'The great thing about Ellen being the person to play this part was that she was so accessible,' Mark Driscoll says

April 28, 2017 at 11:11 AM EDT

It was the revelation that begat a revolution, or certainly an evolution: Twenty years ago on Sunday, Ellen DeGeneres — as Ellen Morgan, the cheery, neurotic bookstore owner turned manager at the center of ABC comedy Ellen — reached deep into her soul and pulled out a few historic words that rolled right off her tongue: “This is so hard, but I think, I, I, I’ve realized… that I am… I can’t even say the word. Why I can’t say the word? I mean, why can’t I just say… I mean, what is wrong? Why, why do I have to be so ashamed? I mean, why can’t I just… say the truth, I mean, be who I am. I’m 35 years old, I’m so afraid to tell people, I mean, I just… Susan, I’m gay.”

What that admission lacked in brevity, it more than made up for impact. (And not just because Ellen blurted out those last three words accidentally into the microphone at the airport gate for everyone to hear.) With that declaration — which was preceded by DeGeneres’ coming-out interview on Oprah, a “Yep, I’m Gay” Time magazine cover, and months and months of speculation — DeGeneres took herself and the show into brave, new territory: Ellen Morgan would be the first gay or lesbian lead character on a U.S. network TV show.

DeGeneres had been dodging and weaving around questions about her own sexuality for awhile. But her private and professional lives began to converge as word leaked that she was negotiating with the network to have Ellen Morgan come out. Finally, in March 1997, ABC announced that the episode would indeed happen, in an hourlong installment titled “The Puppy Episode.” (DeGeneres recalled this week that it was named as such because an executive’s response to the proposed storyline was that she get a puppy instead.)

RELATED: 10 Pop Culture Coming Out Stories

There was the requisite backlash to the news. A few advertisers pulled commercials. A Southern affiliate refused to air the episode. Jerry Falwell called her “Ellen Degenerate.” But ultimately the voices of support proved louder than the ones of fear and hate. GLAAD announced a “Come Out With Ellen” Day. Oprah Winfrey, Laura Dern, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, and Melissa Etheridge were among the famous faces signing up to appear in the episode. And so the innocuous show that featured a likable lead but had struggled to find a creative direction over its first few seasons and had swapped in different cast members, suddenly shot into the spotlight: Forty-two million Americans tuned in to see that punchline-happy, raucous, cathartic hour of TV (complete with a viewer discretion advisory): Ellen tried her darndest to deny feelings for a friend of a friend, Susan (Dern), after their charged meet-cute, but ultimately came to terms with those feelings — and her sexuality — though it turned out, bittersweetly, that Susan was already in a relationship. And after she came clean to her friends, they lovingly embraced her (some more clumsily than others) for who she was. In short, by making it through okay, she’d made it okay.

The episode would win an Emmy and a Peabody, and though the show was canceled after the following season, it was clear that a way had been paved: Will & Grace debuted a few months following the cancellation. Just last year, DeGeneres — who went on to host both the Oscars and her own very successful daytime talk show — was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, for the journey she began two decades ago by taking a huge risk and revealing her real self to the world. “I never wanted to be the spokesperson for the gay community — ever,” said the comedian, who married Portia de Rossi eight years ago. I did it for my own truth.” And truly, thanks to “The Puppy Episode,” TV would never be the same.

While DeGeneres is paying tribute to that moment in time today with a special episode of her talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, EW asked former executive producer Mark Driscoll (now a co-executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy), who co-wrote “The Puppy Episode,” to reflect on that landmark installment.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s go in the way-back machine. This episode aired 20 years ago, near the end of the show’s fourth season. When was the first time that you heard Ellen talk about Ellen Morgan coming out?
It was the very beginning of that season. I came on to [the show] six episodes into the first season when it was still called These Friends of Mine, and it was purely an ensemble show and it was, frankly, was just a knock-off of Seinfeld that everyone was doing. It was a show about nothing, but it just wasn’t very impressive and it wasn’t a showcase of her talents at all. So they brought in a few writers in the middle of the season — they knew something was wrong, so I stayed there for the rest of that. And then in the second season, they brought in new actors but it still seemed like the show had no direction because the best episodes were the ones where she was dating someone — an awkward date, or a bad date — and she was starting to feel like they were untrue to herself. She didn’t want to do those anymore, so we were kind of out of ideas. And I was happy to leave at the end of the second season.

It was the smartest thing I ever did because they thought, “He must be good if he’s leaving,” so they brought me back in the fourth season, and they said, “Do you want to run it with Dava Savel?” I had never met her before, but she was delightful. So we assembled a great team of writers and we thought, “Oh, we can change things. But immediately: “Oh god, it’s the same old thing. She doesn’t want to date, but that’s the only thing that’s interesting. We put her in a bookstore but she doesn’t seem like somebody who spends a lot of time in bookstores.” So that didn’t lead to any stories. We were so relieved when she called a meeting. She invited us all to her house and she made the announcement. She said, “I want to come out. I’m going to do it personally, and I’m going to do it on the show at the end of the season, and we’re going to write to that and build toward that.” So we were all thrilled. It just gave us direction for the whole season.

How much of those discussions of Ellen Morgan coming out were tied to Ellen’s considerations about revealing more about her personal life? Was it always going to be a situation where if the character came out, she would come out as well? Or vice versa?
It was a dual announcement to us, anyway. I guess I was just not attuned to exactly how things were. Because I thought, “Is that such a big deal? Don’t people know that you’re gay?” But there was no social media then, there was no internet like we have it now, so I guess the inner circle knew, but people in Des Moines didn’t have any idea. It was a huge deal.

ABC and Disney had been looking for ways to give the show more direction. How would you characterize the process of getting ABC and Disney to sign off on this?
We had a meeting with Disney first and I remember Disney saying, “We’ll do this if the script is good. We’re all behind it.” And all the writers heard was, “If the script is good.” It sounded like a great loophole, no matter what the script was like, for them to say, “Oh, we can’t do this. The script didn’t come in as well as we’d hoped.” So I thought we were all going to get thrown under the bus. For a long time, I had a cynical attitude about it. But then we started writing a couple of drafts of the episode, and Disney gathered us and said, “We love it. You can go deeper.” And by that point, we thought, “Oh! They’re really behind it.” So that was exciting.

There had been speculation about the sexuality of Ellen DeGeneres and Ellen Morgan. You had some fun with it on the show; Ellen had joked about a character named Les Bian joining the show, and that she was Lebanese. She went on The Larry Sanders Show and had sex with Larry (Garry Shandling). What was that period like leading up to the episode?
We went from a show that nobody was talking about except to mock — ”Oh my god, when are they going to cancel that thing?” — and suddenly we were in the news all the time. And it was really fun. And the little jokes or hints in the early episodes [that season] would get such huge responses that it just had a snowball effect. And we loved itWe had to pull ourselves back sometimes because it was so tempting to put those things in every scene. We thought, “Oh, people will get tired of that.”

NEXT PAGE: Why wasn’t there a big kiss in the episode?

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