In the age of Twitter and Facebook, where anyone with a cell phone can star in his or her own personal show, it's easy to dismiss the role of "second banana." But Ed McMahon, the man most of the world knew simply as Johnny Carson's comedic sidekick for 30 years and who passed away early Tuesday, never did.
In an interview with the Monitor shortly after Mr. Carson stepped down from "The Tonight Show," the man who immortalized, "Heeeeeere's Johnny!" said he never lost sight of his role as mirror for the show's real star, Carson. But ironically, he said, he also learned all the essentials for being a perfect talk-show host. The key to a good interview, he said, "is listening. Everything you need to know, to ask the next question, is right there in whatever the guest said last."
That's a lesson the jovial sideman never had opportunity to use, points out Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. McMahon represents an old-school broadcaster who has all but disappeared from the world of entertainment, he says.
"He was really 'have voice, will travel," says Mr. Thompson, adding that a subservient role is a tough one for many in entertainment, especially these days. "We all criticize the culture's emphasis on celebrity and 'me-first," he says, "but what parent encourages their children to aspire to be vice-president?"
Professor Leo Braudy, who teaches popular culture at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, remembers as an ubiquitous radio and early TV pitchman in Philadelphia before he got his boost into more national stardom.
He had the talent, says Mr. Braudy, of the pitchman at the country fair or boardwalk who could sell you something with six arms, that could cut vegetables and mow your lawn – "the familiar con man by whom people willingly let themselves be conned."
McMahon teamed with Carson on the daytime game show "Who Do You Trust?" and traveled with the comedian when he was named to "The Tonight Show" in 1962.
What made him a perfect sidekick for Carson, says Braudy, was that "he had a good laugh … a very boisterous laugh. He had that rarest of rare talents of being a pal and supporter without being sycophantic. And when he got even close to that, they would make complete fun of him for it."
What was unique about McMahon was that he was happy being "second banana," says Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture at Arizona State University. "Usually in that position, the person really wants to be something more and is only using the role to build his career," says Mr. Lehman.
"McMahon had so much integrity because he valued the side kick position, and he was very winning because there was no sense that he just wanted to move onto something better or to be in the spotlight. He wasn't using it merely as a stepping stone to something else."
McMahon's passing represents another goodbye to a TV world in danger of being forgotten. "Carson and McMahon's era of TV is ephemeral in the sense that it will not live on in reruns and syndication like other classic TV shows such as 'Seinfeld' and 'I Love Lucy,' " says Thompson.
Staff writer Dan Wood contributed to this report.