Ed McMahon remembers CarsonIn the world of showbiz sidekicks, Ed McMahon is royalty the most famous second banana, ever. Instantly identifiable, the man with the booming laugh and avuncular voice worked with Johnny Carson for more than four decades. The announcer for Carson's daytime game show, Who Do You Trust? McMahon went on to spend 34 years opposite the late-night TV king on The Tonight Show. McMahon's warmly affectionate Here's Johnny! is his homage to their friendship. That was the best time of my life, the best years of my life, being with him, says McMahon. Not that the famed pitchman is packing it in. To the contrary, McMahon, at 82, seems tireless. Speaking by phone from his Beverly Hills office, on the eve of a New York publicity tour, he relates that he and wife, Pam, are busy raising their niece (whose mother died as a result of a car accident). We had the sweet 16 party with a hundred kids in the backyard. With a laugh, he adds, When you say your prayers tonight, say one for me, because I'm raising a teenager! (The father of six also has six grandkids.) McMahon, who penned a 1998 memoir, hopes this latest book will dispel some notions that have surfaced since Carson's death early this year especially the oft-heard claim that Carson was ice-water cold and aloof. He was not cold, he was private. He was wonderful on camera, but once the cameras stopped, he returned to being a private man. Johnny used to say, Ed, I'm great with 10 million, I'm lousy with 10. Noting that Carson didn't intrude, didn't force himself, McMahon explains, that was a result of his Nebraska-Midwestern ethic. Along with sharing golden moments from The Tonight Show, McMahon gives peeks at those guests who caught some guff. Like the time a performing Ray Charles snapped at the house drummer, Pick up the pace! Johnny made him apologize, recalls McMahon. Then there was the off-putting appearance of comedian Charles Grodin. It went a little too far because it left the audience out. Johnny was always very concerned about the audience, McMahon says. He didn't want anything to be beyond their comprehension. A man who feels comfortable in a crowd, McMahon is a former carnival barker and boardwalk pitchman (he hawked the Morris Metric Slicer) who once went door-to-door selling pots and pans. At 17, he was working in radio and on early TV, as well as calling bingo games. World War II led to a stint in the skies as a Marine Corps aviator. Returning home to TV, McMahon was involved in 13 Philadelphia shows in a single year. That included hosting a late-night movie and playing a clown on a Saturday morning kiddie program. Then came a repeat of military life: he was recalled to service for the Korean War.
It was through a producer for popular Philly TV host Dick Clark that McMahon's name surfaced as a possible announcer for Carson's game show. McMahon took the train to New York, met with Carson, then headed back home. He wasn't hopeful about the prospects; the meeting had lasted all of six minutes. When the show's producer called, saying Carson wanted McMahon to wear suits, McMahon wondered what he was talking about. Oh . . . didn't they tell you? You got the job. You start next Monday. And so began one of TV's most durable partnerships.
Over the years, they shared drinks at Sardi's, survived marriages and divorces (McMahon lucked out at number three) and endured painful losses. In 1995, when McMahon's son died of stomach cancer, Carson called to express condolences, adding, There's not a day when you won't think about him. He was speaking from the heart: Carson's photographer-son, Rick, had died in a 1991 car crash. (Carson famously wrapped one of his shows by airing his son's photos.)As for what set Johnny apart from the rest of the chat pack, McMahon says, simply, Class. He had class. Not a big fan of some of today's talk show hosts, and their sharp and piercing comedy, McMahon notes, Johnny very seldom penetrated. It was always like a powder-puff. He still got the laughs, but he didn't hurt. Audiences also related to Carson's wide-eyed charm, as well as the easy-going camaraderie with McMahon, who says of their astounding adventure, I always liken it to two kids, kicking a can down the street. We had a good time together, and it showed. Biographer Pat H. Broeske spends her late nights watching Jimmy Kimmel.