Given his deteriorating health, the death at age 86 of Ed McMahon, TV's most beloved second banana, isn't exactly a surprise. And we've seen the end coming, too, for the form of showbiz he represented: Pure entertainment, free of irony, aimed at the largest audience possible.
That second death has been on the way since 1982, when Late Night With David Letterman went on the air. It immediately followed Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, the very program on which McMahon had labored for so long, and was in fact co-produced by Carson. But Letterman's program, while seeming to function as a standard TV talk show, dripped with sarcasm and irony, its very existence seemingly bracketed by air quotes. It was absolutely brilliant, but it made no pretense of being aimed at a large audience. It specifically targeted the hipsters of Gen X, and it largely invented the new rules of the game. The roots of virtually all great modern comedy, from The Simpsons to Mr. Show to Mystery Science Theater 3000, can be traced to Letterman's efforts.
Many of us, in those pre-internet days, felt a rush knowing there was someone out there who viewed the world through the same skewed prism as us. And by "the world" I specifically mean "showbiz": Letterman may have been on network TV, but he reveled in its very cheesiness, mocking the very notions of celebrity that a show like Carson's worked so hard to enshrine. Carson made sure guests on his show came off well; Letterman frequently laughed at them.
And where did the dawning Age Of Irony leave poor Ed McMahon? He still had his Tonight Show gig, of course, but in the era of cable and VCRs, the audience shrank alarmingly. He tried to roll with the punches, and allowed his name to be used in the very title of Ed McMahon's Star Search. Though the show was part of a long TV tradition from Talent Scouts to American Idol, it was, if not post-modern, then at least post-Letterman: It tended to be a little too aware of its own silliness. (I mean: Spokesmodels?)
Was McMahon in on the gag? To some degree, sure; as a former carny barker, he knew full well that all entertainment was a form of selling lies. But what did he think of Phil Hartman's hilarious but mercilessly cruel parody of him on Saturday Night Live, which seemed to imply that McMahon's very existence was a joke. He'd flown combat missions in Korea, for God's sake. He'd boned more women than Sinatra. Who did these young bastards think they were?
In between Star Search tapings, McMahon teamed up with Dick Clark for those endless blooper and practical joke shows, and even post-Carson, still had a regular second-banana position as Jerry Lewis' foil every year on the telethon. He clung to his peculiar form of celebrity into the new century, still faking sincerity, still trying not to let the seams show, still hoping Alpo and Budweiser would call up with endorsement deals, and it would be 1975 all over again and all would be right with the world.