When I Met Ed McMahon
Ed McMahon -- who died today at 86 -- may not mean much to Celebritology habitues addicted to a steady diet of Lindsay Lohan and "Jon & Kate" updates. But for those of us of a certain age -- mine being 37 -- he will forever be remembered for his role as "Star Search" host, Publisher's Clearinghouse pitchman and for his hearty "heh heh heh," which became the standard endnote to a bon mot whipped off by his longtime "Tonight Show" employer/protector Johnny Carson.
I met McMahon in 1991 when my dad was invited to be a "Tonight Show" guest to talk about his role in the first Gulf War. It could be that my celebrity-obsessing future had its spark in that trip to California, though at the time it was utterly impossible for a 20-year-old Nirvana-loving college kid to be much impressed by brushing past M.C. Hammer in the airport or by the hotel bar, "Telly's," where ossifying TV star Telly Savalas (Kojak) was paid to sit and make nice with the tourists.
Reaching the set of the "Tonight Show" at NBC's Burbank studios, though, was a different matter. Cool or not, I'd been watching Johnny Carson since I'd been able to toddle over to the TV and meeting the man was a big deal. I, of course, imagined Carson as larger than life and always on and McMahon as a living laugh track. But backstage Carson looked more pensioner than Playboy -- he wore a well-used velour track suit, orthopedic shoes and bifocals perched on the tip of his nose as he shook hands and talked to my father in serious, hushed tones about the Gulf War and his reverence for the military.
McMahon came in once Johnny had departed -- florid, merry and smelling a bit... spirited. Still, he was genial and had the easy likability of a Borsht Belt comic. Later, from my perch in the audience I watched McMahon warm up the crowd with a pre-show stand-up routine peppered with a healthy dose of "Anyone here from [insert heartland city name here]?" Doubtless McMahon was recycling lines he'd used on audiences since pre-cable days, but he got the dynamic -- the show lives or dies on national ratings, but if we don't make the rubes in the studio happy, we ain't got nothing.
As for the "Tonight Show" experience -- that was, well, it. Except for my father's after-show claim. We were giddily riding back to the hotel in our NBC-provided limo when dad said that during a commercial break he'd accidentally picked up McMahon's coffee mug for a sip of water, only to discover it was filled with whiskey.
Apocryphal or on the level? Since both dad and McMahon are now dead, we likely won't know. But it does make a good story.
| June 23, 2009; 9:25 AM ET
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