Faithful Departed — Ed McMahon

(1923 - 2009)


During that third week of June when we lost King of Pop and the Queen of Pinup on the same day, it was easy for the death of someone who spent most of his life as a sidekick to be brushed aside. It was easy for the shock of losing two people Generation X once considered dynamic role models to overshadow the loss of someone who was considered, in his own way, a great uncle.

If you have ever watched Conan O’Brien and wondered why he has Andy Richter sitting next to him night after night, Ed McMahon is the reason why. From all accounts, it’s a very difficult thing to be a stand-up comedian, putting yourself out there in front of millions of people each night… even Jerry Seinfeld confesses to getting nervous before a big show. But the comfort of having someone ready to lead the audience in laughter when a joke is a hit — or even offer an encouraging chuckle when a balloon of a witticism turns out to be a bowling ball — cannot be underestimated. Ask comedians who was the best of the best, and most of them will say Johnny Carson. I suspect if you asked Johnny Carson how he did it for all of those years, he would say Ed McMahon.

To be sure, his association with the greatest legend in late night television earned him the opportunity to fly on his own. Before America Idol captivated the entertainment ambitions of a nation there was Star Search, the biggest talent show of the 1980s. But unlike the modern reincarnation, the show did not focus on its hosts’ acerbic criticism. Rather, Ed did what he did best: introduce people to the world and let them shine.

The grace of being number two

Ed McMahon speaks at The Catholic University of America's Hartke Theater groundbreaking ceremony in 1967.
Ed McMahon speaks at The Catholic University of America's Hartke Theater groundbreaking ceremony in 1967.

In a world where so many clamor to be number one, Ed McMahon’s life testified to the grace of being number two. How many of us have wanted someone… anyone… to offer a well-timed, “You are correct, Sir!” when we’ve made a point? How many of us would love to be introduced to the world with a greeting as unique and famous as, “Here’s Johnny!” But there’s something in the Gospels about those seeking to be first being last and those seeking to be last being first. So the question for us all to consider: How many of us seek to spend our lives standing back and watching others take all of the glory, applauding from a distance while not attracting too much attention to ourselves?

Ed McMahon showed that he could do just that… and do it with graciousness and style. He was not the first sidekick known to mankind: Batman had Robin and The Lone Ranger had Tonto. But Ed defined the role for three separate generations, and that’s something that shouldn’t be lost because his face never appeared on a lunch box. Here’s betting that when the time came for Ed McMahon to enter the pearly gates, St. Peter was there to great him with a big, “Here’s Edward!” and a giant Publisher’s Clearing House check. And why not… it’s what is offered to those who spend their lives in support of others.