Ed McMahon: A salute to the king of sidekicks
The late TV personality did other things, yes, but his greatest accomplishment may have been his partnership with Johnny Carson. 'My role was to make him look good while not looking too good myself.'
By Robert Lloyd, Times Television Critic
June 23, 2009
Although he did other things in his 86 years, Ed McMahon, who died Tuesday in Los Angeles, will be remembered mostly as the man who sat next to Johnny Carson, except when more important celebrities came between them.
Notwithstanding the dozen years of hosting "Star Search," a role in the 1997 Tom Arnold sitcom "The Tom Show," a high-profile Cash4Gold ad during the last Super Bowl and all that knocking on people's doors in the name of American Family Publishers, McMahon was a professional sidekick, a less-than-equal partner in an enterprise of which he was nevertheless a vital part: Thinking of Johnny, one proceeds quickly and naturally to Ed, who by dint of association was almost as famous as his boss -- I say "almost" to include that fraction of the world that may have seen or heard of Carson but never watched his show.
It's easy to underestimate his accomplishment -- or even to wonder whether it should be called an accomplishment at all. We live in a nation of aspiring quarterbacks, pitchers, lead singers and presidents, where we are told to dream big and have it all. (The vice presidency of the United States is regarded as a rarefied form of failure.) But in a world where everyone is innately a star, what does it mean to settle for life as a mere moon?
And yet, just as the moon plays upon the Earth, animating its tides and its werewolves, the sidekick is not without power of his (or her) own. His very presence is the proof that his presence is required. He may come as a straight man, a stooge, a teacher, an apprentice, a servant or pal, but he completes the star-hero in some way to their mutual advantage -- as a counterweight, an anchor, a witness, a frame for the picture, a setting for the stone. Like Jiminy Cricket, a conscience. Who is Prince Hal without Falstaff, Don Quixote sans Sancho Panza? Little John and Robin Hood, Horatio and Hamlet, Friday and Crusoe, Watson and Holmes, Tinkerbell and Peter Pan, Ethel and Lucy, Barney and Fred, Barney and Andy, Ed and Ralph, Rhoda and Mary, Willow and Buffy, and all those traveling companions to Doctor Who -- unequal, perhaps, yet inextricable.
We may reflexively regard him as slower, dumber, less handsome than the hero he shadows, but in practice the sidekick may be the smarter, funnier, faster, better-looking or more practical one. Less bound by convention or expectation, flexible rather than stiff-necked, he is free in ways forbidden the hero. His life is simpler, his soul less troubled. Ed Norton may be a dimwit, but he isn't tormented, like Ralph Kramden, by desperation and desire. Spock is cooler than Kirk. It seems like the better job.
Not every talk show host has employed a sidekick in the McMahon mold. Merv Griffin had Arthur Treacher, a very tall British character actor who earlier specialized in butlers, appropriately, and, after McMahon, the best of the breed. Regis Philbin played second banana to Rat Packer Joey Bishop on his short-lived 1960s late-night show. But Dick Cavett was a solo act; Mike Douglas relied on changing celebrity co-hosts; and Jay Leno had no one on his couch. Still, it seems a sign of respect to McMahon (and to the institution he served) that when Conan O'Brien took the reins of "The Tonight Show," he had a partner in place, original "Late Night" sidekick Andy Richter.
Ed and Johnny were "as close as two non-married people can be," as McMahon wrote in his book, "Here's Johnny: Memories of Johnny Carson, 'The Tonight Show' and 46 Years of Friendship." McMahon, who was only two years older than Carson, began working as his announcer in in 1957, on the game show "Who Do You Trust?" and accompanied him to "The Tonight Show" in 1962, where they kept on for 30 years.
An uncharitable or undiscerning critic might say McMahon had an easy job: Laugh at the boss' jokes, read a few cue cards, sell a little dog food, cheerfully absorb whatever cracks are made at his expense, slide further down the couch as the evening's guests arrive. (Phil Hartman's "Saturday Night Live" impression of him -- the over-hearty laugh, the booming "You are correct, sir" -- has replaced the actual McMahon in the minds of a couple of generations of viewers.) But the way McMahon told it, that was the point: "My role was to make him look good while not looking too good myself," he wrote, and "to get Johnny to the punch line while seeming to do nothing at all." Carson, for his part, left the air saying, "This show would have been impossible to do without Ed."
There is a kind of genius in knowing how to live with a genius. Did anyone want to grow up to be Ed McMahon? Maybe not. (Though I would rather be Illya Kuryakin than Napoleon Solo.) But they also serve who only sit and laugh -- and cry "Hey-yo!" once in a while. Of all the things Ed provided Johnny, continuity was perhaps the most meaningful: Guests came and went; wives came and went; the world turned. But where there was Johnny, there was always Ed, the witness, the audience, one of us.