The show’s era as an icon ended with the death of Johnny Carson, but as long as his “hi-yo” sidekick, Ed McMahon, was still with us, some part of the era was as well. Tuesday, at age 86, McMahon died, taking what was left of the old Tonight Show with him.
McMahon put himself through college pitching products on the Atlantic City boardwalk, which may have been a more useful education than college itself. In a way, that’s what McMahon did with startling success for 30 years: He pitched Carson to the public. His laugh made Carson’s jokes seem funnier; his straight-man cluelessness in the Carnac routines made Carson seem smarter; and his booming, much-imitated “Here’s Johnny” made Carson seem like the most important person on American TV.
On his own, McMahon was not a great talent. As a sidekick, he made the star not just brighter but better. His gregariousness was a perfect complement to the notoriously private Carson’s button-down approach, providing a reflected warmth the host might have otherwise lacked.
And indeed, much of what we learned about Carson as a person on air came from his exchanges with McMahon. Fans knew about the pair’s divorces, not because they gave interviews to the tabloids but because they discussed them with each other – rarely, but with revealing frankness.
McMahon first worked with Carson as his announcer on the game show Who Do You Trust in the late ’50s. The pair obviously clicked, because they moved together to The Tonight Showwhen Carson took it over in 1962.
McMahon set the sidekick mold most all would follow, and indeed for years made a sidekick seem essential. He mostly served to flatter the star, laughing with sometimes exaggerated gusto even when the joke didn’t particularly merit a laugh. (McMahon did honestly what Paul Shaffer now does ironically.) But at crucial times, he could also serve as a foil, puncturing pomposity before it could grow.
His star status on Tonight enabled McMahon to have a career outside its confines, hosting Star Search and TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes, and pitching various products, from magazine sweepstakes to mobility chairs.
In his later years, McMahon’s appearances on TV were less fortunate – and often tied to a how-the-mighty-have-fallen fascination with his financial woes. But today, we can remember him young and laughing, welcoming us to the greatest night-time party TV has ever thrown.