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Daniel Ruth

In world of second bananas, he was tops

For every pioneer, for every Roald Amundsen, every Christopher Columbus, every Edmund Hillary, there was always the guy who slogged along behind, kept the powder dry and the boss on course.

Gladys Knight had her Pips, the Lone Ranger his Tonto, Don Quixote his Sancho Panza, Sherlock Holmes his Dr. Watson, proudly, humbly knowing their place in the pecking order of fame.

Such is the life and the fate of the second banana.

And none more ably served the role of basking in the afterglow of the star's power than Ed McMahon, who had Johnny Carson's back over the course of one of show business' more enduring marriages for nearly four decades.

Here's to the sparring partner. Here's to the bridesmaid. Here's to the supernumerary. Here's to Ed McMahon, who died earlier this week at 86 succumbing to a multitude of illnesses which had plagued him in his later years.

It's easy enough to dismiss McMahon's contributions to Carson's career. He was just the big lug sitting on the couch, the guy who bellowed "Heeeeeeer's Johnny!" every night to signal the great man's entrance. The guy who guffawed at every joke, no matter how lame.

How tough is that?

The role of the sidekick, the buddy, the foil is one of entertainment's least understood or appreciated. We take them for granted. And maybe we should, for that is the job after all, to be seen and heard — but not too much.

But what the ultimate sidekick did for Carson was allow a brilliant comedian and communicator, who was nonetheless a painfully shy and reclusive man, to enter into a comfort zone every night for 30 years and become one of the culture's more beloved figures.

The Tonight Show on good nights and, well, not so good nights, was America's brightest night-light, a welcomed respite from the rigors of the day reigned over by the iconic Midwestern boy made good.

Before the dial became so overwhelmed with 300 channels of mostly banal, forgettable fodder — infomercials, cooking contests, drive-by chattering bloviators and 24 hours a day of Law & Order — there was the reassuring, reliable presence of Johnny Carson.

Carson was the urbane, slightly naughty perfect dinner guest. McMahon was the guy you would send for a beer run.

Despite the obvious financial benefits which accrued to McMahon, there aren't too many people willing to subjugate their egos for decades on end in the service of making someone else look better, funnier, smarter.

But McMahon did, perhaps because of the obvious bond between these two men. And also perhaps because he realized The Tonight Show was more than the crown jewel of NBC's programming line-up. It was also a national treasure, a unique institution cultivated by such broadcasting giants as Steve Allen and Jack Paar.

Who wouldn't want to be a part of that legacy?

I grew up watching Johnny Carson. It offered a tiny glimpse into the magic of Hollywood for a kid growing up in Akron, who often imagined Carson and McMahon heading off after the show to some swanky Beverly Hills saloon with starlets on their arms.

Who wouldn't want to sit on that couch? Who wouldn't want to hobnob with Sammy and Angie Dickinson? Who wouldn't want to gaze into Charo's …uh, castanets?

Who wouldn't want Ed McMahon's job?

And if it took being the butt of the joke, or the guy who took the pie in the face, it was a small price to pay for that seat on the couch, one of the best pieces of real estate in California.

Ed Mahon played his part to perfection. He allowed Johnny Carson to be Johnny Carson. And The Tonight Show was better for it. So were the rest of us.

The role of the sidekick, the pal, the groomsman has fallen out of favor somewhat in recent years. Most of late night's stars prefer the spotlight not drift too far away from them. But Johnny Carson understood he was only as good, as funny, as long as he had his friend by his side.

We've lost two towering television figures this week — Farrah Fawcett, the archetypical sex symbol of the medium, and Ed McMahon. One was the pinup girl who graced countless college dormitory walls. The other was the chap who had to move over a few spots on the couch so she could flirt with Johnny.

Ed McMahon knew his place.

In world of second bananas, he was tops 06/25/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 25, 2009 9:27pm]

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