In 1997, television star Ellen DeGeneres made history by announcing that both she and the character she played were gay. Born on January 26, 1958, DeGeneres was raised by Christian Scientist parents in New Orleans, Louisiana. After her parents divorced in 1971, she moved with her mother to Atlanta, Texas. By her early twenties, DeGeneres had returned to New Orleans and began performing in comedy clubs. Her stand-up routines soon won her a following on the comedy circuit. In 1982, the Showtime cable channel named her the “Funniest Person in America.”
DeGeneres appeared regularly on television throughout the rest of the 1980s. She made her debut on The Tonight Show in 1986 and became the first female comic invited to talk with host Johnny Carson on her initial appearance. In addition to performing on talk shows such as The Late Show with David Letterman, Larry King Live, and Good Morning, America, DeGeneres made several forays into series television. On Open House (1989), she played a wacky office worker, and on Laurie Hill (1992), she had a recurring role as a nurse. DeGeneres also appeared on several HBO comedy specials, including a one-woman show for which she was nominated for a Cable Ace Award.
In 1994, DeGeneres was cast in These Friends of Mine, an ensemble situation comedy on ABC dealing with the relationship among four friends. After repeated retoolings, the show, eventually retitled Ellen, became more focused on DeGeneres’s character. Even with the reworking of the show, critics agreed that the sitcom failed to provide an adequate showcase for the charm DeGeneres displayed in her standup act.
During Ellen’s fourth season, DeGeneres and the show’s staff decided to reveal that her character was a lesbian. At the same time, DeGeneres herself chose to declare on the cover of the April 14, 1997 issue of Time magazine, “Yep, I’m gay.” The announcement initiated a national debate. Gay rights groups hailed DeGeneres as a hero, while right-wing leader Jerry Falwell dubbed her “Ellen DeGenerate.” As the controversy grew, major sponsors, including Chrysler and Wendy’s, pulled their advertisements from her show.
On April 30, 1997, DeGeneres’s character came out of the closet on an hour-long episode of Ellen, which featured cameo appearances by Laura Dern, OPRAH WINFREY, Melissa Etheridge, and k. d. lang. The show was titled “The Puppy Episode,” a joking reference to a network executive’s suggestion that the series writers give DeGeneres’s character a dog to help boost ratings. The episode did in fact bring Ellen its best ratings ever; it was the most-watched television program for the week it aired.
DeGeneres continued to generate headlines, especially after she made public her romantic relationship with actress Anne Heche. The publicity, however, did little to help draw viewers to DeGeneres’s show. ABC canceled Ellen in 1998. Some fans accused the network of refusing to promote the show because of its gay content.
As Ellen was drawing to a close, DeGeneres tried to make the move into ?lms. Vehicles such as Mr. Wrong (1996) and Edtv (1999), however, failed at the box-of?ce. She had more success with the If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000), an HBO anthology of three stories about lesbianism. DeGeneres starred with Sharon Stone in a comedic segment, written and directed by Heche, about a lesbian couple’s efforts to have a child.
Following a well-publicized breakup from Heche in 2000, DeGeneres set off on a 36-city tour with a new stand-up routine. With a return to the gentle style of humor that made her famous, she hoped to remind her audience she as more than just “the lesbian comedian.” As she told Time in 2000, she wanted her old fans to “realize they can come and see me and they won’t feel left out.”
DeGeneres, Ellen. My Point . . . and I Do Have One. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.
Handy, Bruce. “Roll Over, Ward Cleaver.” Time. April 17, 1997, p. 78.
Wieder, Judy. “Ellen: Born Again.” The Advocate. March 14, 2000, p. 28.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Ellen DeGeneres: The Beginning. Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 2001.
If These Walls Could Talk 2. Warner Home Video, VHS, 2000.