Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

Ed McMahon

For younger viewers, memories of Ed McMahon may be as much from his American Family Publishers sweepstakes' ads as from his nearly 30-year tenure as the longtime sidekick to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. But one has to appreciate what McMahon did for TV by so wholly coming to own the role of the host's foil.

McMahon's career would be unimaginable to anyone who lived before TV existed: his Zen-like job was mainly to be Carson's companion. On one hand, McMahon was the brash voice of Tonight ("Heeeeeeeeere's Johnny!") who bantered with Carson and gamely inhabited his yuk-it-up, good-guy persona.

But McMahon also existed to reflect glory on the host and the guests, to be the buffoon and the butt of jokes when necessary. (They call the job second banana, after all, with all the pratfalls that the risible fruit implies.) Through it all, he kept a bluff good humor, something that must have taken considerable effort to seem as effortless as it did.

Even after his Tonight career, and when he fell on well-publicized financial hard times recently, McMahon was willing to poke fun at himself, spoofing his troubles earlier this year in a Super Bowl ad for You gotta laugh: that was the message McMahon sent to the public through the end. And though he made a career of his laugh — that big, booming, avuncular laugh — it is to Ed McMahon's credit that he never made it seem like work.

—James Poniewozik