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Broadcast Veteran Talks About His Years On “The Tonight Show”

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Aired 6/24/09

Ed McMahon was an entertainment icon, spending 30 years on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson and delivering million-dollar checks for national sweepstakes. Tom Fudge interviewed him in 2007.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Ever since news of his death became a headline story yesterday, the nation has been mourning television's most famous sidekick, Ed McMahon. McMahon's death at age 86 seems to mark the end of an era. Just as "The Tonight Show" welcomes its second new host since Johnny Carson, the old "Tonight Show" with Johnny and Ed McMahon now really becomes the stuff of television history. When Tom Fudge interviewed Ed McMahon back in 2007, we learned some things about Ed before he became Carson's sidekick. For instance, he was a Marine fighter pilot in World War II and Korea before getting involved in radio and TV. Ed McMahon was a guest on These Days shortly after the release of his book "When Television was Young." Here's that interview.

TOM FUDGE (Interviewer): Ed, how old were you when your family got its first television?

ED MCMAHON (Entertainer): Oh, boy. It would be – the first television set – I came out of World War II and I went to Catholic University in Washington and studied speech and drama. I'd already been to school before the war. I'd went to Boston College for a year and a half. And then I got out in 1949. I started on September 12, 1949, I was host of a three-hour daily variety show.

FUDGE: On television?

MCMAHON: On television.

FUDGE: Okay.

MCMAHON: And there was no television in the afternoon. Television started at 5:30. And I was on the air for six months before I got my own television set. My first…

FUDGE: So you were on TV before you…

MCMAHON: Yeah.

FUDGE: …actually got a TV.

MCMAHON: If my family wanted to see me on television, they had to go down to the local bar and ask them to turn on television.

FUDGE: Now how did you get into broadcasting? I guess you just – you applied for a job. It sounds like you were a drama major and so that sort of led…

MCMAHON: Well, I start…

FUDGE: …you in that direction?

MCMAHON: I started, actually, earlier, before that. I was up in Lowell, Massachusetts. At ten years old, I knew I wanted to be in this business. I wanted to be a broadcaster. I started practicing with a flashlight like it was a microphone. I was reading Time magazine aloud—Time had just come out—and that was my script. And then I got my first job when I was 17, at the local station in Lowell, Mass. So I was in radio before World War II. Then after the war – Of course, in the war, I – wherever I was, I emceed the shows. I did anything to do with be on a microphone. I really started out as a Bingo announcer, calling Bingo numbers. But I wanted to be on a microphone and so I wanted to…

FUDGE: I'll bet you did it well, though. Calling out those numbers.

MCMAHON: Oh, that's very important. But I – When I finished school after the war, television was just beginning in 1949. That was the beginning, so it was great, I was right there.

FUDGE: And my guest is Ed McMahon. He's the former co-host of "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and he's written a book called "When Television Was Young." And that's kind of what we're talking about right now, his work in television when it was young. What was the first TV show you worked on? What was it about?

MCMAHON: It was about – it was a variety show. It was about anything, anything I could get on the air. It was three hours and if a couple of clowns came to town with a circus, I'd interview them. Even if they didn't talk, I'd interview them anyway. But I would get a lot of – You know, Philadelphia's like a proving ground for shows going to Broadway. And I would get a lot of stars on because of that. And we just filled it up with anything you could.

FUDGE: Was television live back in those days?

MCMAHON: Oh, yes, totally live. There was no way to capture it. There was no videotape. They had a thing called kinescope but it was very poor quality so we didn't use it very much. Everything was live.

FUDGE: I read the transcript of an interview you did with Tavis Smiley and he said that there was one point in your career where you were working on 13 television shows.

MCMAHON: That's true.

FUDGE: Thirteen?

MCMAHON: Yes.

FUDGE: And some of these you hosted and produced?

MCMAHON: Yeah, and wrote. I did everything. Whenever something came to town, I would try to audition for it or get it automatically, and I did every kind of show you could imagine. I had a late night dance show where adults came in and danced to music. I did a quiz show. When frozen foods began to be popular, I stood in front of a big frozen food freezer that you find in a, you know, a grocery store and we played a contest and, of course, the name of the show was "Cold Cash." Where do you think the money was? In the freezer.

FUDGE: You have suggested that reality television, which is so common today is nothing new and that it was going on, to a large extent, in the old days of television.

MCMAHON: Yes.

FUDGE: Can you explain that?

MCMAHON: Oh, sure. In other words, we had a lot of reality shows. We had, you know, we had situations where you'd put somebody in a certain position and then they'd try to work their way out. We had man-on-the-street programs where you'd just stop somebody on the street, you'd have a subject, and you'd ask them their opinion. So we did all that. The old Broadway song "Everything Old Is New Again" applies to the early days of television because everything we did – everything we do now, rather, we did back then.

FUDGE: And why don't you tell us how you ended up on "The Tonight Show." We're jumping forward in time…

MCMAHON: That's all right.

FUDGE: …I realize a little bit.

MCMAHON: Well, I worked with Johnny on a daytime game show called "Who Do You Trust." And when he got "The Tonight Show" when Jack Paar retired—and Jack Paar, by the way recommended Johnny for that role—when he got that job, he took me with him from the game show, very luckily for me that he grabbed me and took me with him. So that's how I got the job.

FUDGE: And this is when you were in New York?

MCMAHON: Yes.

FUDGE: Okay. When did the show move to Los Angeles? I forget.

MCMAHON: 1972.

FUDGE: 1972.

MCMAHON: On Memorial Day weekend, yeah.

FUDGE: And you were on "The Tonight Show" how many years?

MCMAHON: Thirty years.

FUDGE: And Johnny Carson was the host that you always worked with.

MCMAHON: Well, we had some guest hosts. You know, when he would take a vacation or take a day off, I would work with everybody. I worked with Kermit the Frog one night. I worked with Al…

FUDGE: Kermit was the host?

MCMAHON: He was the host.

FUDGE: Wow.

MCMAHON: And I was the second banana to Kermit the Frog.

FUDGE: It sounds like – Well, when people think about you and they think about Ed McMahon, probably—I'm willing to bet—that most people think about what – the way you used to introduce Johnny Carson: Here's Johnny.

MCMAHON: Right.

FUDGE: Anybody who's watched TV during that era remembers that. And I've been told that you actually put quite a bit of thought into how you were going to introduce him…

MCMAHON: Right.

FUDGE: …and it took you a while to come up with that formula.

MCMAHON: Yeah, I wanted to come up with something different. I didn't think it was big enough to just say 'here's Johnny.' So I came up with that. When I was in radio, I used to roll the R's. If somebody had a name like Roger, I don't know why I did this but I would go 'Heerrre's Roger,' like that. And I remembered that the first day, it was 1962, October first, and I remembered that that first day and I did it that night. Now I knew I had something because the next day as I walked through the halls of NBC, people were ducking their heads out of their offices and saying 'Heerrre's Johnny.' So I knew I had something.

FUDGE: And that, of course, became part of the mythology of television. By the way, is Kermit the Frog pretty good at doing interviews?

MCMAHON: Yeah, very good.

FUDGE: What about Johnny Carson? I mean, what do you think his key was? Why was he such an effective interviewer?

MCMAHON: He was like the guy next door. You know, he had that Midwestern ethic. He was from Omaha. And people think – thought that they could talk to him, they knew him. And he was very warm, and he took his time. He wasn't rushing through interviews. He would take plenty of time to do an interview or tell a joke. And people liked that. They felt very comfortable with him.

FUDGE: Good listener?

MCMAHON: Oh, yes, very good listener. That's the key. The key to doing a good interview is you got to listen because sometimes the next question is in the last answer. And you got to be curious, have the curiosity of a child.

FUDGE: Johnny Carson used to say that he was great when he was talking to ten million people but not so good when he was talking to just ten.

MCMAHON: Yeah, that was his quote.

FUDGE: And that sort of suggests that, in fact, he wasn't a very social guy.

MCMAHON: Well, he was social with his own people, amongst his own group, his own friends, he was great. He was not good at cocktail parties. If he was at a cocktail party, if he had to go, he'd be over in the corner doing magic tricks, sitting at a table one-on-one with somebody doing magic. But he was not good at, you know, hail fellow well met. He was not that kind of guy.

FUDGE: And, once again, my guest is Ed McMahon. Ed spent 30 years on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson and has had a long and varied career in broadcasting. His latest book is called "When Television Was Young." Ed, I think a lot of people assume that it was difficult working, for you, working in the shadow of Johnny Carson, and I know you don't feel that way. And you compare your role on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson to playing basketball with Michael Jordan.

MCMAHON: Right.

FUDGE: Why don't you tell us what you mean by that.

MCMAHON: Well, if Michael Jordan, he's a star, he's going down the court but he gets trapped, he shoots the basketball to me, I dribble a couple of places, get him free, shoot the ball back to him, we work our way down the court like that but he sinks the basket. I help him get to the joke but he tells the joke.

FUDGE: In fact, somebody – This is a quote from you. You said that somebody once said, well, I don't know why Ed McMahon is on the show because he doesn't do anything. You took that as a compliment.

MCMAHON: Yes. If it looked like I was seamless in my performance, it was a great compliment.

FUDGE: Before you were on "The Tonight Show," were you a fan of Jack Paar and…

MCMAHON: Oh, yes, Steve Allen.

FUDGE: …and Fred Allen?

MCMAHON: Steve Allen.

FUDGE: I said, Fred Allen.

MCMAHON: Steve Allen.

FUDGE: It's been a long time. Steve Allen.

MCMAHON: Yeah. I was. I was a big fan of "The Tonight Show" in general. I just liked that format. I used to listen to it almost every night.

FUDGE: And do you still watch late night TV?

MCMAHON: Oh, yeah.

FUDGE: Do you still watch Jay Leno and…

MCMAHON: Sure.

FUDGE: …and…

MCMAHON: David Letterman.

FUDGE: …David Letterman? Anything you want to say about those guys? Any criticisms?

MCMAHON: Well, they're both good. The guy I think is really very good is Craig Ferguson. Have you seen him? He's on after Letterman.

FUDGE: You know, I have to admit I haven't seen Craig Ferguson.

MCMAHON: He's very good.

FUDGE: But then I go to bed early. And I get up early. I have two small children. But – So he's a guy that you really like. Why do you like him?

MCMAHON: He's just very self-deprecating. He's extremely funny. And he dresses up, you know, like Johnny did. He gets into costume. He becomes somebody else, and he's very good at that. But he's got a style. You ought to stay up one night. When the kids are staying up late, stay up late with them, let them watch with you.

FUDGE: Another thing that you used to say was, 'Heigh-oh,' when…

MCMAHON: Heigh-oh!

FUDGE: Yeah, now where did that come from?

MCMAHON: I just thought of that one night. It's like the battle cry, John Wayne, you know, round up the wagons, the Indians are coming. Heigh-oh!

FUDGE: And, you know, the old variety show is really not something that we see much on television anymore. Why do you think that is? And do you miss it? Or is this just what happens to TV? It just changes.

MCMAHON: I think it's just evolution of the medium. But there's still some variety on. You know, there's a little variety on. I think "Dancing with the Stars" is kind of a variety show. It doesn't have a lot of different things; it just has dancing. But, you know, when I did "Star Search," that was a great variety show. We do the telethon every year, one of the great variety shows of all time. But it's a format that is not as popular as it used to be, unfortunately.

FUDGE: I understand there was a time when you wanted to be an architect.

MCMAHON: That's true. I thought about that. I still love building. I love to see construction. I love all of that. And I've designed a couple of homes with the help of another architect in my life, and I really enjoy that.

FUDGE: I understand there was also a time in your life—and I don't know if this was on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City—but you used to sell sausages and you made quite a bit of money doing that.

MCMAHON: Yeah, I sold the famous Mars (sp) Metric Slicer. It was not very famous but we kept saying it was famous. As far as we were concerned, it was famous. And I did that for about three summers and I paid my way through college. It was great.

FUDGE: How much did you make in a week?

MCMAHON: Oh, I don't want to tell you. You'll fall down. In 1946 and '47 and '48, I was making $500.00 a week selling vegetable gadgets. A lot of money.

FUDGE: And how much did it cost to buy a car back in those days?

MCMAHON: About three or four hundred dollars.

FUDGE: Okay, so you were making more than what you had to pay for a car.

MCMAHON: Yeah, that's right.

FUDGE: Well, Ed McMahon, thank you so much for coming in.

MCMAHON: Thank you, Tom. It was nice being with you.

CAVANAUGH: That was Tom Fudge interviewing Ed McMahon back in 2007. McMahon died this week at the age of 86. Stay with us. Coming up next on These Days, a live performance of music by Handel right after this break.

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