On April 30th 1997, ABC aired "The Puppy Episode" of Ellen, featuring this moment in which Ellen Morgan comes out as gay in an unintentionally public way.
The Ellen DeGeneres sitcom was in its fourth season, and the show had been struggling to find a direction. Michael Eisner, the head of Disney at the time, was so famously frustrated with the show's reluctance to give Morgan a dating life that he suggested she get a puppy, hence the title of the episode. Instead, she decided to be honest with herself.
This was a watershed moment for network television, and it required a great deal of negotiation on DeGeneres's part to make it happen. Those talks were leaked and it created a buzz not only about the show, but about what it meant for DeGeneres herself. Airing just two weeks after she came out in real life (with a memorable Time Magazine cover that simply said "Yep, I'm Gay"), "The Puppy Episode" netted 42 million viewers, a Peabody, and a pair of Emmy Awards, and was immediately followed by DeGeneres and her then-girlfriend Anne Heche sitting down for an interview with Oprah Winfrey, who played Morgan's therapist in the episode.
Despite the episode's success and cultural importance, it also resulted in advertisers pulling out and a lot of threats from the socially stunted, and although the show was renewed for a fifth season, ABC prefaced each episode with a parental advisory message, which was patently offensive and likely hurt the ratings. The show also got backlash for becoming "too gay," criticized even by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) for focusing too much on niche issues at the expense of mainstream appeal. The show was cancelled in 1998, and Laura Dern, DeGeneres' co-star in the coming out episode, has said she couldn't get work for a year and a half after it aired.
DeGeneres attempted another sitcom on CBS in 2001 with The Ellen Show, but it only lasted one season. It wasn't until 2003 that she was able to find success again with her daytime talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which is still running today and is often confusingly referred to as "Ellen."
People are talking about The Ellen DeGeneres Show in our forums. Join the conversation.
Andy Hunsaker has a head full of sitcom gags and nerd-genre lore, and can be followed @AndyHunsaker if you're into that sort of thing.