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Published: Monday, 7/6/2009

The last straight man

BY NOW you've no doubt read and watched all you care to see and hear about Michael Jackson's shocking death at age 50. And how could you have missed Farrah Fawcett's self-produced documentary chronicling her courageous battle against cancer, which was shown just before her death - and again just after? Both died on the same day, June 25, and for a while there, it seemed like nothing else was on television or in the paper.

Both were entertainment icons and deserved the attention. But in keeping with this column's avowed intent to avoid following the op-ed crowd and doing the predictable thing, no further mention of either of these tragic figures will appear in this space, at least not today.

Today, we lament the passing of another show business great who died two days before the King of Pop and Charlie's blond Angel, and whose death went almost unnoticed as a result - 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 a comedic sense 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 17 years after he left the show and four 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. He also was the long-running co-host of Jerry Lewis' Labor Day Telethon for muscular dystrophy.

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 borrowed, with terrifying effectiveness, by actor Jack Nicholson's character in the Stephen King horror film, The Shining.

Carson and McMahon had a great friendship and strong mutual respect. McMahon's 2005 book, which deserves some sort of award for longest title, makes the point: Here's Johnny! My Memories of Johnny Carson, the Tonight Show, and 46 Years of Friendship.

In his book, McMahon was frank about their relationship and acknowledged that they had more in common than many fans may have realized, including troubled personal lives and broken marriages. But their partnership was a gold mine for NBC. The year before The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson ended, the program made $60 million for the network, which McMahon claimed was 15 percent of NBC's revenues.

Late in his life, though he had made a good living in show business, McMahon faced a number of financial problems, including the threat of foreclosure on his home and a lawsuit over allegedly unpaid legal fees.

His health deteriorated in the last couple of years, and though no cause of death was officially announced, he reportedly suffered from bone cancer, lingering pneumonia, and problems associated with a broken neck he sustained in a fall two years ago. That would be tough for anyone to overcome, much less a man of 86.

Johnny made Ed a star, a household word, but Ed certainly did the same for Johnny. Wherever Ed McMahon is now, I hope he agrees - perhaps with another of his trademark lines, a robust "Yes! You are correct, Sir!"

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

Contact him at: twalton@theblade.com



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