by Christopher Rudolph
More than 20 years have passed since the premiere of the historic “Puppy Episode” of Ellen DeGeneres’ namesake sitcom, in which the comedian broke ground as television’s first series lead to come out as gay.
DeGeneres has reflected on the craziness surrounding the episode’s airing, but now her episode co-star, Laura Dern, has opened up to Vulture’s E. Alex Jung about her memories of the history-making piece of television.
Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images
“I was excited. I didn’t think twice about [accepting the role]. It was a great opportunity. And then the calls started coming in once I’d said yes, from a couple of advisers in Hollywood who were out gay men, [telling me] to not do it,” Dern told Vulture. “This is where I grew up in a bubble and didn’t realize we weren’t there yet or something. The first time I became aware was, Oprah and I were having a snack, and suddenly a flood of cops swarmed the set and the stage while we were rehearsing. They’re like, ’There’s been a bomb threat, we’re sweeping the stage.’ And they start literally rushing us off the stage.”
The Oscar-nominated actress goes on to talk about what it was like filming Ellen’s actual coming-out scene in the airport, where she chases down Susan (Dern) before she boards her flight and accidentally tells the entire terminal she’s gay over the airport loudspeaker.
Dern vividly recalls shooting that scene. Twenty-two years later, she confessed rewatching the iconic episode still brings her to tears:
What was amazing, which I will never forget, that when she looked in my eyes, she said it was the first time she said, “I’m gay” out loud. We didn’t rehearse it, so when she said it to me, and was looking in my eyes and holding my hands and I felt her shaking… the gift—it makes me want to cry—the gift of that, the intimacy of what that means, was such insight for me. And I’ll carry it for the rest of my life. It’s shaped and continues to shape who I am as an advocate, as an activist, as a parent. It’s a profound thing when you see someone bring their truth, but also all the layers of shame and fear that have been put onto you because of feeling like the other, whatever your experience is. So I’m forever grateful.
“The Puppy Episode” went into production on March 7, 1997, less than two months before it aired. It was a major critical and cultural success, attracting some 42 million viewers and scoring DeGeneres an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series.
I write about drag queens. Dolly Parton once ruffled my hair and said I was “just the cutest thing ever.”