It’s hard to imagine now that much-beloved Ellen DeGeneres sparked a major controversy when her sitcom character came out of the closet, something that would barely make news now. But that’s exactly what happened when Ellen’s titular character became the first main character to come out on a sitcom in 1997.
Ellen (1994-98) focused on the life of Ellen Morgan (Ellen DeGeneres), the thirty-something owner of Buy the Book, a local bookstore in Los Angeles. Her best friend, Paige (Joely Fisher), is vain and somewhat
promiscuous. Jeremy Piven played her cousin, Spence, who appears in season three and has a love-hate relationship with Paige. Perky neighbor Audrey (Clea Lewis), snarky barista Joe (David Anthony Higgins), and sarcastic roommate Adam (Arye Gross) added flavor to the cast.
Through the first three seasons, Ellen played out like a typical mid-90s sitcom about a single gal in the city. The character Ellen was much like the actress Ellen: witty, quirky and likeable. She did the standard sitcom-single-girl-things — blind dates, personal ads, reigniting flames from the past, all while engaging in hijinks at work and with her friends.
As season four progressed, in-jokes alluding to DeGeneres’ sexuality started appearing, including an opening sequence that literally had her coming out of a closet. DeGeneres was featured on the cover of Time in April 1997, with the headline "Yep, I’m Gay." Later that month, "The Puppy Episode" aired, and Ellen the character was as out as Ellen the actress.
Conservative groups expressed outrage, and many advertisers dropped the show. The rest of season four and all of season five started with a parental advisory notice, and focused on the fallout from her coming out. Family and friends struggled to accept the revelation, and Ellen struggled to navigate life as a lesbian. While "The Puppy Episode" won a Peabody Award and was watched by 42 million viewers, ratings declined through the fifth season, and the show was canceled.
The cancellation ended up being just the beginning of the fallout. Actress Laura Dern, who played Ellen’s love interest, claimed she was unable to find work after playing the role. DeGeneres, who was nominated for four Emmys for her role as Ellen Morgan, was unable to find work for three years after Ellen was canceled.
There is a flip side to that coin, though. DeGeneres is now one of the most influential and loved women in entertainment. While her coming out might have led to the end of Ellen, it also paved the way for other shows with gay and lesbian characters to become part of mainstream television.