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“I’m Ellen and I’m gay.”
That’s how host Ellen DeGeneres will begin a tribute to her landmark coming out episode that aired 20 years ago.
“Twenty years ago I said that — it was a much bigger deal then,” she adds.
The Ellen DeGeneres Show is devoting its Friday hour to a star-studded remembrance of “The Puppy Episode,” which aired on her Ellen sitcom April 30, 1997. The two-parter featured DeGeneres’ character, Ellen Morgan, coming out as gay, which the actress simultaneously did on the cover of Time magazine with the line: “Yep, I’m Gay.”
“This was before Facebook, so if you wanted to announce something, you had to get a sitcom,” she jokes in the clip released ahead of the anniversary episode. She explains that, since it was the first time a lead character on TV was coming out, the episode title was so they could keep the moment a secret. “And because ‘Ellen Throws Her Career Away’ seemed too on the nose,” she adds.
“Puppy” was also a nod to the studio’s initial reaction to the idea and an executive suggesting her character get a dog instead of a relationship.
“At the time, it was so controversial,” she said of coming out. “Which is why I thought this was important to celebrate the anniversary and to remember what it was like back then and to appreciate how far we’ve come.”
To celebrate the milestone — a moment that helped usher in a more inclusive era of television — DeGeneres invited Oprah Winfrey and Laura Dern to join her former Ellen castmembers Joely Fisher, Clea Lewis and David Anthony Higgins for their first cast reunion since the comedy ended its run on ABC in 1998.
“You would not be who you are … you wouldn’t be able to open hearts and touch hearts and change peoples’ minds and make a difference in the world had you not had the courage to do that,” Winfrey told an emotional DeGeneres when she took a seat on her talk-show couch. “And 20 years ago, you had no idea it would put you in this seat.”
DeGeneres replied, “It really did teach me, no matter what the cost is at the time, it is always important that whatever you believe, whoever the essence of us is, we are born, we are all individual, we are all unique and we are supposed to be that exact person.”
As for Dern — whose character was the one Ellen turned to during “The Puppy Episode” to announce that she was gay — the Big Little Lies star said she was honored to be the recipient of DeGeneres saying, for the first time, “I’m gay.”
“[There is] no greater gift than being the person that was with you and looking in your eyes as you said those words,” she said. Dern then got choked up recalling how DeGeneres whispered to her while filming, “Maybe I’m not going to say it, because I haven’t said that out loud.”
Dern added, “Watching you have this catharsis and the audience support, literally holding each other up during this very emotional moment, it was so profound.”
Watch the clip below and see the full episode on Friday, April 28.
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