Feature

Ed McMahon

The guffawing announcer who was Johnny Carson’s second banana

Ed McMahon
1923–2009

From 1962 to 1992, millions of Americans went to sleep only after tuning in to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Much of their pleasure came from the familiarity of announcer Ed McMahon issuing his cheery trademark introduction “And now h-e-e-e-e-re’s Johnny!” and chortling it up as the sidekick to the king of late-night TV. It was a role that the self-effacing McMahon, who died this week of complications from pneumonia, relished. “I never thought being a second banana was a secondary thing,” he said.

The son of a traveling salesman from Detroit, the young McMahon moved around so often as a child that, as he said, “I was in more towns than a pickpocket.’’ Along the way, he fell in love with radio, said The Washington Post, and looking for announcing experience, at 15 he started working “at road shows and carnivals, hawking attractions and barking bingo numbers, learning to elongate syllables to heighten suspense.” After putting himself through Catholic University by “selling vegetable slicers and other cookware,” McMahon landed a series of jobs on Philadelphia TV shows, ultimately hosting 13 of them. In 1958 he met a rising young comedian named Johnny Carson and became his announcer on the ABC quiz show Who Do You Trust? On the first day, Carson set fire to McMahon’s script. “I tried to read as my script turned to charcoal before my eyes,” McMahon recalled. “From that moment on, I became his foil.”

He perfected that persona four years later when Carson replaced Jack Paar on NBC’s The Tonight Show, said The New York Times. For almost 30 years, McMahon was “the faithful Tonto to Carson’s wry Lone Ranger.” After doing his introduction and bowing toward his boss, McMahon would “chat and banter with Carson a bit before the guests came on and almost invariably guffaw at his jokes.” Often McMahon “was the butt of them,” with Carson ribbing him about his three marriages, his waistline, and his fondness for drinking. But McMahon could give as good as he got. Once, when Johnny was doing his trademark “Carnac the Magnificent” routine and announced, “May I have absolute silence, please,” McMahon brought down the house by replying, “Many times, you get that.”

McMahon’s relationship with Carson was complex, said the Los Angeles Times. During one early monologue, Carson spoke of a study that found mosquitoes preferred to bite “warm-blooded, passionate people.” McMahon slapped his wrist and said, “Whoops, there’s another one.” Though the audience roared, Carson “glared icily at McMahon” for robbing him of his punch line and, “picking up a comically oversized can of inspect spray,” intoned, “Well, then, I guess I won’t be needing this $500 prop then, will I?” In fact, Carson was so angry that he nearly fired him. The men remained friends until Carson’s death in 2005, but although McMahon said they were “as close as two nonmarried people can be,” they rarely spoke in later years. “He doesn’t give friendship easily or need it,” McMahon said. “He packs a tight suitcase.”

“While Carson built his career around Tonight and withdrew from the limelight after his retirement, McMahon took a different path,” said the Associated Press. He hosted many programs, including TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes and the amateur talent contest Star Search. He also pitched myriad products, including the American Family Publishers sweepstakes, which he made famous with his tag line, “You may have already won 10 million dollars!” But although The Tonight Show reportedly paid McMahon as much as $5 million annually, he “battled a series of financial problems” after a broken neck in 2007 prevented him from working. “If you spend more money than you make, you know what happens,” he told Larry King. 

McMahon is survived by his third wife, Pamela, and five children.

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