As the TV world mourns death of Ed McMahon, my list of the best talk show sidekicks
It has been so long since Ed McMahon graced our TV screens, some may not realize what we lost Tuesday night, when the 86-year-old entertainer died in a Los Angeles hospital after a long struggle with many illnesses.
Most recently he was the punchline to a sad joke, fighting bone cancer, pneumonia, a neck injury, a near-foreclosure on his multimillion-dollar mansion and problems related to mold in his sprawling home.
But fans of a certain age will remember McMahon as the man who perfected a role rarely done well in TV: The ultimate talk show sidekick.
For 30 years, McMahon honed that image next to the King of Late Night, Johnny Carson.
Even now, 17 years after he and Carson left the Tonight Show, no one has found an on-air introduction to match McMahon’s classic “Heeere’s Johnny!” He was the ultimate salesman — the son of a sideshow barker who helped sell America on the Tonight Show and helped Carson be a better Carson.
There was, however, a bitter twist locally to McMahon's popularity. In the late '90s, scores of elderly adults to traveled to a Tampa return address on American Family Publishers' sweepstakes mailings -- convinced by advertisements featuring McMahon and fellow pitchman Dick Clark they had won millions.
The outpouring sparked a series of reports in the St. Petersburg Times, Broken Dreams, and led to lawsuits against American Family, which included Clark and McMahon, filed by Florida and states across the nation.
Still, looking at late-night TV today, you can't help but mourn the passing of a guy who did it like no other.
Here's my list of Great Talk TV Sidekicks Who Aren't Ed McMahon:
Paul Shaffer -- The best of those who are left, David Letterman's bandleader deftly answers the biggest question raised by a sidekick on a talk show -- why are you here? -- while ably interjecting just the right quip or musical flourish when needed. He's actually a combo of talk TV's best icons, McMahon and Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen.
Regis Philbin -- Nobody reading this remembers, but Philbin served as sidekick to comic Joey Bishop when he hosted a talk show on ABC in 1967. Though it only lasted 2 1/2 years -- and Philbin once got so upset at Bishop's needling he walked off the show -- the program helped him hone an effortless style that has worked well in later years.
Andy Richter, Version One -- When Richter first popped up as partner to Conan O'Brien during the host's disastrous early days replacing Letterman on NBC's Late Night, he had a front row seat to the biggest car wreck on talk television. But you'd never know it from the way he jumped hip-deep into O'Brien's steeped-in-silliness approach. The Richter on O'Brien's Tonight Show these days is more tentative, saddled with an unflattering hairstyle and unsure whether his job is to stand by the announcer's desk or jump into the co-pilot's seat during the show.
Hank Kingsley -- He may be fictional, but The Larry Sanders Show's needy, obsequious second fiddle -- played to perfection by the often-underrated Jeffrey Tambor (Hey Now!) adroitly skewered all the things we suspected about sidekicks like McMahon, from his love/hate relationship with his boss to his crushing inability to transcend C-list status.
Jerry Hubbard -- Another great fictional sidekick, Fred Willard's side-splitting wingman on the sardonic satire Fernwood 2 Nite was another needy, clueless backup (to Martin Mull's blond star, Barth Gimble) on a show spun off from the soap opera satire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.