When Johnny Carson ruled as king of late-night TV, Ed McMahon was the prince of second bananas.
McMahon’s great talent as Carson’s “Tonight Show” sidekick was reacting to his every joke, every double-take and every skit as if he’d never heard or seen anything funnier.
His implausibly hearty laugh buoyed Carson even when his comedy fell flat, which could happen to the best of talk show hosts, and encouraged the audience to believe they were always at the right party.
Viewers wanted to do what Ed was doing: sit next to Johnny and be his good buddy, at least for an hour or so.
Each night brought the familiar, booming introduction, rooted in McMahon’s days as an eager young hawker at carnivals and state fairs.
“And now h-e-e-e-e-e-ere’s Johnny!” McMahon shouted out in his rich announcer’s voice, followed by a slight but unmistakable bow toward Carson.
Sure, he was kowtowing — but to a really cool boss.
Voice is silenced
McMahon died shortly after midnight Tuesday at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center surrounded by his wife, Pam, and other family members, said his publicist, Howard Bragman. He was 86.
Bragman didn’t give a cause of death, saying only that McMahon had a “multitude of health problems the last few months.”
McMahon broke his neck in a fall in March 2007, and battled a series of financial problems as his injuries prevented him from working.
Doc Severinsen, “Tonight” bandleader during the Carson era, remembered McMahon as a man “full of life and joy and celebration.”
“He will be sorely missed. He was one of the greats in show business, but most of all he was a gentleman. I miss my friend,” Severinsen said in a statement.
David Letterman paid tribute to McMahon as a “true broadcaster” and key part of Carson’s show.
“Ed McMahon’s voice at 11:30 was a signal that something great was about to happen. Ed’s introduction of Johnny was a classic broadcasting ritual — reassuring and exciting,” Letterman said, adding, “We will miss him.”
McMahon became emblematic of his breed and a comedy favorite. The boisterous Hank “Hey Now!” Kingsley on the HBO comedy “The Larry Sanders Show” was clearly patterned on McMahon, while Phil Hartman channeled him opposite Dana Carvey’s Johnny Carson on “Saturday Night Live.”
A great team
Carson knew he had picked the right sideman. He kept McMahon on board for all of his three decades on “Tonight” and the two worked together for nearly five years before that, on the game show “Who Do You Trust?”
The contrast between the men worked for comedy. Carson was drolly sophisticated, while McMahon had a good-humored everyman air. McMahon’s solid 6-foot-4 frame gave him size advantage over the slender, shorter Carson, making McMahon’s guffaws seem more a gift than a duty.
That regular-guy persona helped as McMahon vigorously marketed himself and secured his place in pop culture beyond “Tonight.”
He bounced from one TV genre to the next, appearing on game shows, variety shows, sitcoms and more. There he was, on “The Hollywood Squares,” on “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour,” on “Hee Haw,” on “Full House.”
There were even a handful of movie roles — supporting ones, of course.
McMahon probably came closest to center stage as host of “Star Search,” which debuted in the early ’80s — well before the current age of the acidic talent show judge — and his trademark bonhomie held the spotlight.
The commercials he and Dick Clark made for the American Family Publishers’ sweepstakes, with their smiling faces on contest entry forms, added to McMahon’s ubiquity. He also was a longtime co-host of Jerry Lewis’ annual muscular dystrophy telethon.
His final years brought unhappier attention.
McMahon took a fall in 2007 and suffered a broken neck. His health prevented him from working when he was beset by financial woes and his Beverly Hills house was on the brink of foreclosure.
The situation was dire, but McMahon tried to turn it around. He spoofed himself with a 2008 Super Bowl ad for a cash-for-gold business (“H-e-e-e-e-e-ere’s money!”) and online rap videos for a credit report Web site.
McMahon, the ever-stalwart second banana, kept the laughter going.