There are a few television events that will go down in history as watershed moments marking significant changes in American culture. In 1968 Star Trek aired television’s first interracial kiss between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura—one year after the Supreme Court ruled that barring interracial marriage was unconstitutional. In a 1972 episode of Maude, an All in the Family spinoff, Maude decided to have an abortion—one year before Roe v. Wade legalized a woman’s right to choose. In 1989, at the height of the AIDS crisis, ABC reportedly lost $1 million in advertising when an episode of thirtysomething showed two gay men in bed together; later on, one of the two men was diagnosed as HIV positive.
And in April 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom Ellen and in real life—a year after Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act.
Ellen’s coming-out on “The Puppy Episode” was significant not only because it was the first time a leading primetime character was gay, but because the character was also played by an openly gay actor. In addition, Ellen’s real-life coming-out with then-girlfriend Anne Heche became a media frenzy, followed by a huge backlash that essentially wrote the book on how to not come out in Hollywood.
The mid-1990s weren’t the best of times for the gay rights movement, but they weren’t the worst of times, either. Despite the passage of DOMA in 1996, the media had recently embraced lesbianism as “chic”; k.d. lang posed on the cover of Vanity Fair with Cindy Crawford giving her a shave; and Melissa Etheridge was selling millions as an out lesbian rocker.
In 1997, there were reportedly 22 lesbian or gay characters in supporting roles on television, and many critics proclaimed that Ellen’s coming-out wasn’t news at all—if anything, they argued, it was a publicity stunt to save her declining sitcom.
When Ellenfirst premiered on ABC in March 1994 as a midseason replacement, it was titled These Friends of Mine and was touted as ABC’s response to Seinfeld. It quickly rocketed onto the top of the ratings charts, and in its first season it ranked at number 13. In its second season the sitcom was reframed to focus on Ellen’s character, Ellen Morgan, and renamed Ellen.
By the time the fourth season rolled around, the show’s ratings had sunk below the top 30, and DeGeneres as well as the show’s producers were growing frustrated with Ellen Morgan’s lack of love interest. One producer famously suggested that since Ellen Morgan didn’t seem to be interested in dating, she should get a puppy—a suggestion that eventually turned into “The Puppy Episode.”
During the summer of 1996, DeGeneres and the show’s writers began negotiating with ABC and its parent company, Disney, to have Ellen Morgan come out during the next season. Although efforts were made to keep the discussions top secret, word leaked out in September and set off months of speculation about when and where Ellen (both real and fictional) would step out of the closet.
It wasn’t until March 1997, after the first version of the coming-out script had been rejected, that Disney executives gave the official go-ahead to tape “The Puppy Episode.” What followed was a media blitz: DeGeneres went on The Oprah Winfrey Show, was interviewed by Diane Sawyer, and was featured on the cover of Time with the headline “Yep, I’m Gay.” At the same time, DeGeneres had just met Anne Heche, a heretofore heterosexual actress whose career was beginning to take off. DeGeneres and Heche also made the media rounds, even attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner together in late April.
By the time “The Puppy Episode” aired in a one-hour special on April 30, 1997, the first day of May sweeps, the hype had grown out of proportion to the episode itself. The Human Rights Campaign even issued “Come out with Ellen” party kits, complete with an Ellen trivia game.
The episode, which took pains to be as inoffensive about its coming-out storyline as possible, featured a cast of Hollywood stars including Oprah Winfrey, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, and Laura Dern as Ellen’s love interest. It also included Jorja Fox as an uncredited extra and Gina Gershon in a cameo, and a number of lesbian celebrities, past and future. k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge made appearances, and Leisha Hailey and Jenny Shimizu were both background extras.
In the episode, Ellen reunites with her college friend Richard, a television reporter, who introduces her to his producer, Susan (Laura Dern). Ellen and Susan immediately hit it off, but when Susan reveals that she’s a lesbian and that she thought Ellen was one too, Ellen freaks out.
After trying unsuccessfully to sleep with Richard to prove that she’s straight, Ellen’s therapist (Oprah Winfrey) convinced her to admit that she’s gay—something she’s known since she was a teen but was afraid to admit. In a touching and also hilarious coming-out scene, Ellen rushes to the airport to intercept Susan before she leaves, and stammers through her confession: