Ellen DeGeneres started as a stand-up comic who got her big break on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. She eventually landed her own sitcom in 1994 and became a hit in the homes of families across America.
However, after coming out as gay during the show’s fourth season, DeGeneres experienced a backlash. Her sitcom was canceled and her career suffered.
She would bounce back when The Ellen DeGeneres Show premiered in 2003. However, DeGeneres would later reveal that she needed to follow some strict guidelines at the beginning of her now-legendary talk show.
DeGeneres landed her own sitcom in 1994. Originally titled These Friends Of Mine, the show began as an ensemble show about a group of friends. The title was changed to Ellen at the start of the show’s second season to center DeGeneres’ character, Ellen Morgan.
Over the years, DeGeneres faced rumors about her sexuality. However, she never commented on them. It was when her sitcom was about to enter its fourth season, however, that DeGeneres planned to confront the rumors head-on.
The story of DeGeneres’ character coming out as gay on the show leaked early in the press. The episode was titled “The Puppy Episode.” DeGeneres’ character comes out in the two-part episode, which featured a ton of celebrity guest stars.
The episodes featured appearances by Laura Dern, Oprah Winfrey, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, and Melissa Etheridge. It was viewed by an estimated 42 million people.
“This is so hard, but I think, I, I, I’ve realized… that I am… I can’t even say the word,” DeGeneres’ character says in the episode. “Why I can’t say the word?”
“I mean, why can’t I just say… I mean, what is wrong? Why, why do I have to be so ashamed? I mean, why can’t I just… say the truth, I mean, be who I am,” she continued. “I’m 35 years old, I’m so afraid to tell people, I mean, I just… Susan, I’m gay.”
The show was history-making, as it was the first time there was an openly gay lead character in a sitcom.
DeGeneres herself also came out around this time. She was featured on the cover of Time Magazine with the phrase “Yep, I’m Gay” next to her picture. The public proclamation brought forth many fans who were positively affected by DeGeneres’ courage.
DeGeneres received letters from fans who said that she helped save their lives.
However, along with the praise came a ton of hate. DeGeneres was protested by religious groups and many disapproved of what she was doing.
Things came to a head during the fifth season of Ellen. The show began to feature more gay-specific storylines and DeGeneres’ character entered a relationship. While the show wasn’t sexually provocative, the mere sight of two women kissing was enough for certain episodes to include an “adult content” warning.
These warnings rightly offended DeGeneres, who spoke out against the message. The sitcom was canceled shortly afterward. DeGeneres spent the next several years rebuilding her career before landing her own talk show in 2003.
However, DeGeneres later revealed to The Advocate that there were strict rules put in place when her talk show first began. DeGeneres was not allowed to talk about her relationship or even use the word “we,” because it “would imply there was someone special in my life.”
“They told me to dress a certain way – no jeans, for example,” DeGeneres said. “I guess jeans were considered gay?”
“Oh, and I couldn’t say that word – ‘gay,’” she continued. “I wasn’t happy about it, so if the situation changed with the show, I knew I’d have some power to change the show.”
However, these rules changed once the show became a hit and DeGeneres became a beloved part of daytime television.
“I would refer to Portia every day as ‘my wife’ just like a man would do, and a lot of people became comfortable hearing that over time, and it ended up not being such a big deal,” she said.
The Ellen DeGeneres Show was on the air for 19 seasons and it completely revived DeGeneres’ career. It also made her into a household name and is believed to have had a profound effect on LGBTQ acceptance.
During her show’s final season in 2022, DeGeneres celebrated the 25th anniversary of her coming-out episode.
“When I came out, people warned me that it was going to ruin my career, and they were right for a while,” DeGeneres said in her opening monologue. “Actually, for exactly three years, I lost my career. But look at me now.”
“It really goes to show you how important it is to be your authentic self, and how important it is to accept others as their authentic selves,” she added. “I didn’t see a lot of people like me on television when I was a kid — Peppermint Patty, of course. As soon as I saw those sensible shoes, I knew. The creator said she wasn’t a lesbian, but good grief.”
“So, it’s been 25 years since my coming-out episode, and the only time I’m in the closet now is when Portia and I play hide and seek,” DeGeneres continued. “I think about what the next 25 years will bring, and I hope that we keep evolving. I hope, like a little tiny egg that turns into a caterpillar that then turns into a cocoon that eventually, emerges and spreads its big gay butterfly wings.”