Ellen DeGeneres reunited with her Ellen sitcom costars to mark the 20th anniversary of the show’s groundbreaking coming-out episode. The comedian reflected on the monumental TV moment during her daytime talk show on Friday, April 28. Watch the video above.
“I appreciate you being here so very much. I’m Ellen and I’m gay. Twenty years ago I said that; it was a much bigger deal then,” DeGeneres, 59, said. “You are here on a very special day. Today, we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the coming-out episode of my sitcom. My character, Ellen Morgan, came out as a lesbian on national television and I, Ellen DeGeneres, came out at the same time. And this was before Facebook, so if you wanted to announce something, it was the only way — you had to get a sitcom. And that was, it was how we did things.”
The episode aired on April 30, 1997, and was watched by 42 million people. It was the first time a lead character on TV came out as gay.
“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,” DeGeneres cracked. “Actually, the real reason we called it ‘The Puppy Episode’ is cause 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 gonna come out.’ And so, we called it ‘The Puppy Episode.'”
DeGeneres, who said the episode was “challenging” to make, came out when her character did and covered Time magazine with the headline “Yep, I’m Gay.”
“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,” DeGeneres said on Friday. “And the fact that all of you and everyone at home is watching me and willing to accept me into your homes every day when no one thought that would ever happen again, it means the world to me.”
The episode was extremely controversial at the time. Oprah Winfrey, who played the star’s therapist on Ellen, recalled the hate mail she received on Friday.
“I didn’t even give it a thought like, ‘Oh gee, what will this cost me? What will other people say? How will I be presented?’ I just said ‘yes’ because I so believed in your truth and I so wanted to support you,” Winfrey, 63, said of taking part in the episode. “I couldn’t believe it. [The hate mail] was so bad. There was a lot of ‘Go back to Africa.'”
“It was surprising how many people I upset,” DeGeneres chimed in. “I just got tired of hiding it… I assumed that people did know [I was gay]. I didn’t know it was going to be that much of a shock.”
The pair were also joined on Friday by Laura Dern, who played DeGeneres’ love interest on the sitcom. The Big Little Lies actress, 50, was proud to be a part of the landmark episode, but revealed that she didn’t get work for a year afterward because of it.
“Of all the things I feel privileged to experience in my life as a human, but also as an actor, there’s no greater gift than being the person that was with you and looking into your eyes when you said those words,” Dern said. “I feel so blessed to be there and to witness that.”
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