Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ed McMahon

As I mentioned in this space on Father’s Day, I used to lie in bed after my father would come home from work and hear him watching the Tonight Show in the next room of our small house. It was captivating and exciting, that late night adult world. Thinking back, it all seemed forbidden and lots of fun.

In a few short years, the forbidden part began to change. I watched it on Friday nights, since there was no school the next day. Since we didn’t change to Daylight Savings Time in the summer, the Tonight Show came on at 10:30 and I watched at least an hour until guests like authors and scientists would usually come on during the last half-hour to promote books or talk about boring things. But I watched every night I could. Soon, Johnny Carson became my idol. And McMahon was naturally a part of that fondness.

There was something magical to me about Carson during his monologues, the desk bits with McMahon, talking to his guests and in most of the sketches. Later, however, I thought many of the Mighty Carson Art Players sketches were not as funny as they could have been. There was also something comforting to me about the chemistry between Carson, McMahon and bandleader Doc Severinsen.

In the 70s and 80s many ridiculed McMahon for his laughter. It was distinct, and it was big, but I never thought it was fake. And I was puzzled by those who did. He became a target for satire, as did Carson, by SNL and others in the 70s and in the 80s. And I know others have ridiculed McMahon as a show biz hack for Star Search and other projects, perhaps because he did not have that edge or attitude, or a talent greater than announcer and pitchman, and perhaps because he was only a “second banana”. But to do what McMahon did in television, did take talent, but not an easily discernible talent. He had to know how to hold back. Watch some of his interviews on YouTube. Ask Hugh Downs or Regis Philbin, both of whom were sidekicks to great television talents.

I appeared on the Tonight Show, back in March 1984 in a video clip in a Robert Klein segment from New York for NBC’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes when Klein guested to promote his segment and the show. Carson laughed at my line, which thrilled me for months thereafter. Unfortunately, Mike Owens, the Kamakaze Radio partner of Dennis Perrin and myself, wanted to see it and I mailed it to him. It was the only video copy I had and I never got it back.

Regardless, McMahon was a steady presence and I understood the comic service he provided to Carson in the various bits and sketches, of which Carnac was always my favorite. In fact, when I was 13 I wrote some Carnac jokes and sent them to the Tonight Show for which I received a letter from them saying they could not accept unsolicited material. That letter was my most prized possession for a very long period of time. My young comic mind was legitimized and encouraged because I was recognized by the Tonight Show even though it was a rejection letter.

In those Carnac bits, and others, McMahon was a great straight man not for his comedy chops but for providing what the bits required, even if many times he was laughing for no reason other than silliness. He was neutral in his temperament, which meant many types of bits could be hung upon him, although he was usually always the interviewer to the character Carson was playing. And there was the on-air persona of his having a drinking problem, taken from the on-air relationship between Jack Benny and his bandleader Phil Harris. Also, he very rarely, if never, took any laughs for himself.

From a show biz perspective, McMahon came out of early television when covering up mistakes and faults was not emphasized and were even used to get laughs. One had to be “on” for live television rather than the overly-produced practice of today. There was something much more exciting about television back in those days. Maybe it was the pioneering spirit; knowing that almost everything that was broadcast had never been done before, especially on a five-night-a-week schedule like the Tonight Show. There was also more of an intimacy in early television, which relied as much, if not more, on interesting personalities instead of only material. Jack Paar, Groucho Marx, and Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs (when not doing bits) are some of the more memorable icons of early TV capable of entertaining spontaneity.

McMahon was also sort of a man’s man from that era. He had a military background, which was the norm for the time since Korea and WWII was a mere nine and eighteen years respectively before the 1962 premiere of the Carson-McMahon Tonight Show. McMahon’s TV presence was also because of his size, his gentleness and a relative sense of urban sophistication. His demeanor was always pleasant and never “sarky”, as they say in Britain. He never expressed genuine displeasure, contempt or bitterness toward any guest or any bit. One thing I liked was he always had an appreciation for television as a medium and for the show biz greats that came before, with particular fondness for W.C. Fields, and Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel.

Carson’s significance in television has been described by many, especially at the time of his death. Jackie Mason, I believe, said Carson would go down in history as “the most powerful personality in the whole history of that damned box”. That would have not been so easily the case had many other than McMahon sat across the desk from Carson.

And, it should be noted, the role McMahon created was never utilized by Leno or Letterman or O’Brien, although I think in the early days of his Late Night show he did have Andy Richter in the sidekick chair for bits and small talk, similar to Carson and McMahon.

McMahon’s passing, which occurred a little more than three weeks after the Tonight Show was passed to the second post-Carson host, underscores the passage of time. The comedy greats I grew up with like Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Jack Benny, et al, are all gone. Jerry Lewis is probably the only one left from that generation of American entertainers who I idolized as a kid.

Even the second generation of comedy greats like Carlin, Pryor, O’Donoghue—and another of my childhood comedy idols, Flip Wilson—and others are gone. Kaufman died a long time ago. Thankfully, Woody Allen is still around. Steve Martin is still around. While watching some recent Python material on YouTube over the weekend, and realizing how old those guys are getting, I thought when those guys start going, forget it. They were the last great development of anything new in comedy with a few exceptions. And when Letterman retires our connection to the greatest era in American television comedy will also end. It’s all up to you now, Stewart and Colbert.

Although many have done it, it’s simply too easy to dismiss or ridicule Ed McMahon. Those who understood and appreciated Carson’s greatness on the Tonight Show know what McMahon’s contribution to it was.

The only thing that is forbidden now is the excitement of discovery I had long ago because of Carson and McMahon.

I suddenly feel older.