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A Look Back at Ellen DeGeneres’ Monumental Coming Out Story

Elisabeth Edwards

The very last episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show is set to air on May 26, 2022. After almost 20 years and over 3,200 episodes, it’s time to take a look back at Ellen’s most influential moment in her incredible career: coming out on national television.

The Funniest Person in America

Ellen DeGeneres performing stand up.

Ellen DeGeneres performing at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco in 1993. (Photo Credit: Clayton Call/Redferns via Getty Images)

Ellen DeGeneres first got a taste of the limelight performing stand-up at small comedy clubs as a young adult. Working retail and waiting tables at TGI Friday’s by day, and focusing on her comedy career by night, she eventually went on a national comedy tour in 1980. By 1982, she was named Showtime’s Funniest Person in America.

DeGeneres’ television career began with regular roles on sitcoms like Open House and Laurie Hill. In 1994, she landed the starring role in her own show Ellen. DeGeneres played Ellen Morgan, a thirty-something bookstore owner living in Los Angeles.

“Yep, I’m Gay”

A scene from TV show "Ellen" depicts Ellen DeGeneres in a supermarket with a cart full of melons, a sign overhead says "10 lesbians or less".

A still from “The Puppy Episode” of the TV Show Ellen. (Photo Credit: ABC/Touchstone Television via. MovieStillsDB).

It was around this time that DeGeneres made history with “The Puppy Episode.” In this two-part episode of Ellen, DeGeneres’ character Ellen Morgan comes out as a lesbian and follows her coming-out journey. At the same time, the real-life Ellen also confirmed “Yep, I’m Gay” and discussed her sexuality on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

The Ellen episode was a huge success, even making it to number 35 on TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time. DeGeneres’ coming out was monumental for LGBTQ+ representation at a time when homosexuality often wasn’t included in the media.

In “The Puppy Episode,” Ellen’s character Ellen Morgan develops feelings for her friend Susan (played by Laura Dern). When Susan tells Ellen she’s gay, Ellen is confronted with her own changing identity. Ellen has a bizarre dream set in a grocery store, where she is given a special lesbian discount on melons. After meeting with her therapist, played by Oprah Winfrey, she realizes she has suppressed her sexuality for a long time. Ellen Morgan races to the airport to catch Susan before she boards a plane home to tell her “I’m gay.”

DeGeneres was closely involved with the development of the episode. Her hope was to embrace her sexuality on and off-screen, and as her character Ellen Morgan struggled to accept her sexuality throughout “The Puppy Episode,” DeGeneres was able to finally shed light on what countless other viewers were hoping to see in the media: realistic representations of sexuality. Even as advertisers threatened to pull their support for the show, Ellen producers refused to walk away from this historic moment.

There were very few openly-gay actors in the 1990s, not to mention the total lack of gay representation on TV sitcoms. By exploring sexuality through a comedic lens rather than a dramatic full-length feature, DeGeneres was able to create a joyful, comprehensive, and deeply authentic depiction of her coming out.

Talk Show Success

 

Ellen DeGeneres and Michelle Obama dancing on the set of The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Ellen DeGeneres dance during a taping of The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2012. (Photo Credit: Chuck Kennedy/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

After Ellen wrapped in 1998, Ellen tried her hand at talk shows. Her first talk show, The Ellen Show, was canceled in 2002 after just 13 episodes. The following year, The Ellen DeGeneres Show – the one we know and love today – debuted for the first time. The show was a huge success, snagging 11 Daytime Emmy nominations for the show’s first season.

Ellen’s uplifting energy, positive attitude, and hilarious antics blended perfectly with the talk show format to create a fan-favorite show over 19 seasons.

The End of an Era

Ellen DeGeneres and Hillary Clinton on the set of The Ellen DeGeneres Show

Hillary Clinton talks with Ellen DeGeneres during a taping of The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2016. (Photo Credit: Brooks Kraft/Getty Images)

Unfortunately, plunging ratings and troubling recent accusations about the show’s behind-the-scenes culture are what led DeGeneres’ decision to end the show in 2022. Ellen crew members have alleged a toxic work environment marred by sexual misconduct and discrimination. While DeGeneres has built her entire talk show career on being “kind to others,” it seems that being kind wasn’t always her priority.

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DeGeneres has since apologized for the inappropriate actions of producers. In a letter addressed to the crew of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the host wrote:

“On day one of our show, I told everyone in our first meeting that The Ellen DeGeneres Show would be a place of happiness — no one would ever raise their voice, and everyone would be treated with respect… Obviously, something changed, and I am disappointed to learn that this has not been the case. And for that, I am sorry. Anyone who knows me knows it’s the opposite of what I believe and what I hoped for our show.”

The circumstances of the show’s ending may feel disheartening, but after all the celebrity guests, quirky dance moves, helping hands, and festive giveaways; DeGeneres’ ability to stay true to herself and uplift others will be the greatest gift The Ellen DeGeneres Show gave its viewers.