I was around 11 years old when Ellen DeGeneres' sitcom Ellen aired "The Puppy Episode" back in April of 1997. The episode was dedicated to her character Ellen Morgan finally realizing that she is a gay woman at the age of 36.
The episode was historic for not only primetime television and the LGBTQ community, the latter of which saw it as a major stride for our acceptance in the mainstream world but above all… society. I recently got HULU and noticed that they added Ellen to their list, and besides watching the pilot (where I didn't realize Friends star Maggie Wheeler was part of the first season), I immediately jumped four seasons and watched The Puppy Episode as I had only ever seen clips of it over the years.
What I got from this episode, is that we all owe Ellen and the people who were part of this episode a big hug for what they did. One of the biggest hugs in the world, as this was a time where being gay was a much more difficult thing than it is today. Yes, of course, it's still one of the toughest things to do to come out, but shows like this one and the subsequent success of Will & Grace definitely helped people like me come to terms with our sexuality and made us feel more comfortable about coming out in the process.
The episode revolves around Ellen going out to dinner with her old friend Richard (Steven Eckholdt, who played Rachel's coworker and the source of Ross' jealousy on Friends) when she is joined by his colleague Susan (played by Laura Dern). When Ellen becomes uncomfortable with his advances, she leaves, and then finds herself deep in conversation with Susan, the latter of which picked up that she might be a gay woman as Susan is as well.
This puts Ellen into a complete tizzy as she lies to her friends the next day and says that she and Richard had sex, but describes it in the weirdest of ways (man-woman sex). She then talks to her therapist, played by Oprah Winfrey, about the experience and Oprah asks if she has ever clicked with another person in her life. Ellen says yes, to which Oprah asks what was his name, and she says "Susan."
Ellen then frantically heads to the airport where Richard is leaving to go back to Pittsburgh, but is really there to see Susan before she goes. After some back and forth between the two of them, Ellen says on the microphone "I'm gay," to some thunderous applause and cheers from the studio audience. Susan then hugs Ellen, and you can instantly see the look of relief on her face as I personally believe this wasn't just acting but so much more than that.
The next episode (this was a two-parter) shows Ellen having a dream in a grocery store, where her sexuality is announced to the other customers, that there's a special lesbian discount for melons, and heads to a checkout lane which is marked as "10 lesbians or less." During this dream, many A-list stars at the time like Demi Moore and Billy Bob Thornton show up, which only makes the episode that much better.
The second part also shows Ellen telling all of her friends, many of which are fine with it except for Paige (played by Joely Fisher) who seems a bit apprehensive about the suddenness of it all. Susan and Ellen eventually meet back up at the library, where Susan confesses to being in an 8-year relationship so the possibility of the two of them becoming a thing doesn't work out. The episode ends with the whole gang at a lesbian bar.
The fallout from this episode was massive for many of the people involved. ABC received bomb threats for airing the episode, certain affiliates refused to air it, Oprah Winfrey said that she had never received as much hate mail as she had in her entire career, Laura Dern couldn't get work for a year and a half and Ellen's show was canceled a season after that even though that particular episode drew in 42 million viewers.
Even though the show experienced a wave of issues and frustrations for not only Ellen but the LGBTQ community as a whole, everything rebounded. Four years after her show was canceled, Ellen started her own wildly successful talk show that is still on the air fifteen years later. Thousands upon thousands of people, famous and not, have had the courage to come out to their friends, family and loved ones as a result of her efforts for a simple 22 minute program. The millennial generation, for as much as we want to shade them for many reasons, are a much more open and accepting one for the most part as the number of teenagers who are coming out as LGBTQ has risen extensively since the new millennium.
What I'm trying to say here, is that Ellen rocks and her coming out helped many of us in the process. It's incredible to me that if The Puppy Episode aired today, no one would really bat an eye, but at the time people did, and in the process helped many of us find our way to authenticity, happiness and above all… our truth. Thanks Ellen.