen dreams of grocery shopping and is offered a special lesbian discount on melons! Gena Gershon, Bob Thornton, and Demi Moore made cameo appearances in Part 2, and many other stars wanted to be part of it.

Savel recalls that Mick Jagger wanted to sing an opening number, and Woody Harrelson called and said he wanted to be on the show. Macy Gray and Tracy Chapman were spotted in the studio audience and, after taping was completed, Oprah Winfrey produced a cake made for Ellen with a re-creation of the Time cover on top.

Forty-two million people watched that episode, surpassing everyone's expectations.

"It was very smart TV," says Jolie Fisher. "I was happy to be part of it."

And no-one was happier for Ellen DeGeneres than Dava Savel.
"This was a game changer. We weren't just another stupid sitcom. We said something."
[Featured Image by Christopher Polk/Getty Images]