DeGeneres' sitcom character came out of the closet 20 years ago.

By Nick Romano
April 28, 2017 at 09:28 AM EDT

Twenty years ago, Ellen DeGeneres changed the game: her ’90s sitcom character, Ellen Morgan, came out as a lesbian in an episode called “The Puppy Episode” and DeGeneres herself followed suit. Because the moment was so controversial at the time, the comedienne dedicated Friday’s episode of her talk show to the anniversary, reuniting guest stars Oprah Winfrey and Laura Dern “to remember what it was like back then and appreciate how far we have come.”

“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 to her audience. “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.'”

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She added, “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. 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.”

Winfrey, who played Ellen’s therapist on the episode, recalled all the hate mail she received, including, “Go back to Africa,” the N-word, and generally “vile, vitriolic stuff.” She said, “It was so bad. The next day after the show, I flew back to Chicago and the next day … we had to put another person on the switchboard. I remember something like 900-and-something calls; they couldn’t keep up.”

Winfrey “immediately said yes” to the guest role, but the reception taught her a lot. “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,” she said.

For Dern, who played the woman to whom Ellen comes out, the actress remembered how she didn’t work for about a year after the episode aired, partly because people thought she was gay.

“I have to say, just watching the clip, it made me so emotional because of all the things I feel privileged to experience in my life as a human but also as an actor, there’s no greater gift than being the person that was with you and looking in your eyes as you said those words [‘I am gay’],” she told DeGeneres. “And when we did rehearse, you even whispered to me at once, ‘Maybe I’m not gonna say it because I haven’t said that out loud.'”

Taking a breath, Dern continued, “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.”

Rounding out the “Puppy Episode” reunion were DeGeneres’ Ellen costars Joely Fisher, Clea Lewis, and David Anthony Higgins. “I can’t believe we have not been together since the show ended,” DeGeneres remarked.

The actors recalled “the insanely charged atmosphere” leading up to the episode and in the weeks that followed. “It was out of control and exciting — a little scary, like you mentioned the bomb-sniffing dogs that would have to come through the stage,” Lewis noted of the fallout.

Closing out the anniversary episode with Winfrey and Dern, DeGeneres addressed her audience with a hopeful message. “Obviously, we have come a long way in the past 20 years. Even when this show started, the network was very uncomfortable with me even talking about my sexuality or my relationship,” she said. “Now, we’re here and I’ve done a whole show about the fact that I’m gay, so we have 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.”

Watch clips from the episode above.