Most of us know Ellen DeGeneres for her mischievous pranks, long-running afternoon talk show, and iconic stint as Dory in Finding Nemo. But 20 years ago, this pantsuit-wearing comedian pulled a groundbreaking stunt that paved the way for LGBTQ representation on television.
In 1997, DeGeneres was the star of an aptly-titled sitcom called Ellen, which centered on a neurotic bookstore owner and her cast of quirky friends. For four seasons, DeGeneres’ character, Ellen Morgan, had avoided any romantic connection, just as DeGeneres’ love life was kept under wraps.
With mounting pressure from ABC to include a love interest in Ellen, DeGeneres steered her character — and herself — toward uncharted territory. DeGeneres started negotiations with ABC to have Ellen Morgan come as a lesbian on the show. At first, the studio was reluctant, citing pressure from advertisers and religious groups. As Ellen explains on its 20-year anniversary, writers titled the now-famous coming-out episode “The Puppy Episode” after an ABC exec suggested Ellen get a puppy “because she’s not coming out.”
But come out Ellen would. And having her eponymous character be the first openly gay lead on a network TV show wasn’t the last stop on this journey. DeGeneres coordinated Ellen’s coming-out with her own highly-publicized personal announcement. Over the course of two weeks, both Ellen the Character and Ellen the Woman would come out as lesbians on TV.
DeGeneres appeared on Oprah for her official coming-out interview. “I decided that this was not something I was going to live the rest of my life being ashamed of,” DeGeneres told Oprah on the show.
Then, on April 30, the now-famous “Puppy Episode” of Ellen aired. In this two-part episode, Ellen first comes out to her therapist — who, since art imitates life, was played by none other than Oprah. To ensure a comedic moment, Ellen later comes out to the woman whom she’s crushin’ on, played by Laura Dern, by accidentally saying, “I’m gay,” into a microphone.
Forty-two million viewers tuned in to watch “The Puppy Episode,” which went on to garner an Emmy Award for Best Comedy Writing, and a Peabody Award.
Despite critical acclaim, Ellen was cancelled after five seasons. Don't forget: This was an America highly divided over LGBTQ rights, and one that passed the Defense of Marriage Act only a year prior. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, ABC executive Stuart Bloomberg said, “As the show became more politicized and issue-oriented, it became less funny and audiences noticed.” In cloaked rhetoric, Bloomberg essentially blamed the show’s inclusion of LGBTQ issues as the reason for its downfall.
Although Ellen was subsumed by backlash, the sitcom’s sacrifice paved the way for so many shows to come after, beginning with 1998's Will and Grace, the beloved NBC sitcom about a gay man (Will McCormick) and his friendship with straight woman (Debra Messing).
The television landscape has changed drastically 1997, when there were only 22 LGBTQ supporting characters, and one Ellen Morgan, on TV. We have Ellen to thank for everything from Orange is the New Black to American Gods to Logo’s new reality TV show, Fire Island.
If you’re getting choked up at Ellen's courageousness, you’re not the only one. When President Obama awarded Ellen DeGeneres the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, he did, too.
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