Ed McMahon, best known as the longtime sidekick to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, died overnight at age 86. I was a kid for most of McMahon’s heyday, so my personal memories of him are as much from his American Family Publishers career as from Tonight. But I have to appreciate what McMahon did for TV by so wholly coming to own the role of the sidekick, the foil: the second banana.
What McMahon did was one of those careers unimaginable to anyone who lived before TV existed: his job, mainly, was to be. I once wrote a feature on what a strange profession TV hosting is, but even stranger is the Zen-like role played by the host’s companion. On the one hand, McMahon was the brash voice of Tonight—”Heeeeeeeeere’s Johnny!”—he bantered with Johnny and gamely inhabited his yuk-it-up good-guy persona:
But he also existed mainly to reflect glory on the host and the guests, to be the buffoon and the butt of jokes (see video above) when necessary. (They call the job second banana, after all, with all the pratfalls that that risible fruit implies.) Through it all, he kept a bluff good humor, something that must have taken far more work to seem as effortless as it did. (Even today’s Tonight Show is still trying to figure out how best to use Andy Richter in its new format, even though Richter is extremely funny and has a longtime rapport with Conan O’Brien. This stuff ain’t easy.)
Even after his Tonight career, and when he fell on well-publicized financial hard times recently, McMahon kept a sense of humor about himself, spoofing his troubles this year in a Super Bowl ad for Cash4Gold.com. You gotta laugh—that was the message McMahon sent in public through the end. And though he made a career of his laugh—that big, booming, avuncular laugh—it is to Ed McMahon’s credit that he never made it seem like work.