First among second bananas


The first thing to understand is this: I'm as torn up and red-eyed as the next person about Johnny Carson retiring.

But it seems to me we're overlooking something important here: What about Ed?

Doesn't anybody care that Ed McMahon is also coming to the end of a long and distinguished career as Johnny's groveling sidekick?

Where's the fawning cover story in People, with Ed tearfully reminiscing about such personal "Tonight Show" highlights as Eydie Gorme spilling coffee on his loafers or the time his fly was open during a Carnac the Magnificent sketch?

Where are the glowing newspaper columns comparing Ed favorably to such brilliant comedic straight men as Ray Goulding of Bob and Ray and Dean Martin during his early partnership with Jerry Lewis?

Where's the nostalgic "60 Minutes" piece where an emotional Morley Safer, in a pool-side interview, fixes Ed with those basset hound eyes and says: "I've got to ask you . . . all these years . . . were you saying 'Hi-yo!' or 'Hoy-oh!?'"

The man pours his heart and soul into his job for nearly three decades. And now he has to stand there in the wings, gazing wistfully in his loud blazer and Sansabelt slacks while Johnny basks in a national outpouring of affection and it suddenly dawns on millions of late-night viewers: "Gee, I . . . I guess Ed is leaving, too."

I'm sorry, it just doesn't seem fair.

Understand, none of this is meant as a knock at Johnny.

I mean, I liked Johnny. He seemed a nice enough man, if a bit remote at times. I enjoyed his pulse-of-the-country monologues. But Ed . . . Ed just blew me away with all the things he could do.

The question I keep asking myself is this: Where would Johnny have been without Ed?

I'll tell you where: on some grimy corner of Ventura Boulevard, selling pencils out of a tin cup. Sleeping on a steam grate. Just another bum with greasy hair and shabby clothes and a pint of Wild Irish Rose in his back pocket.

Let's face it, Ed revolutionized the role of talk show announcer. With his bountiful supply of energy, he did things none of us had ever seen a sidekick do before. In a lot of ways he was the Michael Jordan of his profession.

There was his stirring trademark intro of "H-e-e-e-r-e's Johnny!" done with perfect timbre, the sound filling your ears like a carnival barker's raucous invitation to cough up 50 cents and step behind the curtain to see the dancing girls.

There was his forced, oddly Santa Claus-like "Ho-ho-ho-ho" after one of Johnny's corny jokes about Gerald Ford's golf swing or the OPEC nations or one of Doc's garish outfits.

There was his servile banter with Carson and the familiar boot-licking expression "You are correct, sir!" -- done with a freshness and exuberance that made you think it was the first time the line had been spoken.

Now imagine doing all that five nights a week for all these years and you have some idea of the man's enormous talent. Too much talent, it says here, to waste hosting that sappy "Star Search" or shilling for Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.

(OK, we mentioned Doc. There's another "Tonight Show" giant being put out to pasture without the appropriate farewell.

(I see where Carson-annointee Jay Leno picked Branford Marsalis to lead his band. Fine, fine, swell. But let me tell you this. I grew up with Doc Severinsen. I've watched Doc Severinsen launch into many a hoary Big Band rendition of "Fly Me to the Moon." And Branford Marsalis is no Doc Severinsen.)

People talk about what Johnny's absence will mean to the "Tonight Show." I can't help thinking of the void that will be caused by Ed's departure.

I'll miss the off-the-rack-at-J.C. Penney look of his sportcoats, especially that memorable red and white striped one that could have doubled as the tablecloth in an Italian restaurant.

I'll miss the giggling yet unhurried way he handed the prop letters to Carnac, his probing interviews with Aunt Blabby, his stirring intros for Art Fern and his "Tea Time Movie," and his unabashed leering at the chesty Matinee Lady (aka Carol Wayne.)

I'll miss that hacking two-pack-a-day cough that started deep within his chest, unleashing an angry river of phlegm that made you . . . well, you just wanted to get sick. It was that real.

Maybe that's what endeared him to us most of all: Ed was real.

He was real from his thinning hair to his ham-hock hands to his Marine-DI-gone-to-seed gut and knee-length black socks.

I'll tell you this: no one could move over on the couch faster than Ed McMahon to make room for a guest. No one.

So long, Ed.

And thanks for the memories.

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