It all started when Hayes, 47, congratulated DeGeneres, 61, for having “been on the air for 15 years.”
“On this particular show, yes — I’ve also done other things in the past,” she corrected him.
“Well, I’m not going to read your resume,” he quipped. “But you’ve been so kind to have me on so many times, and you’ve always been so supportive and such an inspiration.”
“That’s because you’re hilarious and I love you and you’re talented and smart,” she responded.
The two bantered back and forth until DeGeneres directed the conversation to his hit NBC reboot of Will & Grace to ask how long they’d been on the air.
“Longer than 15,” he said with a laugh.
“How long was it the first time around? Before y’all got canceled?” DeGeneres retorted.
“I think it was longer than your sitcom was on,” he fired back as the audience roared with laughter.
“Yeah, that’s right,” said DeGeneres. “I had to come out first for y’all to do that sitcom. Go ahead!”
Hayes threw his head back with laughter and, giving credit where it’s due, started clapping.
“That is so funny — it’s true!” he said.
“It’s the battle of the gays, up here,” quipped DeGeneres, who publicly came out as gay on the cover of Time magazine in April 1997 — just weeks before her character on her popular ABC sitcom, Ellen, did the same on the now-iconic “Puppy Episode.”
Opening up to Dax Shepard on his Armchair Expert podcast this week, DeGeneres reflected on her experience coming out, admitting that it was “a high, and it was celebrated, and then it was a complete low.”
“During the time, because there was so much talk about it, everyone was just sick of it,” she said. “I had only done the cover of Time magazine, a primetime special with Diane Sawyer and Oprah — those were the only three places I talked — but people were reporting on reports and reports and reports.”
“Even Elton John said, ‘Shut up already. We know you’re gay. Be funny,’ ” she continued. “I had never met him and I thought, ‘What kind of support is that from a gay person?’ But everybody assumed I was just nonstop talking about. It hurt my feelings. People were making fun of me. I was really depressed. And because of that and because the show was canceled, I was looked at as a failure in this business. No one would touch me. I had no agent, I had no possibility of a job, I had nothing.”
In the gay community, DeGeneres said she was looked at as “the new leader” — but that wasn’t what she wanted, either.
“I didn’t want to be a leader,” she admitted. “I didn’t want to be political, and I didn’t want to be an activist, I just wanted to be free from a secret. That’s all I wanted.”
The Ellen DeGeneres Show airs weekdays (check local listings), and Will & Grace airs Thursdays (9 p.m. ET) on NBC.