On April 30, 1997, American television encountered homosexuality in a way that would go on to change it for good. “The Puppy Episode” of Ellen, which aired exactly twenty years ago, had the lead of the show, Ellen Morgan, played by stand-up comedy icon Ellen DeGeneres, come out on air; this was a first for the country that was still getting its head around non-normative sexualities. Ellen Morgan thus became the first prime-time sitcom character to be openly gay.
“The Puppy Episode” had very little to do with cute canines, and a lot more to do with sordid human nature as the threat mails and hate messages that poured into the American Broadcasting Company network offices, both before and after the episode was aired, showed. DeGeneres had famously come out in a Time magazine article just a couple of weeks before “The Puppy Episode”.
Helping Ellen Morgan out of the closet were the redoubtable Oprah Winfrey, who played a therapist, and Laura Dern, who played Morgan’s love interest. Both were part of the April 27 episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show commemorating the historic proclamation twenty years ago.
“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 joked. While Winfrey recalled having received hate mail for her appearance on the show, Dern said she had been out of work for a year after the episode was aired. Winfrey added that she had received messages that told her to “go back to Africa”.
The impact of “The Puppy Episode” was succinctly summed up by DeGeneres herself. “It was the hardest thing that I ever had to do in my life. 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,”
“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,” she said.