On April 30, 1997, Ellen DeGeneres changed TV for the better.
At the tail-end of her successful ABC sitcom Ellen's fourth season, after months of speculation and coming just weeks after the comedy legend appeared on the April 13 cover of Time magazine emblazoned with the words "Yep, I'm Gay," the seminal two-part episode known as "The Puppy Episode" aired, yanking DeGeneres' character Ellen Morgan out of the closet with her.
For the first time in television history, an openly lesbian character—the lead, no less!—was being played by an openly lesbian actress. And on a network owned by Disney!
While the two-part episode was met with criticism and condemnation from the usual conservative suspects, it was much more widely celebrated, pulling in 42 million viewers (the highest in the show's history), winning the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, a Peabody Award and a GLAAD Media Award in 1998 for DeGeneres.
The price of progress, though, proved to be steep. While ABC renewed Ellen for a fifth season, it began airing a parental advisory warning prior to each episode. "It was like this voice like you're entering some kind of radiation center," DeGeneres told Entertainment Weekly, criticizing the network's decision. "It was very offensive, and you don't think that's going to affect ratings?"
Sure enough, it did. Ellen was canceled at the end of season five.
DeGeneres retreated to stand-up comedy, where she'd gotten her start, before attempting a TV comeback first in 2001 with the short-lived The Ellen Show, a CBS sitcom in which her character was openly lesbian from the stars, before landing her true renaissance as the host of long-running and beloved talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2003.
Laura Dern, who guest-starred in the episode as the woman Ellen develops feelings big enough for to come out of the closet, admitted in 2007 on DeGeneres' talk show that she faced backlash over her appearance and didn't work for a year-and-a-half afterwards.
"It was significant because I was doing successful independent movies, and, only months before that, I was in Jurassic Park, the most successful movie ever. So it was like, you're being offered this, you're being offered that — and it just stopped. Which is kind of wild," Dern told Vulture about the time in 2019. "By good fortune of the long path of a career, you can look back and say, how great to have it be felt, how backward we are."
Nevertheless, she described the role as the "greatest thing" and an "incredible honor."
Speaking about the momentous occasion in her life in a 2008 interview with TelevisionWeek, DeGeneres noted, "It was a huge step in my life. I think people sensed the honesty in it. I think it helped a lot of people, and still to this day I hear about parents and children being able to have an honest conversation through watching that show. That's ultimately what television can be: It can get conversations started."
In honor of DeGeneres' groundbreaking coming out, take a walk down the rainbow-colored memory lane with a look back at all the LGBTQ firsts on TV before it and since that similarly got conversations started in houses across America.
Happy anniversary, Ellen!