Saturday, June 27, 2009
I didn't know Ed McMahon any better than anyone else who was an avid viewer of The Tonight Show, particularly in the 1960s, when it came from the NBC studios in New York. I did sort of get to meet him, or at least be in his presence live, when I was in the studio audience twice in 1966. Even then, Carson was taking off from the show, and Johnny was only hosting the first show I saw; Corbett Monica the other.
Normally, getting tickets to see The Tonight Show would have required advance planning and writing for tickets. But January 1, 1966 saw New York City not only with a new mayor but also saw itself burdened with a transit strike, and people weren't getting around too well. Buses and subways were kaput.
So, with NBC Studios hardly an unreasonable walk from where I then lived on 19th Street, I set out to see if I could get in on the Provisional ticket holders' line. You'd get in if all the ticket holders didn't show up. Somewhat like the Also Eligible entries in horse racing. If enough horses scratch, you can be entered. And with a transit strike in full swing, my chances of those scratches were very good.
Sure enough, there weren't even a lot of people on the Provisional line and getting allowed in was a snap. I remember seeing Johnny's brother Dick in the lobby, just as he was getting into an elevator. He looked exactly like Johnny, and was the show's long-time director. All in the family.
Ed McMahon warmed up the audience. In that era, The Tonight Show still had an opening 15 minute segment that was not broadcast on the network. It was done for the studio audience and affiliate stations that picked it up. It aired from 11:15 to 11:30. When the 11 o'clock news was 15 minutes. The Tonight Show used to start on network TV at 11:15, with Johnny coming on at 11:30. It ran to 1 o'clock.
But when the 114 day newspaper strike was on during 1962/63, the networks started to fill in the news "void," and they extended their 11 o'clock news show 15 minutes. When the newspaper strike ended the networks never went back to 15 minute 11 o'clock news. The beginning of a still long running end for newspapers.
Ed explained a few things while walking up and down one of the aisles. What I remember most was his instructions on what to do when the camera panned the audience for the 12:30 A.M. break. Ed advised, with that baritone chuckle, that if you were sitting next to someone you shouldn't be, maybe you'd want to "duck down" as the camera caught you in its view. Waywardness was nothing new. Being caught on television was.
The only guests that I remember were a singing duo who Johnny came out to introduce on the set as Simon and Garfunkel. As he did, he opened his jacket and peered at the label to see if he was wearing a "Simon and Garfunkel." They sang Sounds of Silence, probably for the first time on TV, and by all measures did pretty well from there.
The transit strike wore on a bit, and within a week I thought the Provisional ticket line gambit would work again. It did. Ed warmed up the audience. What I soon realized was that he said the same things. He advised about being seen with someone you might not want to be seen with. Basically, his presentation was the same. It was a stump speech without being a politician.
It was then I realized something I hadn't thought about: show business can be quite repetitive, especially for people doing shows like that. But very comfortable.
In Richard Severo's NYT obituary on Ed McMahon he quotes Ed as saying, "I laugh for an hour, then I go home. I've got the world's greatest job." That was when the show had been whittled down to an hour.
In the earlier days he had to laugh almost twice as long before going home.