TV Land ranked it as the only television episode to garner a 10/10 in historical significance, and it came in at #21 on their list of Top 100 Sitcom Episodes of All Time. TV Guide listed it at #35 of The 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time. “The Puppy Episode” of Ellen, in which lead character “Ellen Morgan,” played by Ellen DeGeneres, comes out as a lesbian, first aired on April 30, 1997 on ABC. It was the first network TV sitcom to have an openly gay lead character.
Prior to Ellen, broadcast television had dabbled in storylines about homosexuality. The 1972 ABC Movie of the Week “That Certain Summer” focused on the relationship between partners “Doug Salter” (Hal Holbrook) and “Gary McClain” (Martin Sheen) and was the first television movie to bring a homosexual relationship to the forefront. Billy Crystal’s “Jodie Dallas” on the 1977 series Soap was openly gay, yet a supporting character. 1981’s Love, Sidney featured Tony Randall playing “Sidney Shorr,” a gay man living with friend Laurie and her daughter, but the series avoided mention of “Sidney’s” personal life and largely only hinted at his sexual orientation. With “The Puppy Episode,” “Ellen Morgan” became the first broadcast, prime-time, sitcom character to openly discuss her homosexuality, and also have it woven into subsequent storylines in the show.
There was quite a build-up in the weeks leading up to the hour-long episode, which coincided with DeGeneres’ real-life revelation about her own sexuality. Oprah Winfrey guest-starred as “Ellen’s” therapist, Laura Dern as “Ellen’s” crush Susan, and Steven Eckholdt as “Ellen’s” college buddy, Richard. Here’s the pivotal scene of the episode:
“The Puppy Episode” aired in Season 4 and took some effort to get on the air. In the summer of 1996, DeGeneres told Disney Executive Dean Valentine that she wanted her character to come out:
According to Disney Exec Michael Eisner, he, too had a conversation with DeGeneres, and shares his take on the episode and remainder of the series:
Valentine explains the production process on “The Puppy Episode”once the decision was made to have “Ellen Morgan” come out:
Ellen lasted for one more season after “The Puppy Episode” aired, ending in 1998. Since Ellen, several network shows have featured gay and lesbian leads and/or continuing romantic storylines with gay characters: Will & Grace, Brothers & Sisters, Desperate Housewives, Pretty Little Liars, Glee … and cable has seen The L Word and now LOGO network which features LGBT programming.
Though Ellen left the air over a decade ago, DeGeneres began hosting talk-show Ellen: The Ellen Degeneres Show in 2003, which is syndicated nationally and still going strong. Sometimes Oprah appears as a guest on that show, too.