The death of television personality Ed McMahon
at the age of 86 marks the passing of a true original. McMahon was one of the very first Americans to enjoy the postmodern status of being a celebrity solely by virtue of being famous.
As announcer and second banana to host Johnny Carson during the NBC Tonight Show
's years of greatest prominence and cultural influence, McMahon exemplified what was then a relatively new phenomenon: the ability to become famous, wealthy, and admired without having any particular talent.
That's not to say there was anything dishonorable about his career or something wrong with McMahon's public persona. Quite the contrary. He was quite likable, pleasant, well-mannered (an underrated virtue these days), and overall a boon companion both for Carson and the audiences in the studio and at home.
However, he was liked for what he was, not what he could do. He couldn't sing, dance, tell a joke, or even read the news. His turns as straight man to Carson's various comical characters were most notable for their, well, charming ineptitude.
McMahon's most memorable characteristic, in fact, was his continual failure to refrain from laughing at even the worst jokes purveyed by his boss, Carson, and even though his laughter was often obviously forced and insincere, he kept at it to fill the silences when Carson's jokes bombed, which they often did.
Even that seeming foible, however, was quite charming, and it indicated what was best about McMahon: he was a good sport. He displayed admirable humility in always playing along and refusing to upstage Carson--and that showed good sense as well, as he surely would have been fired had he done so, for Carson was clearly a very insecure man.
McMahon demonstrated the same humility and essentially benevolent nature in his other work as well, such as his duties as host of Star Search.
Those characteristics were a good lesson for his audiences, without ever becoming a boring sermon.
McMahon quite evidently enjoyed life and wanted others to do so as well. Having no great talent at anything, he employed his most appealing personal characteristic--his affability--to demonstrate some of the cardinal virtues and make the world a slightly more pleasant place than it otherwise would be.
For that accomplishment he's is well remembered and will be missed.
—S. T. Karnick is editor of The American Culture.