Ellen DeGeneres on Impact of the ‘Ellen’ Coming Out Episode

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“I guess what I’m trying to say is…I did get the joke
about the toaster oven.”

It’s been 20 years since Ellen Morgan, the former TV alter
ego of Ellen DeGeneres, said that famous line in “The Puppy Episode,” when it
first aired on April 30, 1997. Of course, this precluded her infamous
declaration, “I’m gay,” to the people waiting to depart on flight 316 to
Pittsburgh. In the hall of fame, alongside the MASH series finale and
this year’s Oscars broadcast, sits an episode of Ellen we now remember as a groundbreaking risk with a lasting
impact on TV diversity.

Before starting the show’s fourth season, DeGeneres decided
the time was right for her character to come out. More than just a creative
decision for the series, it was also to coincide with her own announcement to
the public. On April 14, the longtime stand-up comedian gave an interview to Time, appearing on the cover with the
nonchalant caption “Yep, I’m gay.” She also made her first public appearance
with then-girlfriend Anne Heche at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner just
a few days before the Ellen coming
out episode aired. Being the first openly gay lead actress on a prime-time
sitcom was a triumph by itself, but DeGeneres doubled down by having her
character reflect this event on the show.

“We started with me being a heterosexual woman and then she
finds out she’s gay, which is a kind of risk when people fall in love with a
character and they like the character and all of a sudden you say, ‘By the way,
I’m this, ’” DeGeneres told ET later that year. In a TV episode full of firsts,
this late-in-the-game revelation is another reason why it’s considered a
television landmark.

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She added, “Everyone gets scared about doing something
different, but I would think everyone is sick of seeing the same exact thing.”

Word had spread of Ellen’s
plans starting back in February 1997 and it was finally confirmed by ABC in March.
For secrecy’s sake, the episode was titled “The Puppy Episode.” Soon after,
news broke that Oprah Winfrey would guest star in the episode as Ellen’s
therapist. For the story’s catalyst, Lauren Dern — most recently seen on HBO’s
Big Little Lies
— signed on as a
love interest who inspires DeGeneres’ character to come out.

The support she received from Hollywood friends didn’t stop
at a couple of celebrity guest stars. Melissa Etheridge, Dwight Yoakam, Gina
Gershon, Demi Moore, K.D. Lang, and Billy Bob Thornton (complete with a Sling Blade accent), all made
appearances in the two-part episode.

“I didn’t really realize the impact of it at the time.
People would tell me there were parties all over the country. It was like the Super
Bowl,” said DeGeneres. One particular viewing party was attended by over two thousand
people in Birmingham, Alabama. The city’s ABC affiliate had outright refused to
air the episode, so it was fed in by satellite for the large crowd.

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Other critics lined up ahead of the air date to voice their
opposition to DeGeneres and ABC. Jerry Falwell publicly urged advertisers to
withdraw their support of the episode. A minister in DeGeneres’ hometown of
Atlanta, Texas, published a statement in the local newspaper denouncing her
homosexuality. The day of the episode’s taping, a bomb threat had even been
made against the studio lot (though they had already finished shooting by the
time it came in).

Those eager to see the future daytime talk show host take a
giant step for gay rights, and those even more eager to bash the episode’s
message, were not disappointed. In true Ellen
fashion, the episode was filled with honesty and a ton of laughs. While it was
a very special episode, it also wasn’t a “Very Special Episode.” A high density
of jokes remained constant throughout each step that lead to her infamous
revelation over an airport intercom.

“You keep hearing the question. You know. ‘Is America
ready?’ ‘Was America ready?’ You know, I don’t think anybody’s ever ready for
whenever anybody’s first to do something,” said DeGeneres. In the months that
followed, she told ET that people had been approaching her on the street and in
grocery stores to extend their appreciation.

“Nobody’s ever ready. You can’t just wait for America to be
ready for things, and that’s how we effect change.”

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With a reported 42 million viewers, it became the highest
rated episode of Ellen ever. Along with her co-writers, the show won
DeGeneres an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy. Her speech at the
podium began by saying she was accepting the award on behalf of anyone who’s
been told there’s something wrong with them, highlighting gay teens in
particular. She also spoke in the press room backstage about what it meant for
the episode to be recognized by academy voters and the impact she hopes they
had on diversity in television.

“I think they set the example to say we approve and we
acknowledge, and we applaud you for what you did and hopefully more people will
take chances,” said DeGeneres. That fall, there was a 23 percent increase in
gay characters on TV, which many saw as an immediate and empirical impact from
the series.

The highlights for DeGeneres didn’t stop after the Emmys. In
October, the Human Rights Campaign held a ceremony to honor her mother, Betty,
for becoming the organization’s first heterosexual spokesperson. The following
month, Ellen filmed its one hundredth
episode.

However, despite the parade of awards and positive media
attention, friction persisted behind the scenes. Even before the announcement
of “The Puppy Episode,” there had been problems between ABC and producers about
several aspects of the series that set it apart from most other sitcoms. Following
the episode, DeGeneres’ storylines naturally pushed her into the dating world
and learning more about what it’s like to be an out gay woman in society. So
when the network decided to slap a parental advisory on an episode that
featured her jokingly kissing co-star Joely Fisher, DeGeneres was predictably
confused. She released a statement to TV
Guide
to express her disappointment about the message she believed ABC was
sending: “I never wanted to be an activist, but now they’re turning me
into one.”

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The fifth season of the series would also be its final. A
return to stand-up and another sitcom attempt led up to another very exciting
year in the comedian’s life. In 2003, her popular and long-running daytime talk
show debuted and Finding Nemo became
a blockbuster hit. On top of the countless viral videos and memorable
interviews on The Ellen DeGeneres Show,
the host has remained a constant voice for LGBT rights and awareness.

In 2015, ET’s Cameron Mathison sat down with DeGeneres to
discuss her influence and the positive changes she’s seen over the past 20
years. “There are so many people before me that marched and fought and were
very political. I really am not a political person, so I never intended for any
of this to be a political thing,” she said. “It is a human thing. It is love
and it is the right to be equal and have the same rights as everyone else has.
So I don’t want that to be political, but I guess it is.”

DeGeneres will be commemorating the anniversary with a special
episode of her talk show, airing Friday, April 28. Guests will include Dern and
Winfrey, plus former cast members Fisher, Clea Lewis and David Anthony Higgins.
Real-life stories about the episode’s impact on the LGBT community and surprise
messages from celebrities will also be a part of the tribute.


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