Picture it: after passing through the pearly gates, Ed McMahon spots his long time friend and TV partner. With a wide grin and outstretched arms, he greets him:
The affable, genial , self-described “second banana” to Johnny Carson on the “Tonight Show” has passed away at age 86.
In a November 2007 radio interview I did on “The Andrea Shea King Show” with McMahon to talk about his then newly published book, “When Television Was Young, Live, Spontaneous and in Living Black and White”, we talked about his life, and what it was like to share the “NBC Tonight Show” set with the king of late night.
McMahon was dealing with a bout of laryngitis, but it didn’t stop him from opening the interview with the famous words that announced to American viewers it was time for their eagerly anticipated nightly entertainment: “Heeere’s Johnny!”
McMahon told of how he and Carson met:
“The first day I ever worked, I did a show with him called ‘Who Do You Trust’ on ABC. It was a quiz show, a game show in the afternoon, it was live and he hosted it. He had another announcer, a fellow named Bill Nimmo who got his own show and he had to leave. I came up and auditioned for the show and I got the job, which was a wonderful, lucky happenstance for me.
“What happened was, on the very first show – here I am a little nervous, you can imagine – I’m doing the first show, and I’m replacing somebody. I want to do a good job, and I’ve got a script in front of me, and on this script it’s got these six responses of the day: ‘Swansdown Cake Mixes, the cake mixes you can trust.’ I have to read this. Now, the audience at home doesn’t see me of course, but the audience in the theater does. Johnny Carson comes over and sets fire to my script. That’s the very first day I ever worked with him!
“Talk about buddies! That kind of sealed us forever. For at least 37 years, anyway. And 47 years of friendship. But that sealed it. When he set fire to my script, I knew we were off and running – this is gonna be different than any other show I was on. And then of course, when he got the ‘Tonight Show,’ he took me with him, which was another happenstance for me. And we had 30 years of wonderful times on the ‘Tonight Show.’”
McMahon said there never was a disagreement between them.
“We’d have dinner once a week or a couple of times a week. We just became buddies,” he said. “We were like two kids kicking a can down the street: We just enjoyed each other, we liked to be with each other.”
The funniest bit
McMahon recalled the funniest moment on the show, the one that to this day holds the record for the longest sustained audience applause.
“Ed Ames had been a singer with his brothers, the Ames Brothers, then he went out on his own. And then he went into acting,” McMahon said. “He got a job on a frontier show as an Indian. And he was trying to show Johnny how you threw a tomahawk. He was going to throw a tomahawk at a cut-out we had. We’d taken a piece of plywood and we’d drawn a cowboy outline on there in black chalk, full size – you know, with the guns and the holsters and the vest and the badge, the ten-gallon hat and the boots. Ed Ames was supposed to throw this hatchet, or tomahawk, at the target.
“Now, he threw it and it struck the cowboy where no cowboy should be struck, especially if he plans on having a family.
“Johnny had three of the greatest lines ever, ad libs. And to give you an idea of how sharp he was, Ed Ames of course is embarrassed and wants to go and retrieve the tomahawk. There it is with the handle sticking out. You can imagine what that looked like.
“Anyway, Johnny grabbed him. He knew that he had gold. And when the laughter subsided a little bit, he said, ‘I didn’t even know you were Jewish’.
“More laughter. And then when that subsided, he said, ‘Welcome to the Frontier Bris’.
“And it’s not over yet. Wait a minute. Because Ed Ames was so nervous he said, ‘Do you want to try it Johnny?’
“Johnny looked at Ed Ames, he looked at the poor cowboy with the hatchet sticking out and he said, ‘Well, I couldn’t hurt him anymore than you did.’
“That was like in the third year, so that kind of gave us a definition of where we were headed on the ‘Tonight Show.’ I think that exemplified to the audience what was going to happen for the future, so 27 years later, they didn’t want him to say goodbye. They didn’t want us to leave. They wanted us to stay right there.”
May 22, 1992: The goodbye
“There were really two closing nights,” McMahon explained. “The next to the last show was really the last show. That was where Bette Midler sang to him and Robin Williams was his crazy, wonderful self. But that last show was like a compilation of all of the bits that had happened over the years, and we saw some of the people on the screen that had left us, who are no longer around. And we saw a lot of the good stuff that had happened, and it was just like a big basketful of goodies.
“But the night before is the one people think of as the last show, and that’s where Bette Midler sang that wonderful song – a parody of ‘One for My Baby, One More for the Road.’ And at one point she said – and I think this exemplifies the 30 years of the ‘Tonight Show’ – she said, ‘And all the class that you showed.’
“And boy, did he have class when he did that show!
“They called him ‘the king of late night’, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s still the king of late night.”
“I loved being the second banana. You know, it’s quite a challenging role,” McMahon said. “The whole idea is that you have to be in when you’re needed and out of the way when you’re not needed. And that’s kind of like a tightrope walker; that’s a balancing act to try to do it right. And hopefully I did it right all those years because he didn’t say, ‘Let’s get another guy.’ He kept me.
“We knew each other, we saw each other, we had fun together, and it translated itself onto the screen. I think people knew that. In fact, on that next to the last show, he commented about that.
“He said, ‘You know, a lot of couplings on television aren’t really good friends.’
“You know what happened with Martin and Lewis. I’m told that the Marx Brothers didn’t hang out together. Abbott and Costello apparently were not good friends. I don’t know.
“But he said, ‘We are good friends. We go out to dinner, we have fun together, we enjoy each other.’ And it’s true. We just had a good time together.”
The brigadier general
Not many people know that McMahon flew 85 combat missions in two wars.
“Well, the very first show I was on was a play,” McMahon said. “I was going to Catholic University in Washington right after World War II. I was a Marine fighter pilot in World War II and a test pilot. I taught carrier landings and so forth. But anyway, the war was over, and I wanted to continue my education. I had been in Boston College for a year and a half and I got an OK to go to Catholic University and I studied drama and speech. I was in a play that was broadcast from Washington, through Philadelphia to New York, in 1947. That’s how far back I go. And it was the first use of the coaxial cable, which took programming through a city, which never happened before.
“Then in 1949, Sept. 12th, a Monday, I started in Philadelphia on a show called ‘Take Ten,’ that was the call letters, you know, the number of the station – WCAU in Philly – and there I was, host of a three-hour daily live variety show. … I was the producer, I was the make-up man, I swept up the studio, whatever you had to do. I was on the air from 12 to 3, and I was the happiest man in North America.
“I had 13 different shows – on the air 13 different shows a week. Unbelievable!
“I was called back for the Korean war and off I went for a year and a half, but when I got back I went right into the same station.
“The California Air National Guard named me a brigadier general, an honorary position, but in the Marine Corps, I got to be a full bird, what they call a full bird, a colonel. And I’m very proud of that, and I’m very proud of my career in the Marines. I had six years, two wars, 85 combat missions, so I’m very proud of that.
“It’s not the same, no it’s not. It’s unfortunate. You know, in World War II, even in Korea, everyone was kind of involved. They called Korea the ‘forgotten war’ but still, everybody had someone, a cousin or somebody that was in the war, and in World War II, everybody was in the war – the Gold Star mothers, you know, everybody was involved. We had certain restrictions and rules we had to abide by and it was a different situation.
“Unfortunately now, it’s tumbled into a thing almost like Vietnam again where these boys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan – they should be honored as well, and it disappoints me that they’re not.”
Fade to black
We went on to talk briefly about his book and with that, his faltering voice faded and he said goodnight.
McMahon was gold, and to Carson’s credit, he recognized it and kept him close by. Sadly, we’ll never see the likes of the late night duo again. Ed’s passing marks the end of a sparkling era in late night TV.
Goodnight, Ed McMahon. Thank you for everything.