I’m guessing I had the same huh-what? reaction many of you did when Ed McMahon went on Larry King last week to say that he was facing foreclosure on the mansion that he has been trying to sell for $6 million. (Sure, that sounds like a lot, but back in the day you could buy a whole bionic man for that.) As McMahon, 85, explained it, he borrowed against the house, made some admittedly questionable choices, he went through a couple divorces, had to stop working after breaking his neck, and, well, there you are.
The news spread, and help is apparently on the way; Jay Leno offered assistance to the former Tonight show sidekick, a nice gesture in a business that tends to forget celebrities once they’ve outlived their usefulness.
But just exactly how sorry are we supposed to feel for Ed McMahon?
I mean, sure, I feel sorry for McMahon, in the general sense. I have fond memories of him like anyone else. I have no reason to wish him ill. (Look at all the years that American Family Publishing helped prop up the magazine industry, after all.) I feel no schadenfreude about a rich guy running into trouble—he earned the money, and the right to spend and/or blow it—I give him credit for owning up to his own poor choices, and I don’t know him well enough to know what he has coming to him, one way or another.
But in the grand scheme of sympathy, is it so heartless to say that there are maybe a few foreclosure victims I’d feel sorry for before him? A few hundred thousand, maybe? Say, all the ones who had a bit less of a safety net, who didn’t have long, well-paid careers, who never received a $7 million-plus settlement in a lawsuit over the mold-related death of their dogs? I’m just saying.
It’s another example, I guess, of how there are so many demands on our attention that we can’t focus our attention even on dire problems—be they disease, international injustice or economic crisis—until they involve a celebrity. (And more than that, a certain kind of celebrity. As many of the news stories have noted, McMahon is neighbors with Britney Spears. If the bank were pounding on Britney Spears’ door, would anyone besides Chris Crocker sympathize?)
And more to the point, it’s an example of how the media need the same excuse to focus their attention. Thus you have the New York Times writing, “Leave it to Ed McMahon, the jovial sidekick to the late Johnny Carson and host of ‘Star Search,’ to humanize the story.”
See, I sort of thought that the millions of humans who face losing their homes or going underwater on their mortgages already “humanized” the story. But maybe I’m just heartless.