To understand the role that Ed McMahon played in American culture, it would probably be beneficial to reflect upon Hank Kingsley, the character on “The Larry Sanders Show” who was in many ways the neurotic fictional progeny of McMahon.
Kingsley, played with mirthful brio by the great Jeffrey Tambor on the old HBO comedy series, was everything McMahon was not. Kingsley was deeply insecure, painfully ambitious and, although loyal to Garry Shandling’s Larry, always poised to leap unabashedly into the host’s chair if offered. The comedic version of second banana on that show was big and bombastic, albeit with an underlying current of vulnerability.
In fact, Hank Kingsley established the prototype of what constituted a late-show sidekick in the years after Johnny Carson retired from hosting the “Tonight Show” in 1992. Legions of viewers came to believe, after watching Kingsley, that playing second chair on a talk show required a certain level of angst and comedic petulance in order to deal with the ignominy of living in the host’s shadow.
But that was not Ed McMahon. Not even close.
Few will ever really know if McMahon — who died June 23 in Los Angeles — bristled at times over his secondary role, because he was a company man, and Johnny Carson — not any network — was the company. Although he carved out his own offshoot career as a pitchman and television host on a passel of short-lived shows and specials, he was indelible in the fabric of American life as the earnest and upbeat guffaw machine who introduced Carson and played along willingly and enthusiastically with every gag.
Today there is no real equivalent. Neither of the two titans, Jay Leno on the “Tonight Show” and David Letterman on “Late Night With David Letterman,” employs a full-time second fiddler. Conan O’Brien started his show with Andy Richter as sidekick from 1993 through 2000, but Richter moved on to other opportunities; he has since returned to that role opposite O’Brien on the “Tonight Show.”
Johnny's friend is America's friendMcMahon stopped performing with Carson when the legend’s 30-year tenure on the “Tonight Show” came to a close on May 22, 1992. Therefore a significant chunk of one generation not only missed McMahon’s presence on late night television, it also came to associate that role with the buffoonery of Kingsley, who came onto the scene when “Larry Sanders” debuted on HBO three months after Carson’s retirement. (Even McMahon’s signature introduction, “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” may have been usurped forever by Jack Nicholson’s maniacal version in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining.”)
The timing is significant, because late-night comedy slowly began to change around that time. Although Johnny and Ed certainly presided over their share of ribald moments over the years, their brand of entertainment generally was tamer and less caustic than what transpires today. Some of that was due to stricter oversight by censors, but it also reflected a more innocent time, when innuendo and double entendres were preferable to the hard smack of a coarse punch line.
McMahon’s role as Carson’s good friend translated into an acceptance by Americans as their good friend. Every viewer either had such an unwavering cohort in life and could therefore relate, or longed for one. Ed was always there. He was more of a fixture on “Tonight” than even his frequently vacationing host.
Yet McMahon managed to play a seemingly subservient role and still carry himself with dignity and respect. Much of that comes from the long relationship he and Carson had, starting with game show work in the late 1950s. Although McMahon’s job was said by many pundits to consist of laughing heartily at everything Carson said, the truth was that few could have handled the give-and-take, the repartee, the sly understanding and response, better than McMahon.
Carson was a comedy colossus, and McMahon proved nightly to be up to the task of tangling with it.
In recent years, McMahon made small and intermittent headlines involving health and legal issues. He sued a contractor over mold in his Beverly Hills home. He fell into arrears with creditors. He suffered a broken neck in 2008, which triggered more litigation. Most recently, he was admitted to a Los Angeles hospital with pneumonia.
Although he has had other jobs since, including “Star Search” (which ran during his “Tonight” reign and ended in 1995) and a bloopers show on NBC, his post-Carson career could probably be best classified as semi-retirement. Skeptics might suggest that, without Carson’s coattails, McMahon quickly wandered off into obscurity. But how many careers survive in the spotlight for 30 years? And how many partnerships like the one Carson and McMahon enjoyed endure for so long in such a fickle and pressure-packed industry?
It is probably true, in the alternative universe of scripted comedy, that Larry Sanders and Hank Kingsley would not have been so successful without each other. They fed off each other, fought with each other, and yet flourished, if make-believe ratings can be believed.
But the support, devotion, vitality and creativity that Ed McMahon brought to his chair at Johnny Carson’s side were real and inspiring. He was the kind of friend each of us should have for any portion of our lives, let alone 30 years or more.
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com.