It may be hard to remember, but Ellen DeGeneres wasn’t always the sunny, confident queen of daytime television she is today. In the ’80s and ’90s, she was an up-and-coming comic, and when she landed her own sitcom on ABC in 1994, she would eventually make history by becoming the first woman to come out as gay in her own prime-time TV series.
For TIME’s new multimedia project Firsts, celebrating women who have broken ground as “the first” in various fields and disciplines, DeGeneres reflected on what got her to that point, and how there were moments that almost steered her off course. She remembers a specific night of stand-up when her set followed two male performers whose comedy was misogynistic and homophobic.
“It was just a very angry, testosterone-filled crowd by the time I got onstage,” she remembers. Once she began her set, the front row — mostly men — got up and turned their chairs around to put their backs to DeGeneres, who was still performing. “It was a night that I thought I would never do comedy again.”
Clearly, though, she did do comedy again, and after Ellen, she eventually became the host of one of the most successful and long-running daytime variety shows to ever grace the air.
Watch DeGeneres’ segment for Firsts above.