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Posted at 9:25 AM ET, 06/23/2009

When I Met Ed McMahon

By Liz Kelly

Ed McMahon (left) at Johnny Carson's side on the 'Tonight Show' set in 1992. (AP)
Gallery: Ed McMahon 1923 - 2009

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.

And he came by that knowledge honestly, through decades in the entertainment biz. Later I learned that McMahon had also been a decorated pilot who served in both World War II and Korea.

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.

By Liz Kelly  | June 23, 2009; 9:25 AM ET
Categories:  Celebrities  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Ed McMahon Dies; Jon and Kate Separate; Chris Brown Pleads Guilty to Assault
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RIP, Ed...

Posted by: fft5305 | June 23, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

2 inches of Jack Daniels in the coffee cup helps put the bon in otherwise bland motes.

Posted by: advocate2 | June 23, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

RIP Ed. May the publisher's clearing house van always stop at your house in heaven.

Posted by: epjd | June 23, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Is Dan Frookin still fired?

Well Liz, when you write something not approved by Fred Hiatt's political PC police, and you get fired, don't expect me to stand up for you.

Neocon censorship rules at America's political paper of record!

Posted by: PacNW | June 23, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

I recall hearing that McMahon was teenage buddies with Jack Kerouac in Lowell, Mass. -- perhaps they developed a taste for "water" together...

Posted by: ewa2rva | June 23, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Great post, Liz! I can almost smell it. Or wait, is that me? Cheers to EM, you and your father.

Posted by: mikesnyder1 | June 23, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Nice story, Liz. RIP your dad and Ed.

And the orthopedic shoes ... ROFL.

Posted by: Californian11 | June 23, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

I hope Ed & Johnny are together somewhere sharing some "water" & a cigarette & talking about the good old days.


Posted by: wadejg | June 23, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Not a good story, Liz, a great one.
As they say in kindergarten, thanks for sharing.

Posted by: pras40 | June 23, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Ok since no one else is asking, who was Liz's father? He must have been a high ranking military officer and publicly recognizable figure to appear on the Tonight Show.

Posted by: buffysummers | June 23, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

A guess via google shows:

Posted by: VaLGaL | June 23, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

When Ed didn't laugh he'd pretend it
Made millions but would overspend it;
If heaven has manna
This second banana
Will certainly cackle, "I'll vend it!"

News Short n' Sweet by JFD8

Posted by: jd121 | June 23, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

It was painful to watch Ed McMahon last year, in a neck brace, explaining why he was in danger of losing his home because he'd broken his neck and couldn't work. And I'm thinking, why does Ed McMahon, in his mid-80's, on TV for over a half century, have to work at ALL?? It's very sad in an odd kinda' way. We don't really 'know' these people, but yet we do. They come into our homes every day for decades and they impact our lives in many ways, usually positively. Ed made us laugh endlessly and what's not positive about THAT. Who can think of Ed McMahon and not see him smiling or laughing. And that's a very good thing. So, thanks Big Ed. A life well lived with a big smile and hearty laugh. Nothing wrong with that. We are all diminished by your passing.

Posted by: ctenwith | June 23, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

ctenwith- nicely put. Liz- thanks for the story. RIP Ed.

Posted by: plamar1031 | June 23, 2009 6:35 PM | Report abuse


I am laughing at you. You are lame as a journalist. I don't think you really care as long as the weenies are fresh and you have money in the bank.

Posted by: dailykos1 | June 24, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

The perils of multiple windows. That's for dana milbank - a wanker if there ever was one. Great post Liz.

Posted by: dailykos1 | June 24, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

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