The series centered on Ellen's dealing with her quirky friends, her family and the problems of daily life. The series is notable for being one of the first with a main character to come out as gay, which DeGeneres' character did in the 1997 episode "The Puppy Episode". This event received a great deal of media exposure, ignited controversy, and prompted ABC to place a parental advisory at the beginning of each episode.
The series' theme song (used in Season 3 onwards), "So Called Friend", is by Scottish band Texas. A running gag during the third and fourth seasons was that each episode had a distinct/different opening credits sequence (often with singing and dancing), resulting from Ellen's ongoing search for the perfect opening credits.
In 1997, Ellen made television history when the title character came out as a lesbian in the famous "Puppy Episode" (DeGeneres herself came out concurrent with the episode on The Oprah Winfrey Show and in Time). To ensure a memorable moment, the coming out scene was made into a gag where, at an airport, Ellen turns and tells Laura Dern "I'm gay!" – only to realize that she had turned right into the intercom microphone, announcing her sexuality to the entire terminal. Ellen DeGeneres's mother Betty can briefly be seen as one of the people in the terminal with a shocked reaction to the announcement.
The revelation ignited a storm of controversy, prompting ABC to place a parental advisory at the beginning of each episode.
Ellen was successful enough in its early seasons to warrant annual renewal, due largely to DeGeneres's perceived appeal and comic ability, but only with Ellen's coming out did the show make its way into the wide public consciousness and hit a critical plateau. However, after the initial coming out frenzy, the show's ratings declined and ABC began feeling the pain of a backlash regarding the "gay content" being exhibited. The final episodes of Ellen were criticized for focusing too much on gay issues, a criticism begun in anti-gay circles but which spread to the mainstream media. Eventually, even some members of the LGBT community, including Chaz Bono (who at the time was the media director for GLAAD), began to criticize the show's serious new tone as well. ABC pulled the show from the air in May 1998 after five seasons.
Note – Between seasons one and two, there was not only a title change from These Friends of Mine to Ellen, but several characters disappeared without explanation.
Ellen DeGeneres as Ellen Morgan: Ellen Inez Morgan is the main character of the sitcom. In season one, Ellen works in a Los Angeles bookstore called "Buy the Book." In the second season, she purchases the bookstore from her boss and becomes its owner. Throughout season four, hints were made to her sexuality and near the end of season 4 in "The Puppy Episode," Ellen announced she was a lesbian. For the first one and a half seasons, Ellen lived in an apartment with roommate Adam. She lived alone after Adam moved out and then with her cousin Spence. Towards the end of season four, she bought her own house. Ellen's personality was likable and cheerful, but also somewhat clumsy and awkward, and with a persistent need to be liked. Her trademark behavior (and the main object of her comedy) was that she would digress in a rambling and babbling fashion, especially when nervous or embarrassed. An example of both her clumsiness and her need to please is found in the episode where she had Martha Stewart over for a dinner party and Ellen became highly stressed trying to organize the perfect dinner.
Joely Fisher as Paige Clarke: Appearing in seasons two through five, Paige is Ellen's somewhat neurotic, vain and promiscuous best friend who works for a movie studio. Paige planned to tie the knot with her boyfriend Matt Liston, but dumped him at the altar after resuming an affair she had with Ellen's cousin Spence. When Ellen comes out of the closet, Paige has the hardest time dealing with it (even harder than Ellen's parents). In the fifth season, Paige finally comes to terms with it.
Holly Fulger as Holly: Appearing only in the first season, including the two delayed episodes that aired during season three, Holly is Ellen's friend. Shy and self-conscious, she tries to avoid any trouble and is desperate to get along with the people around her. She actually would love to be in the center of attention, though she doesn't dare to overcome her shyness. Although her surname was never spoken or seen in the show it is actually revealed to be Jamison.
Arye Gross as Adam Green: Appearing in seasons one through three, Adam is Ellen's roommate and they have been friends since college. A photographer, he is completely unsuccessful with women and is frequently dumped. In the middle of the third season, Adam moves to England to work as a photographer for The Sun Times, but upon his departure, he reveals that he was harboring a crush on Ellen. She in turn lies that she has one for him too, but he finds out the truth and that creates tension between the two of them until shortly before he leaves
David Anthony Higgins as Joe Farrell: Appearing in all five seasons, Joe is a dour, sarcastic Canadian who works as the barista at the coffee shop inside Ellen's bookstore. His personal life is only touched upon, usually for comic relief in constant reference to misadventures he had in Moose Jaw. In the third season he becomes a member of the core group which aside from him consists of Ellen, Spence, Paige, and Audrey.
Clea Lewis as Audrey Penney: Audrey is Ellen's squeaky-voiced and exceedingly perky neighbor and later co-worker, seen usually in the color pink and whose catchphrase was the enthusiastic greeting "Hi, Ellen!". Ellen has something of a love–hate relationship with Audrey, often annoyed at her overly upbeat demeanor. But after Ellen comes out, Audrey is extremely supportive (and excited, saying that she thinks "it's SUPER!"), and she throws herself into the LGBT culture, ironically with more reverence than Ellen did. In season one, Ellen refers to Audrey's husband, but he never appears and Audrey later dates several people, including Adam and Ron Palillo, who played himself over several episodes. It is revealed that she comes from a very well-off family, though she rejected her inheritance so that she could continue being an assistant at the bookstore. In her initial appearance in the first season she was not shown wearing pink and displayed less of the hyper and energetic personality the character eventually became in later seasons, she was much more of a negative character and blunt much to Ellen's chagrin although both of Audrey's personalities proved to be much of an annoyance to Ellen nonetheless.
Jeremy Piven as Spence Kovak: Ellen's volatile but well-intentioned cousin from New York, who joined the cast in the third season. His arrival in Ellen's life coincides with the aftermath of a large Los Angeles earthquake that leads to the destruction and subsequent remodeling of the book store. Spence was training as a doctor, but was fired from his job for punching a patient and as a result spent the beginning of the third season bored and depressed. He begins training as a lawyer but after saving someone's life decides to resume his career in medicine. He and Paige had a love-hate relationship that began as constant fighting but later they became lovers and stayed such until a few episodes before the end of the series when the relationship ended amicably.
Maggie Wheeler as Anita Warrell: Ellen's friend and a main character in the show's first season. Although she was one of the regular characters, much of her personality and past was never revealed, and she was under-utilized in the episodes she appeared in. She was mentioned by Holly to be much more attractive than her but, unlike Holly, most of her romantic relationships were never shown on screen although mentioned.
Steven Gilborn as Harold Morgan: Ellen's father. He is often somewhat clueless about what is going on around him. At one point, he and Ellen's mother Lois announce that they want to divorce, much to Ellen's dismay. They later reconcile.
Alice Hirson as Lois Ellington Morgan: Ellen's mother, Lois spends much of her time nosing and interfering in Ellen's life. Before Ellen comes out of the closet, Lois is obsessed with finding Ellen a husband. At one point, she wants to divorce her husband, but they later reconcile.
Lisa Darr as Laurie Manning: Ellen's girlfriend. Laurie appears in eight episodes in the fifth and final season of Ellen. She and her daughter Holly (Kayla Murphy) become an increasingly important part of Ellen's life.
Bruce Campbell as Ed Billik: Ed appeared in season four only as the new manager of Ellen's bookstore. He was a strict business type who frequently butted heads with Ellen over their management styles.
Patrick Bristow as Peter Barnes: Ellen's gay best friend. He was a charity worker in the second season and a recurring role until the end of the series.
Jack Plotnick as Barrett: Paige's assistant in season three. He was the love interest for Peter throughout the show.
[a]Two episodes that aired in Season 3, The Tape and The Mugging, were filmed at the same time as Season 1 and are included in the Season 1 DVD box set as "bonus episodes", and are not included in the Season 3 DVD release.
Reruns of the show first started airing on Lifetime in the fall of 1998, and stopped in 2001. Starting October 4, 2003, during DeGeneres's surge in popularity through her role in Finding Nemo and her new daytime talk show, Lifetime began airing reruns again, on 1AM-2AM ET Sunday mornings, starting with the second season. Before long, it went into the 1:30AM-2AM ET time slot Monday-Friday. The reruns stopped two episodes into the controversial final season. Oxygen then picked up the entire series to air starting October 4, 2004, daily at midnight and noon ET, but it has since been removed from the schedule. In September 2013, Ellen began airing on FX Monday-Saturday from 9-11am.
Reruns of the show in the UK were until recently on ABC1 until the channel closed in September 2007. These were shown only on weekend mornings, along with other Touchstone Pictures productions. No other UK channels are currently airing the show.
In Australia episodes air on 111 HITS weekdays in a daytime timeslot. New Zealand is currently airing double episode reruns on TVNZ TV2 every Monday night.
In Canada, it is currently being aired by TVtropolis.
In the United States, it is currently being aired on FX.