Oprah Winfrey says she received racist hate mail for starring as Ellen DeGeneres’ therapist in the famous coming out episode of “Ellen” in 1997, titled “The Puppy Episode.”
The mogul made the revelation in Friday’s episode of the comedian’s talk show, to commemorate “The Puppy Episode’s” 20th anniversary.
She recalled seeing messages that used the N-word, told her to “go back to Africa,”and other “vile, vitriolic stuff.”
“I misread that everybody was like us, that they were open-minded and that they were receptive and that they wanted people to just be who they are,” Winfrey said.
The episode is filled with revelations from actors who were involved with the episode, including Winfrey, Laura Dern, DeGeneres’ sitcom costars and, of course, DeGeneres herself.
When Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian both in an out of her sitcom character back in 1997, it made television history. The special episode of her highly-successful talk show looked at how far we’ve come in terms of LGBTQ+ acceptance, and how the moment wasn’t so positive in the short-term.
“The Puppy Episode” aired not too long after DeGeneres herself came out as gay in real life. The question surrounding the show was if her character would come out as well, although multiple hints had been dropped throughout its run, such as how the character never dated, along with multiple “coming out” jokes.
The episode was the show’s most popular episode, garnering 42 million viewers. However, backlash from conservative groups, along with new misconceptions that the show now was too gay, doomed the show after one more season. It also affected DeGeneres’ career and she returned to stand-up before landing her hit talk show.
Dern, who played the woman Ellen came out to, and Winfrey, who played Ellen’s therapist, talked about the backlash they also received following the episode’s airing.
Dern, for example, couldn’t work for an entire year after that because people thought she was also gay. However, she felt proud to be a part of history.
“And watching you have this catharsis or ritual and the audience support and a sort of holding, literal holding, I remember we were kind of holding each other up through this very emotional moment. It was so profound and I feel so blessed that I got to be there and witness that,” she told Ellen.
DeGeneres also revealed some behind-the-scenes trivia about the episode, including why it was called “The Puppy Episode.”
“It was called ‘The Puppy Episode’ because we wanted to keep it a secret until it aired and because ‘Ellen Throws Her Career Away’ seemed too on the nose,” DeGeneres joked. “Actually, the real reason we called it ‘The Puppy Episode’ is ’cause when the writers told the executives that they wanted me to come out because my character needed to be in a relationship after four years of not being in a relationship, someone at the studio said, ‘Well, get her a puppy. She’s not coming out.’ And so, we called it ‘The Puppy Episode.'”
This was followed by a montage of the news coverage and some reactions of the event, which you can watch in the clip above.
DeGeneres was also joined by her former sitcom co-star Joely Fisher, Clea Lewis, and David Anthony Higgins, who talked about the mood on set leading up to the episode.
At the end of the anniversary special, DeGeneres reflected on the moment and her success since then.
“It was the hardest thing that I ever had to do in my life and I would not change one moment of it because it led me to be exactly where I am today – standing in front of all of you, which is a joy,” she said. “And the fact that all of you and everyone at home is watching me and willing to accept me into your homes every day when no one thought that would ever happen again, it means the world to me.”