Ed McMahon: The Ultimate Sidekick

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    NEWSLETTERS

    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Ed McMahon didn't mind feeding Johnny Carson straight lines – or being the butt of the joke.

    With the recent changing of the guard at "The Tonight Show" and the ensuing tectonic shift in the late-night TV landscape, there's been much written about how there will never be another Johnny Carson.

    But with the death Tuesday of Ed McMahon at 86, TV fans were reminded that Carson didn't become a legend on his own.

    Not that McMahon would have minded the lack of attention – that was part of his job description as the ultimate talk show sidekick.

    "A good sidekick gets in and gets out without causing any damage," he once said.

    McMahon played to the hilt the part of the pal who not only laughed at your jokes, but fed you the straight lines and didn't mind being the punchline. Once in a while, he'd offer a dry quip that would bring down the house – and even crack up Johnny.

    If the Carson-era "Tonight Show" was America's living room, then McMahon was the friend who settled onto the couch for a few laughs and drinks, and inevitably was the last to go home. But he never overstayed his welcome – you knew good old Ed always had your back.

    Even when he was ostensibly the star of the show, most notably as host of "Star Search," McMahon was happy to leave the spotlight to others.

    It's a sign of the times that "American Idol" and the like are all-too-often about the judges, and not the talent. McMahon knew better from “The Tonight Show,” where his duty was to help Carson and the guests shine.

    While Carson was clearly the superstar, McMahon quietly became an icon himself, most famously earning a parody on Saturday Night Live with Phil Hartman portraying him quite literally as a yes man.

    "You are correct, sir!" Hartman's McMahon would reflexively say in a catch phrase that would become synonymous with McMahon himself.

    But McMahon was very much his own man, secure enough to put his indelible mark on the second-banana role in the same way all other late-night hosts are measured against Carson.

    McMahon’s booming announcement of "Heeeeeere's Johnny," heralded we were going to end another long, tough day with some laughs.

    Though he never received the introduction he gave to others in life, the void fans of a certain age feel at the passing of a man whose job was to stay in the background is perhaps the strongest testament to Ed McMahon's enduring presence.
     

    Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.