Lucky To Be Laughing: Remembering Ed McMahon Commentator Sonari Glinton says Ed McMahon sometimes played the grinning fool on The Tonight Show. But he says McMahon knew what he was doing, and wouldn't have had it any other way.
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Lucky To Be Laughing: Remembering Ed McMahon

Sonari Glinton is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. He's known to his co-workers for his love of pop culture — especially The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. hide caption

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When I was a little boy, I often had trouble sleeping. My mother worked the late shift, so I'd wait for her to come pick me up from the babysitter. And long before I should have, I became a fan of The Tonight Show. The show was my window into a sophisticated world. It turned me on to comedy and jazz — what would become the twin loves of my life.

Even as a kid, I felt a bit superior to Ed McMahon. I'd think, "C'mon, Ed, that wasn't funny. Stop laughing." Everyone seemed to feel superior to Ed, including Johnny Carson. He has often been a bit of a pop culture joke — the liquored-up doofus who didn't exactly hold down his end of the couch.

Like much of conventional wisdom, that's dead wrong. He was essential to the success of the show. He made the show bearable, and Johnny knew it.

Johnny wasn't always the most likable guy. He was too cold, too hip, too full of himself. If Johnny was your cool, aloof dad who always withheld praise, then Ed was your uncle — the one who'd patiently listen to your dumb knock-knock joke and laugh at the punch line, not always because it was funny, but because it was wonderful that you were telling a joke.

Ed was us. He was an everyday man in a bespoke suit who was the stand-in for the audience. You always got the feeling that he was just as happy to be on the show as you were to be watching it. Heck, this was a dude who'd survived World War II and then re-enlisted and went back to Korea. He'd survived two wars. Two wars! He was lucky to be sitting on any couch, let alone that one, and he knew it.

You can almost hear him: "Bob Hope's on tonight ... Wow!" or, "I get to sit next Raquel Welch, va va va voom!"

When Johnny was mean — and Johnny could be mean — Ed would just laugh and accept it. And when the public mocked Ed, he accepted that also. He was there for the audience and not the other way around.

Ed seemed amazingly self-aware. His job was to announce and laugh. He would host a talent show, but not be on one. He knew his talent was limited, and in many ways he wasn't anything special. He lived an extraordinary life for a man of no discernable talent. He was a lucky SOB; he got paid to laugh. And now that he's gone, he'll be remembered for laughing. Think how lucky he was — and how lucky we were to laugh with him, or at him. He didn't care, as long as people were laughing.

And to that, I like to think he'd say, "You're correct, sir."

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