This Is The Real Ellen DeGeneres Story: Remembering “The Puppy Episode” 20 Years Later

It’s been twenty years since 39-year-old lesbian comedian Ellen DeGeneres came out on The Oprah Winfrey Show, announced “I’m Gay!” on the cover of Time Magazine, and debuted an episode of her sitcom that would change the world forever — and, temporarily at least, derail her career. In “The Puppy Episode,” which aired on April 30th, 1997, the character of Ellen Morgan came out as a lesbian in a star-studded 46 minutes that featured guest spots from Oprah Winfrey, Laura Dern, kd Lang, Melissa Etheridge, Demi Moore, Gina Gershon and Billy Bob Thornton. (If you pay REALLY close attention, you’ll also spot Jenny Shimizu, Leisha Hailey, Kathy Najimy and Jorja Fox.)

In 1998, a one-hour documentary called THE REAL ELLEN STORY aired on UK’s Channel 4 as well as Bravo and PBS, but since has largely faded from view. I didn’t even know it existed until it was mentioned offhand in a book I’m currently reading about disappearing lesbian spaces.

Created by gay filmmakers and World of Wonder Productions co-founders Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the film uses “The Puppy Episode” as its focal point for a story about the rise and fall of Ellen’s sitcom and career. We hear from series writers, gay advocates, anti-gay asshats, cast members, family members, and Ellen herself about the process leading up to the coming out episode and the bitter fall-out that ensued afterwards. You’ll also hear from a delightfully bizarre Anne Heche, who gushes about making love to Ellen for 17 hours the night they met and, subsequently, probably setting a record for most ambitious U-Haul of all time.

If you, like me, lived through this and were paying attention when it happened, this doc both fills in some blanks and reminds you of stuff you’d long forgotten about. If you didn’t live through it or weren’t paying attention, it’s a brief introduction to a really important part of lesbian history specifically and LGBTQ media representation history generally. Despite the fact that the only copy of this documentary I could find online has some audio/video tracking issues, particularly in Part 2, which normally drives me nuts, I watched the whole thing with RAPT attention, and you can too!

If you’d like to remain in an Ellen K-hole for a solid portion of the afternoon:

Some further reading:

Also, pro tip: the final season of Ellen’s sitcom was not “too gay,” because NOTHING CAN BE TOO GAY, but despite everything that has changed between then and now, Ellen Season Five will totally blow your mind with exactly how gay it was. We’ve still yet to see another lesbian character featured so prominently in a network sitcom. In addition to being funny (and damn good television), Ellen Season Five stands as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how much farther we’ve got to go.

Finally, Ellen hosted a Puppy Episode reunion on her show today, and you can watch clips from it right this minute!

Riese is the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2683 articles for us.

53 Comments

  1. I almost can’t believe that Ellen-Rosie conversation happened and 6 years passed before she came out. I was 11 and I understood.

    But I also can believe it because heterosexuals have a limitless ability to twist anything queer to fit their assumed heteronormativity.

    Like, “The new neighbor lady introduced that woman as her wife, I guess that’s what the kids are calling their roommates these days. Did they just kiss on the mouth? Hmm, must European or something.”

    • True story: a straight dude once a) told me his friend was bi, b) asked me my sexual orientation, which I answered truthfully, c) offered to introduce me to his bi friend, and then, like ten minutes later, asked me if I had a boyfriend and when I said no, asked, “Why not?” I LITERALLY JUST TOLD YOU I LIKE GIRLS!!

  2. I remember Ellen coming out so vividly. I was only 13, but had recently started to realize that I might be gay. Ellen coming out was everything to me and I can’t wait to see the reunion on her show!

    Interestingly, I don’t remember the lebanese joke on Rosie, but I do remember Lea DeLaria doing the same thing. I wonder whether that was before or after Ellen was on the show?

  3. Waittttt Rosie didn’t come out until 2002? She’s someone I have always remembered as a lesbian, my (butchy, questionable) mom would mutter stuff about it under her breath like some scorned ex-lover while watching her show, which was a big deal because my mom’s hella Christian and otherwise refused to refer to gay people as that (even my obvious, gay married rec sports coach) my entire childhood. My mom would do the same thing with Melissa and Jody. Weird.

      • Yeah, remember all that Tom Cruise swooning she’d do on the show. It’s entirely possible that she thought he was a beautiful man but I’m sure many folks of the the hetero persuasion really took that to mean she was obviously on their team.

  4. I was 20 at the time and years away from acknowledging my own queerness, but I remember watching an earlier episode with Janeane Garofalo and noticing that they had very interesting energy together (though I know Janeane Garofalo identifies as asexual, so *shrug*).

  5. Ah, Ellen. We watched that as a (Mormon, suburban) family. There were never any negative comments from my parents regarding it, which I love, in retrospect. My parents were so good! They tried so hard. In fact, the only negative on “gay” I remember from watching TV was after having watched a Murphy Brown episode with my dad’s parents wherein Jim purchased a bar he used to go to and found out it was a gay bar now. After the episode ended (I don’t remember thinking anything different than “watching an episode”), my grandmother said, “Sick, sick, sick.” I remember being confused at the time. Then realizing she was talking about the gay bar. And brushing it off as grandparents being weird.

    I loved the Puppy Episode. I definitely have to go back and watch Season 5.

    The only thing I remember about Rosie’s show was how much I loved it that she was as fannish as the rest of us even though she was famous. And that after she angrily argued with Tom Selleck about guns on air her show ended. It’s funny what sticks in your head.

  6. Granted I’m probably not objective, but I thought Season 5 was the funniest and best written season. Like, now that her truth was out, she could write the jokes that made my little gay heart sing.

  7. I’m so glad I have a 4-day weekend this weekend because I want to watch ALL OF THE THINGS!

    I was too young/on the wrong continent to have experienced this the first time round, but I’m ready!

  8. Talking to my straight guy friend about this and just found out he didn’t know Ellen was gay until like 3 years ago. When I said “Look at her,” he said, “I thought it was just a fashion trend at the time.”

    • “It’s easy to forget now, when we’ve come so far, where now marriage is equal under the law — just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost 20 years ago. Just how important it was not just to the LGBT community, but for all of us to see somebody so full of kindness and light, somebody we liked so much, somebody who could be our neighbor or our colleague or our sister challenge our own assumptions, remind us that we have more in common than we realize, push our country in the direction of justice.

      What an incredible burden that was to bear. To risk your career like that. People don’t do that very often. And then to have the hopes of millions on your shoulders. But it’s like Ellen says: We all want a tortilla chip that can support the weight of guacamole. Which really makes no sense to me, but I thought would brighten the mood, because I was getting kind of choked up. (Laughter.) And she did pay a price — we don’t remember this. I hadn’t remembered it. She did, for a pretty long stretch of time — even in Hollywood.

      And yet, today, every day, in every way, Ellen counters what too often divides us with the countless things that bind us together — inspires us to be better, one joke, one dance at a time.”

  9. I read something that pissed me off today that linked Ellen’s coming out with the death of lesbian bars and other exclusive spaces. First of all, that link is tenuous at best, and secondly, a wish for the days of yore, when to be queer was to be in an exclusive club, and you had to move to LA and you had to walk through the fire and all just to be a part of it – well, a lot of us would still be in the closet in a world like that. I’m sorry you miss your cafe, but we are less marginalized now, and that’s really important to the well-being of a LOT of people.

    • Hear, hear! Well said, @queergirl

      We (lesbians) have got to stop acting like the good old days were really that good. They were like the 50’s; great for those with privilege, not so much for anyone else. As an openly gay kid growing up in L.A. at the time of this episode, I DO NOT miss the days of yore at The Palms, Little Frida’s, or any other exclusively lesbian hang-out. It was only ever welcoming to white cisgender lesbians with money and/or some industry (entertainment) connection. The rest of us had to carve out spaces within our already marginalized and mostly straight communities or live in the closet. As a result, I never really had much community, but I also never felt like I was losing my footing when the queer community started to demand room for the rest of the alphabet soup of identities, people of color, and less than secure immigration status. We’re still not perfect, but I like this new world order and would much rather be a part of this than having a dusty old bar that only plays Melissa Etheridge and The Indigo Girls (not that there’s anything wrong with them). The birth of Autostraddle is the closest I’ve ever come to feeling welcome within the queer community, so instead of mourning the losses of the past, I’d rather celebrate the direction our community is struggling to move towards for our future.

  10. Ahhh. I’ve never known the whole story about her coming out (just that it was a big deal) really enjoyed watching that, thank you! I love Ellen and really think she’s one of the most hilarious people out there.

  11. Hello! I love and appreciate the article. About to fill the rest of my night with Ellen thanks to the links you supplied. If you don’t mind, what book were you referring to about disappearing lesbian spaces? I’d like to check it out. Incase Riese doesn’t see this since she’s rocking Autostraddle and all, does anyone else know? Thanks!

  12. Here’s the thing, I used to watch that whole lineup, I think Roseanne was on around that time, Grace Under Fire too maybe, Home Improvement, etc.
    I was in high school when this episode aired and you know what I watched it like any other episode, laughed as I normally did and that was that. The next day the world went on spinning, I went to class, life went on. It didn’t have a negative impact on my life, it didn’t change me, it was an episode of a show that I watched.
    My point is for TPTB that thought this show and this episode had an effect on people is something that they put into people’s minds to begin with. Granted I know this was 20 years ago but if they didn’t in a sense say “it has this content so you’re probably not going to like it” would people have shied away from the show? Or rather if they were like “here’s the show you’ve been liking, enjoy” how different things would be.

  13. The worst thing were the message boards. The homophobia, misogyny and hatred for her was unbearable for me to read. I thought that she’d never work again after “The Puppy Episode.” One jerk even gloated that now that Anne Heche had left her to become heterosexual again, see how her career is florishing! See how Ellen’s career is ruined! I never thought we’d ever recover as a nation.

  14. This was my origin story. When Ellen was talking to Oprah about realizing her feelings for Susan, I realized this was how I felt about my best friend, and subsequently that must mean I was gay. And everything finally made sense, and was terrifying, and exhilarating, and it would take another 6 months before I would have the courage to say the words out loud. I was 20 and this was half my life ago now.

    • ok this is a good point! the thing is that this book is honestly fascinating and important and filled with so much information i’ve never gotten anywhere else, but there are also parts of it where (in my opinion) the author is kinda low-key trans misogynist. so that’s why i’ve avoided actually name-dropping the book. but if you’re able to see those parts for what they are and not let them influence you then! it’s called the disappearing L and it’s by bonnie j morris.

      • What is with this idea that “we cant touch people whose politics are different from our own”? A workshop on that book was censored at a womens festival by some trans group who found out about it. We need to see where our interests differ not pretend were all this perfekt community that doesnt have conflicts of intetest
        We should all take a leaf out of Magdalen Berns ‘ book and stand up for ourselvs as lesbians

  15. I was 9-going-on-10 when this happened. I think I knew at the time that I felt a certain way and didn’t know what it meant–but the way Ellen was treated *showed* me what it meant. She was shocking and disturbing, and a lot of people thought she should just stop being that way and just stop talking about it. I think something inside of me said, “Oh! Okay, got it! Can’t be that thing so I wont. Ew!”
    A year or two later, I remember reading a teen magazine on my friend’s bedroom floor while she was asleep in her bed. It was one of those advice columns and a girl said that she had dreams about kissing her female friends. Was she gay? The magazine assured that no, don’t worry, you’re probably just having those dreams because you feel so ::comfortable:: with your friends. Phew! Was that a load off my mind!
    When I came out to myself for real years later, I found the puppy episode and watched it (all the way to the super gay end of the series) over and over. It was so comforting, because in a way, I felt like I was overwriting those messages I’d gotten about her and about me as a kid. And there was a whole episode where Emma Thompson played a boozy closeted lesbian Yank version of herself in a crooked tiara!!! Like, a revelation!

    Thanks Ellen!!!

  16. Aw, this was an exceptionally nice post. Spending some
    time and actual effort to produce a great article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a lot
    and never manage to get nearly anything done.

  17. The only comment here is: thank you for doing this for all of us.. opening the way is always difficult, but she went from having a show canceled to winning a medal!

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