By Ken Tucker
Updated June 23, 2009 at 04:36 PM EDT
Credit: John Hayes/Getty Images

What does it mean to be most famous for being the sidekick, the helper, the yes-man, the TV version of an assistant, to a television legend? Ed McMahon, who has died at age 86, lived out that quandary for more than three decades starting in 1962 as the announcer for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. He anchored down the guest-couch with his impressive bulk and even bulkier laugh. It was Ed’s job to make every off-the-cuff yuk Johnny uttered seem like a perfect joke (“Yes!”), and in so doing, get the audience — in the studio, at home — to laugh along, too. Ed McMahon, you might say, was the human equivalent of a laugh track.

If all of this sounds belittling to McMahon, it’s because it leaves out all the important qualities about him. McMahon was really good at his job. He had a great announcer’s voice, resonant and jolly simultaneously. He had a truly natural laugh, even when he must have been straining for the naturalness. And despite the fact that McMahon was frequently parodied as the ultimate suck-up — most artfully by Jeffrey Tambor as sidekick Hank Kingsley on Gary Shandling’s Larry Sanders Show — McMahon, if you watch any of those old Tonight Shows on DVD, rarely sucked up at all. He conversed with Johnny about the day’s events; he sometimes needled, even irritated, his boss. He had his dignity.

He also had Star Search on the side (1983-95), hosting a sort of cross between American Idol and The Gong Show. And some might say his post-Johnny jobs removed some of that dignity. He became a walking punchline, for example, as the spokesman for the big-check giveaways for American Family Publishing.

He shilled life insurance in numerous commercials. But he always did it with an irrepressible friendliness; there wasn’t anything phony or overlaid with guile in what Ed McMahon did.

He knew his place in the show-biz hierarchy and made it look like the best job in the world. And maybe, for him, it was.

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