Baby boomers felt the cold breeze of mortality sweep ever closer this week, as we watched 3 cultural icons pass from the scene. Farah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, and Ed McMahon were ubiquitous:
In the fall of ‘76, my college roommate had his Farah Fawcett poster plastered to our cinderblock dorm wall before he’d even set up his stereo system. In the early 80’s, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was the theme of nearly every school prom. And was there ever a product Ed McMahon wouldn’t shill? Alpo, Budweiser, magazine subscriptions – you name it, and Ed would plug it with great gusto!
A lot has already been written about Farah and Michael. Their lives both seem to point to the awful loneliness that so often accompanies mega-celebrity.
It seems appropriate that the passing of Ed McMahon, the eternal second man, has received much less ink. But was there ever a partnership like that of Ed and Johnny Carson? I am hard pressed to think of any such tandem today. (If Jay Leno likes to banter with Kevin Eubanks, that would more clearly echo Johnny’s nightly quips with Doc Severinsen.)
Ed’s job was simple: make Johnny look good. After his distinctive, “Heeeeere’s Johnnny” intro, he’d be content to sit on the sofa next to Johnnny during the first segment of “The Tonight Show.” But as guests arrived, Ed would simply move farther and farther away from the limelight. It’s worth noting that whenever Johnny took a day off (and he frequently did), Ed never slid behind Johnny’s desk. There was always a guest host to run the show.
That Ed was content with this arrangement says a lot about his ego. In an age of “Find Your Own Inner Leader,” workshops and rapidly expanding bookstore self help sections (talk about “ubiquitous”!) our boys could learn a lot about teamwork (as a dimension of “leadership” of course!) by watching some of those old “Tonight Show” reruns. One of the most important things a boy can learn is how to play “off the ball.” That’s something Ed McMahon did with great grace for 30 years.