Life As We Know It: March 24, 2014

        TODAY WE take note of the approaching fifth anniversary of the death of the last great straight man, Ed McMahon.

        Let’s first define “straight man” for those whose minds turn in a different direction when they hear the term. A straight man in comedy has nothing to do with sexual preference and everything to do with making somebody else look good.

        The straight man is the foil, the second banana, the guy who sets up the punch line for the star. Groucho Marx had George Fenneman. George Burns, a comedy genius in his own right, gladly played the part so his wife, Gracie Allen, could deliver the line that brought down the house. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were such a great team because Abbott fed Costello all the best lines. Jerry Lewis had Dean Martin. Dick Martin had Dan Rowan. 

        But save a place in their ranks for Ed McMahon. Nobody did it with more style. He first went to work for Johnny Carson in 1957 when Carson was picked to host a network game show called “Who Do You Trust?” English teachers will insist it should have been called “Whom Do You Trust?”, but to the English teachers I say, let it go.

        Five years after the show’s launch, Carson was offered the job of host of NBC’s “Tonight Show,” replacing Jack Paar, and he took Ed McMahon with him. Smart move. They made their Tonight Show debut on Oct. 1, 1962. For the next three decades they made television history together. Carson remains the king of late night television 22 years after he left the show and nine years after his death.

        McMahon’s willingness to take Carson’s barbs and jokes and respond with that hearty, full-throated laugh made everything funnier. Whether it was taking a turn with the “Mighty Carson Art Players” or feeding envelopes to Johnny’s “Carnac the Magnificent,” the all-knowing mystic who would divine the contents, McMahon never forgot that his boss was the star.

        “I hold in my hand the final envelope,” he would say, and the audience would roar its mock approval while Carnac squirmed. My favorite Carnac line: “Sis, Boom, Bah. Name the sound of an exploding sheep.”

        Occasionally McMahon would test the limits and get off a good line at Carson’s expense. One night he told Johnny on the air that he would not be around for the following night’s show, a Friday night. Carson was notorious for taking long weekends himself, and after expressing some concern that his sidekick would be missing on a Friday night, McMahon responded:

        “Well, I can take a day off once in a while, can’t I? You certainly invented it.”

        After his long run on the Tonight Show, McMahon made a few forgettable movies, pitched a lot of products in commercials, handed out oversized checks to winners in the American Family Publishers magazine sweepstakes, and hosted a popular show of his own, “Star Search.” 

        But his career was defined by one fabulous gig, his nearly 30 years on the Tonight Show couch, and his signature introduction of Carson: “Heeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny!” It remains one of the most famous lines in the history of the medium. The line was later borrowed, with terrifying effectiveness, by actor Jack Nicholson’s character in the Stephen King horror film, “The Shining.”

       Johnny Carson made Ed McMahon a star, a household word, but Ed certainly did the same for Johnny. I can hear Ed McMahon now, bellowing in agreement with me with another of his trademark lines, a robust “Yes! You are correct, Sir!”