Mario Cantone, known for his roles on Sex and the City and its spinoff And Just Like That, has just revealed a mortifying experience he suffered as an up-and-coming stand-up comic.
It happened over 30 years ago, when he was scheduled to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and he found his appearance nixed at the last minute… because he was gay.
While speaking to the podcast Allison Interviews, the 62-year-old said he booked an appearance on The Tonight Show in 1986. After initially being welcomed by talent coordinators, he found his fortunes reversed in an instant.
“When [the talent scout] saw me, he said, ‘Oh my God, you’re amazing! We are going to shape six minutes for you.’ Then he looked at the video again, because he filmed it that night, and he said, ‘You know what? Your comedy has a gay edge to it and I think it’s going to make Johnny nervous, so I’m going to cancel you,’” Cantone recalled.
Honestly, we’re not surprised. Given the cultural climate in 1986–the AIDS crisis had reached a fever pitch–anything even remotely related to queerness was often deemed “too hot” for TV. Putting Cantone on the air could have jeopardized the talent coordinator’s job, or the future of the show itself.
On top of that, Johnny Carson had a well-known vindictive streak.
The TV icon had a highly-publicized rivalry with Las Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton, following Newton’s outbidding Carson to buy the Aladdin Casino in 1980. Carson coped by frequently making fun of Newton on his show–so much so that Newton once barged into Carson’s NBC offices and threatened to beat him up. Newton later called Carson a “mean-spirited human being.”
Carson also had a long-running feud with former friend Joan Rivers beginning in 1986. Prior to that, he and Rivers had enjoyed a close relationship, with Rivers serving as permanent guest host on The Tonight Show. But when Rivers phoned Carson to say she’d accepted a deal for her own late-night show on the Fox Network, Carson hung up on her. The two never spoke again, and Rivers claimed that Carson had her blacklisted from NBC as a result.
Watch Cartone talk about the experience below.