We say goodbye to television's most beloved sidekick

By Ken Tucker
Updated July 03, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

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 died at age 86 on June 23 at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where he’d been receiving treatment for pneumonia, lived out that question for more than three decades starting in 1962 as the announcer for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. He held 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, and in so doing get the audience — in the studio and at home — to laugh along too.

McMahon had a great announcer’s voice, resonant and jolly. 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, he rarely pandered. He conversed with Johnny about the day’s events; he sometimes needled, even irritated, his boss. He had his dignity.

He also hosted Star Search on the side (1983-95), a sort of cross between American Idol and The Gong Show that helped launch the careers of everyone from Britney Spears to Bill Engvall to Rosie O’Donnell. He gave away large checks for American Family Publishers, sold life insurance in numerous commercials, and poked fun at his own recent money woes with his Cash4Gold ads. He did all of this with an irrepressible friendliness; there wasn’t anything phony in what he did. No matter what he was doing, McMahon made it look like the best job in the world. And how many of us can say that about our jobs?