Ed McMahon: In the Hot Seat

Today is not only the birthday of Ed McMahon (1923-2009) but we are also drawing close to the tenth anniversary of his death. I’ve been thinking recently that it would be interesting to do a piece (it could almost be a book) on the personalities that inhabit that nether realm described as “announcer” and “host”. On the one hand, some who have done those jobs have also been singers, comedians and actors. Some have been broadcast journalists. Some have been commercial pitchmen and literal salesmen. The dullest were ones who were none of those things, just announcers. Ed McMahon, to his credit, was a little bit of all of them.

It is for this reaso, that I have changed the subtitle of this article, which was originally going to be “Kept the Couch Warm”. I already knew that this was unfair, but part of the fun of Ed McMahon was dumping on him. He enjoyed such ribbing and took it genially. But it remained unfair. People have reduced him to “the guy who sat in a chair and laughed at Johnny’s jokes”. AMAZINGLY, he did so much ELSE, right in plain view for millions to see, and we all knew about it, but in the final analysis, it still always gets boiled down to “laughed at Johnny’s jokes.” So, in the name of broadcasting justice, I am going to spend very little time on The Tonight Show in this post, although obviously it will get some attention.

Ed McMahon was Irish-Catholic, raised mostly in Lowell, Massachusetts, although his family moved dozens of times during his childhood. He seems to have followed in the footsteps of his father, also named Ed McMahon, who according to the Boston Globe, was a “traveling salesman, entrepreneur, charity fund-raiser, and sideshow operator”. As a teenager and young man, Ed Jr. worked as a sideshow talker (carnival barker), bingo caller, and pitchman on the Atlantic City boardwalk, selling kitchen implements. Elocution classes at Emerson led to work in radio. He took time off to served as a Marine flight instructor during World War Two; he later flew combat missions in Korea. In between he studied speech and drama at Catholic University.

After Korea, he got on-camera employment at a local TV station in Philadelphia. That and work in commercials landed him first job in national television, announcer of the game show Who Do You Trust? (1957-1962), hosted by Johnny Carson. This led naturally to their equivalent pairing on The Tonight Show (1962-1992). And the fact that this is what he did every weeknight for 30 years, I guess left the most lasting impression.

But lest we forget (and apparently we do) he also…

…co-hosted Jerry Lewis’s annual Labor Day MDA telethon (1973-2008)

…co-hosted the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (1977-1981)

…co-hosted TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes (1982-1993) with Dick Clark

…hosted Star Search (1983-1995)

…was the very visible spokesman for Budweiser, Alpo, and American Family Publishers Sweepstakes

…acted in films and tv shows, such as The Incident (1967), Here’s Lucy (1973), Ellery Queen (1976), Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), Lucy Calls the President (1977), The Kid from Left Field (1979), Full Moon High (1981), Butterfly (1982), Burke’s Law (1994), and The Tom Show (1997-98)

…and a bunch of stuff that was before my time, like hosting the game shows Missing Links (1963-64) and Snap Judgment (1967-69) and the variety show Kraft Music Hall (1968).

In none of this was he a “second banana” (as he is often described in relation to Johnny Carson) although in almost of it, he was in that nebulous region we first described, that of “announcer” or “personality”. BTW, he had hundreds of other credits I didn’t mention, as a guest on game shows, talk shows and the like. In general, he was paid for being himself. Nice work if you can get it!

To learn more about variety entertainment, including TV variety, please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,