“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.
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.
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.”
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."
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.