Ellen DeGeneres paid tribute to a historic moment in TV history when she celebrated her coming out episode of Ellen on Friday.
"The Puppy Episode" - which she revealed was titled as such to both keep the moment a secret and as a reference to a hesitant studio - featured DeGeneres' character, Ellen Morgan, coming out as gay to a potential love interest played by Laura Dern. The episode, which aired April 30, 1997, was the first time a lead character came out on TV and now, 20 years later, continues to be hailed as the moment that helped to usher in a more inclusive era of television.
The host opened The Ellen Degeneres Show by saying, "I'm Ellen and I'm gay" - a nod to her iconic TV line and the cover headline that ran on Time magazine along with her on-air announcement.
An emotional flashback reel from 1997 showing the public response and outcry to the moment - which was watched by 42 million people - showed the massive amount of interest that followed for the star.
"It was hard," says DeGeneres in a pre-taped segment. "I lost everything and I got to be stripped down of everything and start all over again. And that was a wonderful gift, to be able to start all over again and to realize that I was strong enough to come back."
DeGeneres launched her eponymous talk show in 2003, a forum that she used to announce that she was marrying current wife Portia de Rossi after the same-sex marriage ban in California was overturned in 2008. The reel included the moment she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama last year, highlighting how far she, along with society, has come.
The opening garnered a standing ovation from the audience, bringing DeGeneres to tears.
"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 here 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."
DeGeneres devoted the entire hour of her talk show to a star-studded remembrance of the two-part "Puppy Episode" by welcoming the episode's guest stars Oprah Winfrey and Laura Dern, as well as her former costar Joely Fisher, Clea Lewis and David Anthony Higgins for their first cast reunion since the ABC sitcom ended its run in 1998.
DeGeneres and Winfrey, who played Ellen's therapist on the episode, said they both recently rewatched the episode for the first time in a long time and were blown away by how much it still holds up today. The pair reminisced about how quickly Winfrey said "yes" when she received the call to appear.
"I love you and you are the queen and I thought you would legitimize all of it and people would go, 'Oh, they're not trying to make a joke of this. This is actually serious,'" explained DeGeneres of featuring Winfrey, as herself, on the sitcom.
"I didn't even give it a thought of what this would cost me or what other people would say," said Winfrey. "I just said 'yes' because I so believed in your truth and I wanted to support you."
Winfrey had been doing a "Coming Out Day" on her famed talk show, but DeGeneres was the first time Winfrey took her support to a primetime TV subject. She revealed that her participation in the episode resulted in an unforeseen amount of hate mail and calls.
"There was a lot of, 'Go back to Africas,'" she recalled. "A lot of N-words, vitriolic stuff."
Winfrey said the overwhelmingly loud hatred taught her that everyone wasn't as accepting, receptive and open-minded as she thought.
"It was surprising how many people I upset," DeGeneres agreed. "I was a comedian and I was funny and I also happened to be gay and I just got tired of hiding it. I thought, 'Well nothing's going to change. I'm still funny, I'm still the same person.' Plus, I assumed that people did know, I didn't think it was going to be that much of a shock."
Winfrey explained that 20 years ago, it was normal for people to keep things to themselves.
"You hid the fact that your husband had an affair. You were pretending to be who you weren't in a way that we no longer find acceptable in our culture," she explained, then turning to DeGeneres. "And you are responsible for so much of that changing. You were the bravest woman, ever."
She then asked DeGeneres about the kind of hate she received and how that impacted her spirit.
"I had a lot of death threats, a lot. And there was a bomb scare when we shot. It was tough," she said. "That's why most people don't come out, because you think you're going to lose your career and so people choose a career over being truthful and I decided to feel that being truthful was more important than a career."
She admitted she was scared that something might actually happen after a few violent incidents, and that being the butt of every joke on late-night TV hurt her spirit.
"You would not be who you are ... you wouldn't be able to open hearts and touch hearts and change peoples' minds and make a difference in the world had you not had the courage to do that," Winfrey told an emotional DeGeneres. "And 20 years ago, you had no idea it would put you in this seat."
DeGeneres replied, "It really did teach me, no matter what the cost is at the time, it is always important that whatever you believe, whoever the essence of us is, we are born, we are all individual, we are all unique and we are supposed to be that exact person. ... As long as you stay true to exactly who you are, you will be rewarded in ways you can't even imagine."
Michelle Obama then called in for a surprise video, telling the host that she wishes she could have been there in person to congratulate her on the anniversary.
"Time and again you have shown us what love really means. You are brave. You are kind," she said. "And I absolutely adore you."
Next, Dern joined the pair on the couch to relive the episode, which also featured the Big Little Lies star front and center in the historic moment.
"I didn't think twice," she recalls of being asked to star in the episode. She then noted that the three of them had never spoken all together about what they went through.
In Dern's case, she couldn't get work for a year after the show.
"And you're not even gay, but people thought you were gay," DeGeneres said. "It was unbelievable that you were punished as well and not able to work. But the thing about that, you were so comforting in that scene. Because, saying, 'I'm gay,' - for you straight people out there, gay people don't just go around saying, 'I'm gay,' because they don't need to, for the people that know you're gay, so no one says it - so for those words to come out of my mouth for the very first time, even rehearsing it, I would bust into tears every time."
After also rewatching the clip, Dern, moved to near tears, recalled how "profound" the moment was and how honored she was to be the recipient of DeGeneres saying those words for the first time.
"[There is] no greater gift than being the person that was with you and looking in your eyes as you said those words," she said, recalling how DeGeneres whispered to her while filming, "Maybe I'm not going to say it, because I haven't said that out loud." Dern added, "Watching you have this catharsis and the audience support, literally holding each other up during this very emotional moment, it was so profound."
Her old castmembers then joined her for a long overdue reunion, even wheeling out a cake of the star's iconic Time cover. DeGeneres called it a crime that the four of them had not been together since the show, which ran for five years, ended.
"We all were there for the journey to that show," said Fisher, who called the ride an "incredible gift."
"I just remember the insanely charged atmosphere that was building throughout the season, but then certainly those couple of weeks it was out of control, exciting and a little scary," added Lewis, recalling how bomb-sniffing dogs were on set.
"Word started getting out and it kind of became the center of the gay universe right away," said Higgins.
George Michael, Tracy Chapman and Melissa Etheridge were some of the names who attended the taping.
"We all knew that it was history, but we didn't realize what really it was," said DeGeneres, who ended the show by thanking everyone for supporting her along the way.
"Obviously, we have come a long way in the past 20 years. Even when this show started, the network was very uncomfortable with me talking about my sexuality or my relationship," she summed up. "Now, we're here and I've done a whole show about the fact that I'm gay, so we've come a long way. But we still have a long way to go to make sure everybody has the right to be who they are. And one way we can start, and I say it every single day, is to be kind to one another."
Warner Bros., the studio that produces the show, also presented DeGeneres with a $50,000 check to the Human Rights Campaign in recognition of her accomplishments.