The Night Johnny Carson Sorta Outed Lily Tomlin

‘Don’t you ever want to have children?’
The Night Johnny Carson Sorta Outed Lily Tomlin

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There’s never been a great time to come out as a queer comic, but in the 1970s, the number of publicly gay comedians was approximately zero. Homosexuality was winked at but never confirmed. Witness the master, Paul Lynde, at work.

When Lily Tomlin guested on The Tonight Show, there was never a question that Johnny Carson might address the comic’s sexuality on national television. But there was plenty of coded language that Carson could use to skirt around the topic, and that’s just what he did. “I remember Johnny asking, ‘You’re not married, are you?’” Tomlin shared with fellow comic Paul Provenza. “I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ Then he said, ‘Don’t you ever want to have children?’ And I said, ‘You mean biologically bear children? No, I don’t have any desire to do that.’” 

According to Tomlin, that remark stopped Carson’s 1973 audience dead in its tracks. “They went totally silent,” she remembered. “Even just that short time ago, for a female to say in public that she didn’t want to be a mother was really divisive. It’s hard to believe, but it was a very strong thing to say publicly. It was, ‘Well, what’s wrong with you that you don’t want to be a mother?’ It was un-American, you know?” 

Like any comedian staring down an uptight audience, Tomlin cut the tension with a joke, asking Carson, “Well, who has custody of yours?”

Provenza thought that line was “pretty ballsy,” considering the fact that Carson was touchy about revealing his personal life. But the joke didn’t seem ballsy to Tomlin. “It was just kinda the truth,” she said. “I mean, who did have custody of his kids? I’m sure he didn’t have to expend too much effort raising them. That’s often how it is. I’m sure I wasn’t aware or intending to make any kind of powerful statement, it was just the truth. And it was a way to make him laugh.”

One could argue that Carson deserved worse. At least some portion of his audience likely suspected Tomlin was gay — asking questions about her reluctance to get married or have children was 1970s-speak for “we might not be dealing with a heterosexual situation here.” It was the female equivalent of saying, “So you’re a confirmed bachelor.”

But in a later interview, Tomlin clarified that she didn’t believe Carson was overtly trying to out her. “He was just being a host and saying conventional stuff. You know: ‘You’re not married. Don’t you want to have children?’ (These were things) they would ask a female in the early ‘70s.”

If Tomlin had been outed in the 1970s, she wasn’t too worried about getting disowned by family members. “Maybe the older relatives would have been more shocked or dismayed about my being gay, but you know what? Fame supersedes everything,” she concluded. “They probably excused me because I was famous, and I could get them tickets to Jay Leno.”


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