Ed McMahon: Sidekick on ‘Tonight’ for 30 years famous for his cry of ‘Heeeeeere’s Johnny!’

A second banana is not merely a straight man, though being a straight man is part of the job. For 30 years, as Johnny Carson’s foil on The Tonight Show, Ed McMahon, who has died aged 86, defined second banana, and, with Carson, remade the talk-show format.

McMahon warmed up audiences, then introduced the host with a drawn-out, “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” which, as a cultural catchphrase, found its way into Stephen King’s novel The Shining, and, famously, Jack Nicholson’s murderous parody in the Stanley Kubrick film.

McMahon provided guffaws during Carson’s monologue, played his foil in sketches and chatted with the host before giving up his place to the first guest and moving progressively further away as the show went on. “I laugh for an hour and then I go home,” was how he described “the best job in television”.

Carson’s predecessors on Tonight worked alone, but producers worried that Carson, a mid-western stand-up turned game-show host noted for his close-mouthed delivery, lacked the erudition of the more urbane Jack Paar or Steve Allen. McMahon’s avuncular Irish charm – his drinking provided the butt of many quips – counterpointed Carson’s tightly-wrapped control.

Unlike many comic partnerships, the two remained close friends; McMahon likened it to a marriage in which he was Carson’s “insignificant other”. This owed much to McMahon knowing his place. Carson was notoriously touchy; McMahon described him as “packing a tight suitcase”. Once, he anticipated Carson’s punchline about mosquitos preferring “hotblooded” targets by slapping his own arm; Carson had to be restrained from firing him immediately.

The producers knew that McMahon was more than an announcer: his primary role was selling Johnny to the audience. And he was a natural-born pitchman. McMahon was born 6 March 1923 in Detroit. The family moved frequently as his father, a vaudevillian, salesman, entrepreneur and carny operator found and lost work; McMahon claimed to have attended 15 schools before settling with his grandmother in Lowell, Massachusetts to finish high school. He was already selling door-to-door and spending summers as a carnival barker and bingo caller in Maine resorts.

He enlisted in the Marines after graduation, qualifying as a pilot and serving as a flight instructor in Pensacola, Florida. After the war, while gaining a degree in speech and drama at Washington’s Catholic University, he spent summers selling vegetable slicers on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. After graduating in 1949, he started with a fledgling television station in Philadelphia, and within two years was the city’s top TV personality, hosting variety programmes, films, and a breakfast talk show called Strictly for Girls. Recalled to active Marine duty in Korea, he flew 85 combat missions as an artillery spotter.

Back in America, he began voicing commercials for network television in New York, and soon was hosting game shows, including an early version of Concentration, and playing a clown in the long-running circus variety show Big Top. He joined Carson as the announcer on ABC’s Who Do You Trust? in 1957; they moved together to NBC’s Tonight in 1962 and enjoyed a 30-year run before handing the show to Jay Leno.

During his time on Tonight he continued to host game shows, acted in films as diverse as Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off (1973) and Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), and did summer stock theatre. He spent 17 years announcing Dick Clark’s TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes, and 13 as host of Star Search, a talent show which discovered Justin Timberlake, Rosie O’Donnell and Drew Carey, but missed the boom when reality television remade this hoary old format with massive success.

He took advantage of his high profile to become America’s pitchman, by his own estimate doing some 60,000 commercials – everything from dog food to the ubiquitous sweepstakes attached to magazine subscription offers. For 41 years he hosted or appeared on Jerry Lewis’ Muscular Dystrophy charity telethon, an institution on America’s Labor Day holiday, a run second only to Lewis himself.

He published four books, including his Barside Companion (1969), an autobiography, For Laughing Out Loud (1998), and two memoirs. McMahon’s reputation as a jovial drinker helped to sell Budweiser beer and his own brand of vodka, but also hid a problem with alcoholism. He speculated in bad investments, had two expensive divorces and even faced a lawsuit from consumers alleging that the magazine sweepstakes he promoted were a fraud.

In 2008, he appeared on Larry King Live to explain his financial woes, saying: “I made a lot of money, but you can spend a lot of money”. Donald Trump offered to buy his Beverly Hills mansion, which faced foreclosure, and lease it back to him. He died in Los Angeles, never having regained his health after breaking his neck in a 2007 fall.

Michael Carlson

Edward Leo Peter McMahon, Jr, entertainer: born Detroit 6 March 1923; married firstly Alyce Ferrell (divorced 1976, three children, and one son deceased), secondly Victoria Valentine (divorced 1989, one adopted daughter), 1992 Pam Hurn; died Los Angeles 23 June 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable