Tuesday, June 23, 2009

RIP Ed McMahon & The Art of the Sidekick

I've written about the deaths of Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas here and (briefly, on another blog) Johnny Carson. They were the big three talk show hosts when I was growing up and got all the attention. Today most hosts go solo -- Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, for instance. But Carson, Douglas, and Griffin were all expected to have sidekicks, an expectation each of them handled differently.

Mike Douglas, who had his show earlier, was the most inventive: He had guest-co-hosts, a different one every week. Probably the most famous instance of this was when John Lennon and Yoko Ono of all people spent a week with him. Mike Douglas was pretty much a straight arrow while John and Yoko were, well, radicals. It made for a little TV cult classic that you can still find on DVD to this day.

Merv Griffin (yes, the Wheel of Fortune inventor Merv Griffin) went the more traditional route and hired Arthur Treacher as his sidekick. Mr. Treacher was a British actor who owned a chain of fish 'n chips restaurants and played a bobby in Mary Poppins. He added a touch of class to the show but CBS dumped him in 1970 because he was "too old."

And then there was Ed McMahon who died this morning. As Johnny Carson's sidekick he basically laughed at the jokes and sold Alpo, but he did it so well (which had something to do, no doubt, with the chemistry between him and Carson) that he transformed himself into an institution. After a while we'd do pretty much anything he said just because he was Ed.

We'd take his beer recommendations, watch him on Star Search, and trust his assurances that American Family Sweepstakes really was giving out all that money. Most recently, some of us (not me) were willing to mail our unwanted gold to total strangers and expect them to send us back a fair price, all because Ed -- backed up by MC Hammer -- said so.

Ed McMahon was 86 years old.

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