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.


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