Ed McMahon, everybody's friend, gets a big sendoff not because he dripped with talent or paved new entertainment paths. He gets the good goodbye because he was everybody's friend.
You knew Ed McMahon. He was your fun uncle, who always had a story at Thanksgiving; your golfing buddy, the guy at work who'd listen to your grousing and find a bright side to divert you.
He'd lend you 20 bucks till payday, or maybe more, for longer. Or he'd get you to lend some money to him. It was great to get $10 million from American Family Publishers, "the only sweepstakes with my picture on the envelope," he told us for years, but having your old friend Ed drop by with the check was sweet icing on the cake.
Some disagree about the lack of talent.
"He had a great gift," Don Rickles told Entertainment Weekly. "He was a magnificent straight man. People like him don't exist anymore."
But it was McMahon's self-effacing, easygoing volubility, a trait he nurtured growing up in a family that rarely put down roots long enough for anybody to make real friends, that made him one of TV's universal buddies. Norm on Cheers, Doug Heffernan on King of Queens, and other lesser sitcom pals were imaginary characters. McMahon was the real deal.
He could sell anything, and he proved it continuously for 71 of his 86 years, from backwoods carnivals in Maine through the Atlantic City Boardwalk, and a TV career that spanned six decades, three of them as the medium's all-time greatest sidekick on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
"At every gathering, he could walk in and own the show," Skitch Henderson, Tonight's first bandleader, said in the same Entertainment Weekly profile. "It was fascinating to me because Carson was such an inverse soul, and Ed was 100 percent the opposite. Ed treated everybody with love."
With a superb announcer's voice, he was gracious to all the contestants on Star Search (take a memo, Ryan Seacrest), and he made it clear that the tricks on TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes were all in fun.
McMahon was as famous as anybody on TV when he took those gigs in the '80s, jobs that only a regular guy in his position who was devoid of pretention would even consider.
A strange showbiz phenomenon, McMahon would sublimate himself for the client, whether it was Johnny Carson, the King of Television, or an organization as pedestrian as Philadelphia's Colonial Penn Life Insurance, which specializes in direct policy sales to people over 50. "You cannot be turned down," Ed said, as seniors reached for their phones year after year.
He showed it in his final year, with self-mockery for his famous debt problems, doing a rap for FreeCreditReport.com ("I thought nothing could touch me/Until my credit went south, and debt started to crunch me."), and a Super Bowl ad for Cash4Gold.com.
He shared the 30 seconds with the faded M.C. Hammer, who's identified as a "famous rap star." McMahon's moniker: "TV Personality."
McMahon, whose "H-e-e-e-e-e-re's Johhny" was named TV's No. 1 all-time catch phrase by TV Land, was the perfect foil for Carson, big and outgoing where Johnny was skinny and shy. McMahon laughed a bit too loudly at his master's jokes, sparking the proceedings with "Hi-yo!" and graciously serving as Carson's all-around bolster.
He could schmooze easily with guests ranging from Frank Sinatra to Myrtle Young - an elderly lady whose astonishing snack collection included potato chips shaped like Yogi Bear and a sleeping chickadee.
He said he enjoyed the classic Saturday Night Live lampoons, as the The Tonight Show was nearing its end in 1992, but could never remember himself saying, "You are correct, sir!" even once, though Phil Hartman's Ed said it to Dana Carvey's Johnny four or five times in almost every skit.
Carson's anniversary shows always prominently included Ed McMahon, in a tux as announcer, but also in performances from the past.
Two stand out.
In the early years, after Carson and McMahon took over in 1962, there were still live commercials. One sponsor, Alpo dog food (named for its Pennsylvania founder, Allentown Products), followed McMahon from his days as a Philadelphia broadcaster. A dog, slightly starved, would trot out and gulp down his dinner every night while McMahon listed the product's benefits.
One day, the regular dog couldn't make it, and the fill-in had stage fright and didn't eat a thing. Carson, on all fours, bounces onto the live set, scratching and barking. McMahon continues his spiel.
"The audience started laughing, but I persisted," he writes in For Laughing Out Loud: My Life and Good Times, one of his three memoirs. "I took my commercials seriously."
The other features an inebriated sidekick.
Carson would always say his jokes about McMahon's drinking (he backed Budweiser for decades) were just for fun, but they were based in fact. Only once, however, after an advertisers' luncheon, did McMahon arrive on the set after tee many martoonis.
Carson gently rides his announcer, who overplays his supposed sobriety by rambling on with scads of supposedly relevant facts.
"You really think you're fooling everybody, don't you?" Carson ribs.
Everybody's friend replies: "I'm just here to do my best to help you."
"I know," says Johnny.