Ed McMahon, who died today at the age of 86, had the least enviable job in comedy, that
of a television host's sidekick. Playing Dr. Watson to Johnny Carson's
Sherlock Holmes, McMahon was both a reliable patsy and convincing
straight man — the clown who brought a bumbling bonhomie to the Tonight Show
set. Talk-show hosts are the most visible yet isolated of celebrity
entertainers because they are prisoners of a national idiom and remain
completely unknown outside their own countries. But even standing
before native audiences they need sidekicks to warm up the house and
McMahon was the best man for the job. As the waspish Carson entered the
Acropolis of American pop culture, so did the burly, gregarious
McMahon, whose image has been spoofed from R. Crumb comics to The Simpsons — and, of course, his trademarked intro, “He-e-erre's Johnny!” was referenced in a famous scene in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.
any old-school standup comic, Carson would deflect audience groans by
poking fun at the supposed foibles of his staff, whether the alleged
pot smoking of band members or the boozing of his sidekick — even in a
suit and tie McMahon resembled a Flatbush bartender who'd been sampling
his boss' inventory too much.
From 1962 to 1992, McMahon
served Carson as a punching bag so well because he absorbed each jab with
a smile and a shrug. Other talk-shows from the period didn't come close to this kind of pairing. Jack Paar's announcer, Hugh Downs, was
too gentlemanly to make fun of, and it wasn't often easy to spot the
difference between the dour Joey Bishop and his straight man, Regis
Philbin; and the Jeeves-like presence of Merv Griffin's sidekick,
Arthur Treacher, brought an unwanted Remains of the Day melancholy to their set.
We may have bought Carson's jokes, but we wanted to believe McMahon,
whether he was offering up introductory banter or flacking for one of
the show's sponsors. We even forgave McMahon his dubious role in
promoting the execrable American Family Publishers “sweepstakes.”
many American icons, McMahon's last days were wrapped in ignominy —
the slip and fall neck accident, the subsequent lawsuits and his
multimillion-dollar mortgage default all brought him the wrong kind of
spotlight. In the end, however, we still wanted to believe in him,
which, perhaps, is the highest form of approval a sidekick can ask for.