Before She Became Famous: Ellen DeGeneres on Her ‘90s Sitcom

Ellen DeGeneres had her first lead role on a show called These Friends of Mine. To avoid any confusion between the other popular sitcom of the ‘90s called Friends, the name was changed to Ellen for the second season. This show broke barriers that the television companies had put up. At one point, there was even a parental advisory warning that came up before episodes. Ellen started airing in March 1994 and ran for five seasons before its cancellation for controversial content.

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Nowadays, this show wouldn’t be censored or canceled for being what it is. But we have Ellen DeGeneres to thank for this. After pushing to come out in real life as well as on the TV show, she changed the content that sitcoms and other television shows aired. More recently, DeGeneres has been back in the spotlight due to her latest controversy. This is the story of Ellen DeGeneres and the rest of the cast members who were part of this moment in history.

Ellen’s Childhood

Ellen DeGeneres was born and raised as a Christian Scientist in Metairie, Louisiana. She grew up with her brother Vance and her parents Elizabeth and Elliott. One thing that Christian Scientists believe in is that sickness can be cured by prayer. This means that they didn’t believe in medication and only used doctors and vaccines required by law.

Ellen DeGeneres as a baby in a wooden crib outdoors

Source: ellentv.com

In her early teen years, DeGeneres and her brother stopped associating with the religious movement. Until she was thirteen years old, she didn’t even take an aspirin. It was around this time that her parents got divorced, and her mother remarried. DeGeneres went through a lot in life, but during this period in her life, she went through things that we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies.

Ellen’s Fathers

Her mother, Elizabeth DeGeneres, remarried a salesman named Roy Gruessondorf just a few years after her divorce and moved Ellen down to Texas to live with him. Her brother, Vance, stayed with their father in Louisiana. During her high school years, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and thankfully won that battle. However, Ellen’s trauma didn’t stop there.

Ellen DeGeneres as a teenager

Source: Instagram / Ellen DeGeneres

Her stepfather tried to check her for lumps. “He thinks he feels a lump in (my mother’s) other breast, but he doesn’t want to alarm her, so he needs to feel mine to make sure.” This abuse escalated to a point where he broke into her bedroom, and she had to escape out of the window. This was when Ellen DeGeneres went from being (in her own words) a boring child to letting out her inner comedian to help deal with the trauma.

Ellen’s Subconscious

In the late 1980s, Ellen starred in Ellen’s Energy Adventure. This was a series of films that were part of the Universe of Energy pavilion at Walt Disney World. She starred alongside Bill Nye, Alex Trebek, Michael Richards, and Jamie Lee Curtis. There was also a ride at the park based on the films, which would take you on a 45-minute ride through her subconscious.

The Ellen’s Energy Adventure ride with the Ellen doll holding a stick in the direction of the dinosaur

Source: YouTube

It started with Ellen falling asleep to an episode of Jeopardy! and took you through her dream of being a contestant on the show. Bill Nye, who was also featured on this ride, brought an educational aspect to it, focusing on dinosaurs and fossils. The ride opened up in 1996, and her superfans enjoyed it until 2017.

Ellen’s Big Break

Ellen received her big break when she was invited to perform on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in November 1986. This show wasn’t well-known for its diversity, but she changed this not only by appearing for a performance, but by being the first female comedian to be invited to sit on the couch and talk with Carson.

Ellen DeGeneres sitting in the guest seat next to Johnny Carson’s desk

Source: YouTube

She did so well with her performance that she appeared on other talk shows like The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Later with Greg Kinnear, Larry King Live, and Good Morning, America. This was the start of a memorable career for Ellen DeGeneres. Just to clarify, Joan Rivers was invited to sit on the couch when she appeared on Carson’s show in 1965, but she was invited on as a comedic writer and not as a stand-up performer.

Reminiscing About the Moment

She recently spoke about being the first female stand-up comedian to sit on Johnny Carson’s couch during her interview by David Letterman on his Netflix series. She was so nervous that when she parked on Melrose to run into a store to pick something up, she forgot to put on the emergency brakes and her car ended up rolling backwards down the street.

Ellen DeGeneres being interviewed by David Letterman on his new Netflix show

Source: Netflix

“I’m like ‘Oh my God my car got stolen’ but then I hear horns honking. It had rolled all the way down,” she said. “It’s just rolling and I’m running after the car. That was the day of Carson.” This sounds like something understandable for someone getting a big break.

The First Ellen Show

Ellen DeGeneres started out her comedy career by performing at small clubs and coffee houses around New Orleans. Her name became known in the early 1980s and by ’84 she was named Showtime’s funniest person in America. Before she was cast on the show Ellen in 1994, she starred in two short-lived sitcoms and a few comedy movies.

Ellen DeGeneres caught hanging from a fence by her black hoodie in an episode of Ellen

Photo by Touchstone TV / Black-Marlens / Kobal / Shutterstock

The show Ellen ran for four years but was clouded by the controversy attached to it. DeGeneres was the first openly gay lead in a sitcom. Today, no one would blink an eye over that, but the openness to the LBGTQ+ community in television really started with her role on this show.

Ellen: Who’s Your Favorite Character?

Ellen DeGeneres wasn’t the only memorable cast member from the show. There are many others, most of them still big names. The show was based around DeGeneres, who played a neurotic bookstore owner in her thirties, and her group of friends. At one point the show was referred to as the female version of Seinfeld, with a twist.

Clea Lewis, David Anthony Higgins, Arye Gross, Ellen DeGeneres, Jeremy Priven, and Joely Fisher posing together in a promotional shot for Ellen

Photo by Timothy White / Touchstone Tv / Black-Marlens / Kobal / Shutterstock

Ellen was a show that was way ahead of its time. That being said, it was still appreciated and nominated for four Golden Globe Awards and won three Primetime Emmy Awards. Since the show was canceled, reruns have been run on and off up until this year. Here are some of the most popular characters on the show and where they are today.

Arye Gross – Then

Arye Gross played Adam, Ellen’s roommate and friend from their college days. His character was a photographer who had really bad luck dating and was frequently dumped. Adam was on the show until Season 3 when his character moved to England to work as a photographer for The Sun Times.

Arye Gross posing with his arms folded with Ellen peeking out from behind him

Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

But before he left, he stirred the pot a bit by letting Ellen know that he had a crush on her. Ellen lied that she was feeling the same way, and the two had an awkward relationship for a bit until he left. Arye Gross was in many movies and television series before landing his role on Ellen, like Diff’rent Strokes, Knight Rider, and Just One of the Guys.

Arye Gross – Now

Since his role on Ellen, Arye Gross has taken on different types of acting. He enjoys appearing in stage productions and was even in the world premiere of Eliza Clark’s Future Thinking. In 2009, he accepted the recurring role of M.E. Sidney Perlmutter on the popular show Castle. Gross has also made guest appearances on popular shows throughout the years like Burn Notice, Law & Order: SVU, Grey’s Anatomy, and The Mentalist.

Arye Gross with his wife Lis Shulz and their daughter Sophia Gross

Sophia Gross, Arye Gross, and Lis Shulz. Source: Instagram

Gross met his wife Lisa while he was working on Ellen. During the first season, they went to visit the store where they rent the furniture for the set and met Lisa Shulz. They started dating a year later and got married in 1999. Their daughter Sophia was born in 2006.

Holly Fulger – Then

Holly Fulger was cast as Holly Jamison on Ellen and was only around for the first season. Holly Jamison was Ellen’s super shy and self-conscious friend. She would try and avoid any trouble and just wanted to get along with everyone around her. Through all of that, she wanted to be the center of attention, but her character never got the chance.

Holly Fulger talking to a guy in the entrance to an apartment

Source: IMDb

Before landing the role on Ellen, Fulger had already made a name for herself. She had multiple recurring roles and guest appearances spanning ten years. The role she’s most well-known for is Robin Dulitski on Anything But Love. She got to act alongside Richard Lewis and Jamie Lee Curtis on this infamous sitcom.

Holly Fulger – Now

Since her recurring role on Ellen, Holly Fulger made a few appearances on shows like 7th Heaven, NYPD Blue, and The Practice. In her final on-screen appearance, she portrayed Jean in the short film Overcooked which came out in 2013. Fulger currently runs her own media company called True Beauty Detective.

Holly Fulger today

Source: IMDb

She wrote and directed a television documentary for her media company called The Hollywood Beauty Detective which was released in 2015. Fun fact, Holly Fulger was the last fiancée of Elvis Presley before his untimely death. The two met in 1976 and got engaged a year later. Getting engaged to Elvis Presley made her more popular and essentially jump started her acting career.

Maggie Wheeler – Then

Maggie Wheeler played Ellen’s friend Anita Warrell on Ellen. Anita was only around for the show’s first season, but unlike Holly, she doesn’t appear randomly throughout the seasons. In fact, her character isn’t even mentioned past the first season. While the reason behind it isn’t mentioned, Wheeler was fired from Ellen.

Maggie Wheeler as Anita on Ellen sitting by the kitchen with a can of soda in her hand

Source: YouTube

She mentioned in interviews that she was devastated after that. “I was so shaken by it, it was an unthinkable thing as an actor, (but) I felt in a way liberated to do the work I wanted to do without fear or favor.” However, this devastation ended up leading to some great things for her career. It changed the way she went into her next interview for the role she is best known for.

Maggie Wheeler – Now

Wheeler is most recognized for playing Janice on Friends. “Friends,” she said, “On any other day I might have done the (Friends) audition differently, but it came hot on the heels of that and I felt free and decided to do what I wanted to do on that day, and it worked in my favor. (Friends) wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had to go through the fire.”

Maggie Wheeler on the red carpet in 2016

Photo by James Gourley / Shutterstock

Imagine if we never got to experience Janice with the humor that she brought to the character. Maggie Wheeler still appears in popular shows on television. She also has a voice role in a popular show, Archer, where she plays the receptionist, Trinette. Most recently, Wheeler voiced Trudy Pickering in the animated movie The Addams Family. She is currently married to Daniel Wheeler, and they have two children together.

David Anthony Higgins – Then

Before being cast in Ellen, David Anthony Higgins performed in a comedy troupe and went on to star alongside his brother in one of the first television shows on Comedy Central, The Higgins Boys and Gruber. Once that show ended, he moved on, without his brother, to play the barista Joe on Ellen.

David Higgins in a promotional shot for Ellen / Holly Fulger and David Anthony Higgins hugging

Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock (left and right)

Joe was a pessimistic, sarcastic Canadian who worked at the coffee shop inside of Ellen’s bookstore. They don’t really give him much of a backstory but he appears in all five seasons. Higgins became part of the main group of friends, Ellen, Spence, Paige, and Audrey, in the third season. This show was really his big break and it helped get him to where he is today.

David Anthony Higgins – Now

Since playing Joe the barista on Ellen, David Anthony Higgins went on to act in different shows and movies that most of us recognize. He was on the Army Sargent show back in 1998 and was cast as Craig Feldspar on Malcolm in the Middle. Higgins played Stan in American Horror Story: Murder House but was only around for three episodes.

David Higgins taking a selfie on the Ellen DeGeneres show while sitting with Joely Fisher, Ellen, Oprah, and Laura Dern

Source: Twitter / @DAnthonyHiggins

He also was a writer on The Higgins Boys and Gruber and The Wrong Guy, which he co-wrote along with the Simpsons’ writers Jay Kogen and Dave Foley. If you don’t recognize him from these roles, you might from his appearances in Mike & Molly, Mom, or School of Rock. Higgins is married to a woman named Julia, and they have two kids together, a son named Gabe and a daughter named Janie.

Clea Lewis – Then

Clea Lewis played Audrey, the overly enthusiastic neighbor, on Ellen. This girl was always wearing pink and greeting people with her catchphrase “Hi, Ellen!” While she isn’t Ellen Morgan’s favorite person in the show, Audrey was very supportive of Ellen coming out. Later on in the show, she became an assistant at Ellen’s bookstore and apparently loved it enough to reject her family inheritance to continue working at the store.

Clea Lewis posing for a promotional photograph for Ellen

Photo by Touchstone Tv / Black-Marlens / Kobal / Shutterstock

Before landing her role on Ellen, she made appearances on shows like Doogie Howser, MD, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and Friends. She also had a main part on the show Flying Blind alongside Corey Parker and Tea Leoni.

Clea Lewis – Now

After appearing in Ellen, Clea Lewis went on to stage acting. She was in All in the Timing and Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight. Lewis also voiced TV characters like Nicky Little in Disney’s Pepper Ann and Wanda in The Angry Beavers. She then moved on to movies and voiced Start Mom, Mini Sloth, and Dung Beetle Mom in two of the Ice Age movies.

Clea Lewis on the red carpet in 2018

Photo by Matt Baron / Shutterstock

Some of the more memorable movies she was in are Confessions of a Shopaholic and Life of Crime. Lewis married Peter Ackerman in 2000, and they have two kids together. Stanley was born in 2002 and her younger son, Alvin, was born in 2005. She took a break from acting in 2017 but made a small appearance in the film Antarctica which was just released mid-October.

Joely Fisher – Then

Like many actors, Joely Fisher had a variety of guest roles on popular series before landing the role of Paige Clark on Ellen. She was on shows like Growing Pains, Blossom, Caroline in the City, The Golden Palace, The Outer Limits, Grace Under Fire, and Coach. Finally, in 1994 she got the role on Ellen and was a main character until the series ended in 1998.

Joely Fisher posing with Ellen DeGeneres for a promotional shot for the show Ellen

Photo by Touchstone Tv / Black-Marlens / Kobal / Shutterstock

She played Ellen’s best friend on the show. She works for a movie studio and also has a fantastic singing voice which can be seen in Season 2 of the series. During her time on the show, she was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for the Best Supporting Actress- Series, Miniseries, or Television Film.

Joely Fisher – Now

Directly after her role on Ellen, Joely Fisher was cast as Dr. Brenda Bradford in Inspector Gadget. She also dipped her toes in Broadway for a while and was even featured in different Christmas albums. In 2003, she starred on the show Wild Card as an insurance investigator, which led to her next role as Lynette’s box on Desperate Housewives.

Joely Fisher on the red carpet in 2018

Photo by MediaPunch / Shutterstock

In 2006 she and Brad Garret starred together on the sitcom ‘Til Death on Fox TV. Fisher married Christopher Duddy in 1996 and they have three daughters together, one of whom was adopted. She also has two stepsons from Duddy’s previous relationship. Fisher is big on family, and they currently live near her sister Tricia in Los Angeles.

Jeremy Piven – Then

Jeremy Piven played Ellen’s cousin Spencer “Spence” Kovak, who joined the show in the third season. Spence had a love-hate relationship with Ellen’s best friend, Paige. They started off constantly fighting and ended up in an on-again off-again relationship with her throughout the show. Jeremy Piven has acting running in his family.

Jeremy Piven as Ellen’s cousin Spence

Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

He was born to two actors and drama teachers; his sister also went on to be a director. He started out appearing on several films like Lucas and One Crazy Summer. Before appearing on Ellen, Piven had guest appearances on popular shows like Rugrats, Seinfeld, and Chicago Hope. He also had a recurring role as Jerry Capen on The Larry Sanders Show.

Jeremy Piven – Now

Since being on Ellen, Jeremy Piven appeared on The Drew Carey Show, Will & Grace, and the second revival of The Twilight Zone. He also landed roles in Rush Hour 2, Scary Movie 3, and Black Hawk Down, all of this before he really got his breakthrough role on the show Entourage. Piven played the part of Ari Gold from 2004 until the show was canceled in 2011.

Jeremy Piven on the red carpet in 2018

Photo by John Salangsang / Shutterstock

He received seventeen nominations for his part in the show, winning three Primetime Emmy Awards and one Golden Globe Award. More recently, you can see him in Mr. Selfridge and Wisdom of the Crowd. There were a few allegations that came out against him, but he seems to be bouncing back and will be appearing in several movies coming out within the next two years, including two this year.

Ellen Morgan Coming Out

DeGeneres played a girl named Ellen Morgan on the show Ellen. It was well known that her character wasn’t interested in anyone in a romantic way, but they finally addressed it in 1997. Ellen started negotiations to have her character come out on the show in 1996, which sparked rumors among fans.

Ellen DeGeneres talking to Laura Dern in the coming out scene from Ellen

Source: MoviestillsDB.com / Copyright: Touchstone Television, The Black/Marlens Company

She went as far as hinting about it off-screen and through her character on the show. They finally approved the episode to air on April 30th. Ellen DeGeneres came out publicly less than a week before that. What better way to let the world know you are out and proud than to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine.

The Puppy Episode

Ellen DeGeneres not only wanted her character to come out, but she wanted to take this opportunity to come out in real life as well. On April 14th, 1997, about two weeks before the infamous episode aired, she appeared on the cover of Time Magazine under the headline “Yep, I’m Gay.” She got the opportunity to explain why she was coming out and how this could affect television.

The Time magazine cover with Ellen DeGeneres on it with the headline ‘Yep, I’m Gay’

Source: Time

Up until the episode aired, they were able to keep it a secret. Instead of giving it a more obvious name, they called it The Puppy Episode. Apparently one of the executives wanted her to get a puppy instead. While they agreed she would come out in the episode, they used this as the title to keep the real storyline a mystery.

Appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show

On the same day that The Puppy Episode aired, Ellen DeGeneres appeared on The Oprah Winfrey show with her then-girlfriend, Anne Heche. DeGeneres got to stand up for herself on Oprah. When she was asked why it was necessary for DeGeneres and her character to come out, she answered, “Because it’s okay.”

Anne Heche and Ellen DeGeneres being interviewed by Oprah 1997

Source: YouTube

She went on to say, “I realized that as long as I had this secret that I worried about all the time that it made it look like something was wrong.” There were mixed reactions from viewers on both Oprah’s show and the Ellen sitcom, with one woman going as far as to say it was awkward explaining sexuality to her child when they saw the Time Magazine cover at the supermarket.

Coming Out Alongside Big Names

Despite threats from different advertisers and religious groups around America, the Puppy Episode finally aired on April 30th, 1997. Oprah and other celebrities appeared in the episode in support of DeGeneres’ coming out. Oprah Winfrey played the therapist she first came out to, and actors like Billy Bob Thornton, Demi Moore, and of course, Laura Dern participated. Her mother even made an appearance as an extra at the airport.

Ellen DeGeneres standing on set of the grocery store surrounded by Laura Dern, KD Lang, Dwight Yoakam, Demi Moore, Jenny Shimizu, Gina Gerson, and Billy Bob Thornton

Source: MoviestillsDB.com / Copyright: Touchstone Television, The Black/Marlens Company

Once word got out of her coming out episode, everyone wanted to be a part of this history in the making. In the episode, after she comes out to Oprah, she invites her friends over. Before they arrive, she comes out to her neighbor, Peter, who is supportive of her. Once everyone else arrives at her apartment, Peter outs her to everyone, who still stands by her side supporting her. Over 42 million people tuned in to view this historic episode, and it even won a Peabody and an Emmy Award.

Ellen’s Influence on Society

Thanks to Ellen DeGeneres, all sorts of people, including celebrities, were able to proudly come out of the closet. This doesn’t mean that the road to this revolution was easy. The show had to add a parental advisory warning after Ellen Morgan had a same-sex kiss. She received hate mail from people all across the country and was publicly mocked.

Ellen DeGeneres sitting at the counter near the kitchen in her apartment on the show Ellen

Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

Televangelists Pat Robertson and Reverend Jerry Falwell referred to her as “Ellen DeGenerate” and mobilized people to sign a letter that condemned the show calling it a “Blatant attempt to promote homosexuality.” The hate got so bad that a bomb threat was called into the studio. When she was interviewed about it in 2016, Ellen said, “I had no idea the amount of hate. I had no idea that there would be death threats or a bomb scare. It was a really scary time.”

Backlash from Every Direction

Unfortunately, after the episode aired, the number of viewers started dwindling and the show was eventually canceled in 1998. Although it was canceled, it still managed to break a barrier within the television community. Ellen’s coming out made the show Will & Grace a possibility. Ever since this episode, more and more TV shows started having gay characters and actors who weren’t afraid to show they support for Ellen.

Simon Cowell, Ellen DeGeneres, Diana De Garmo, and Randy Jackson on the American Idol judges panel

Photo by American Idol Prod / 19 Tv / Fox Tv Network / Fremantle Media North America / Kobal / Shutterstock

While the cancellation of this show was a low point in DeGeneres’ career, it brought her to where she is today. First, she tried to get her foot in the door with a show called The Ellen Show, which debuted in 2001 and ran for a year. She also tried to be a judge on American Idol but didn’t enjoy having to say no to people. It all came around for her when she got her own talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Getting Into the Current Controversy

The new controversy started with current and former employees speaking out against Ellen DeGeneres. Kevin T. Porter started a Twitter thread encouraging people to come out with their stories against her and offered to match every story with a $2 donation to a food bank. This got people talking about a whole range of things, from harassment to a toxic workplace.

Mariah Carey holding a glass of champagne on the Ellen DeGeneres show

Source: Tumblr

At one point, Mariah Carey got in on the gossip and claimed that when she was on her show in 2008, there were rumors about her being pregnant. She claimed that Ellen tried to get her to drink champagne and she eventually had to come out and say that she was pregnant. After this episode, Mariah Carey miscarried and carried around negative feelings about what had happened on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. DeGeneres has since apologized to Carey.

#RIPEllen

The hashtag “RIPEllen” became popular shortly after all of the allegations came out. There were stories ranging from DeGeneres’s complaints about restaurant servers all the way to celebrities who claim to not have had great interactions with her. Brad Garret from the show Everybody Loves Raymond came out claiming “Know more than one who were treated horribly by her. Common knowledge.”

Brad Garrett / Ellen DeGeneres

Photo by MediaPunch, Shutterstock / Matt Baron, Shutterstock

Garret even received a tweet back from fellow celebrity Lea Thompson agreeing with him. When it comes down to it, there’s no way for anyone to know what really happened, but there is no need to let the cancel culture affect someone trying to spread love among the world.

The “Be Kind” Lady

While the journey was not easy, The Ellen DeGeneres Show has been running for 18 seasons now and is still going strong. In the first three seasons alone, she won 25 Emmy Awards. Recently, there were rumors about the comedian and the way that she runs her show. But once the Coronavirus restrictions were lifted enough, Ellen took the first opportunity she had to address them.

Ellen DeGeneres dancing on her show with Richard Simmons

Photo by Nbc-Tv / Kobal / Shutterstock

It must be tough for the woman who became known as the “Be Kind Lady” to be put under so much pressure. She went on to address the issues on the set of the daytime talk show, and what was done to resolve them. Sadly, she stopped signing off the episodes with “Be Kind to One Another” and now just says a simple goodbye. She is still the Be Kind lady to me.