As 85-year-old Ed McMahon enters his fourth week in a California hospital battling pneumonia and bone cancer, a lot of us who have covered television over the years are thinking about him.
I realize that many younger viewers who know McMahon mainly as a host of Star Search and a TV pitchman might not be too impressed with him. But he has played a significant role in the history of network TV, according to Douglas Gomery, scholar in residence at the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland, College Park.
He not only performed the role of sidekick to the legendary Johnny Carson for 30 years from 1962 to 1992, "He invented the role for the modern TV talk show," Gomery says.
"He invented the template for the second-person, sitting-on-the-couch character that all the talk shows have since employed," according to Gomery. "He's the sane one who pitches the jokes, the straight person who set up Carson. There could be no Johnny Carson without Ed McMahon."
The length of his tenure alone warrants respect, but the years 1962 to 1992 are particularly significant because they define The Network Era, with the early 1960s being the period when TV became the principal storyteller of American life. (Think of its centrality following the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963.)
McMahon's easy-going familiarity was one of the elements that made the medium so easily absorbed into the household and fabric of everyday American life. His nightly introduction, "Heeeeeerrrrrrrrre's Johnny," became a pop culture catchphrase. So, too, did his exclamation, "yuuuuuooooohhhh," which he would shout out when the subject matter or language used by Carson or one of the guests was getting late-night risque.
Sadly, McMahon has most recently been known for not making mortgage payments of his expensive California home and facing foreclosure. He told CNN's Larry King he was $640,000 in arrears.