Ed McMahon: The Greatest Sidekick Of All Time Commentator Marc Acito examines what it means to be a sidekick after the death of Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson's longtime straight man.

Ed McMahon: The Greatest Sidekick Of All Time

Marc Acito is the author of How I Paid for College and Attack of the Theater People. Courtesy of Marc Acito hide caption

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Courtesy of Marc Acito

Marc Acito is the author of How I Paid for College and Attack of the Theater People.

Courtesy of Marc Acito

I always found it disorienting to see Ed McMahon do other gigs — the way you felt disoriented when you saw your teacher outside of school. But whether McMahon was hosting Star Search or doing ads for Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes, he still seemed to be playing a supporting role to other people having their moment in the sun.

That can be a thankless task. McMahon described his job on the Carson show by saying, "My role was to make him look good while not looking too good myself." Sidekicks are invariably dumpier and less attractive (Vivian Vance famously stayed 10 pounds heavier than I Love Lucy star Lucille Ball), but they are often more beloved for being wackier and more outrageous. I mean, french fries are the sidekick of foods, but who doesn't enjoy eating them?

Still, sidekicks function as lieutenants. Their very wackiness makes the principal character seem more attractive. On Cheers, the urbane Frasier Crane made Sam look even more masculine and desirable. But when Frasier got his own show, the creators added Frasier's effete brother, Niles, who made Frasier appear more normal by comparison.

In McMahon's case, it meant functioning as the straight man, what vaudevillians called "the feed," because it's his job to feed the setups for jokes. In burlesque, the job was considered so important that the straight man took 55 percent, often because it was his responsibility to procure and negotiate the bookings.

That arrangement is closer to the responsibilities of real-life sidekicks. Sous-chefs, vice presidents, personal assistants, publicists and operating-room nurses all serve to support and elevate someone else. Sometimes those jobs are steppingstones — in Hollywood, the assistants of today are the executives of tomorrow. But often you encounter someone who truly seems suited to be the wind beneath someone else's wings. Ask them why and they'll tell you that they lack ambition or the talent for the spotlight, but without them the stars wouldn't shine.

In Don Quixote, it is only through the commentary of his sidekick Sancho Panza that we get a full understanding and appreciation of the insane knight. In The Lord of the Rings, it's Sam who makes Frodo's quest possible. And without the help of Tinker Bell, Peter Pan never would have found his shadow, as fitting a metaphor for a sidekick as there ever was.

But occasionally their efforts are appreciated, as when Johnny Carson himself said, "The show would have been impossible to do without Ed."

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