Ed McMahon, who died early this morning at 86, made a pile with Star Search, but as that show led to the nightmare that is American Idol and dozens of similar monstrosities, let us remember him for his yeoman service, or should we say Hey-o!man service, as Johnny Carson’s second in command over 30 years of The Tonight Show. There have been second bananas since time immemorial, but McMahon found a nice mix of bonhomie, unctuousness, and repressed anger that perfectly suited his position. (We recall one time, when Johnny was outlining the roles his sidekick fulfilled on the show, McMahon helpfully added, “How above ‘slave’?”) As McMahon was a thorough-going professional, he seldom overstepped his role, and the clip above, offered in all good humor (we think) by Carson one night, is the exception that proves the rule.
Still, the hints of personality that leaked through McMahon’s subservience made him slightly mysterious and intriguing, and certainly inspired the amazing Hank Kingsley character played by Jeffrey Tambor on The Larry Sanders Show, a dark fantasy of the psychological damage that many of us imagined McMahon’s job might entail. If McMahon was damaged, though, he didn’t let it show, now did he allow it to interfere with a number of business ventures (in our teen years, we did cold-calling for a Florida housing development called Rotunda in which McMahon had a stake; when we got potential investors to come into the office, they were presented with his autographed 8×10.) If he had money troubles near the end, that’s how it usually goes with high-rollers. He certainly won more than he lost, and his easy smile showed that he knew every step of the way how lucky he had been.