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Originally published October 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 15, 2007 at 3:37 PM

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Ed McMahon Q&A | No. 2 guy gets the No. 1 guy

Seattle Times staff reporter

Answer: Banana hammock.

Question: Where would a famous Second Banana likely spend his later years?

At least Karnack the Magnificent would think so. But at 84, Ed McMahon says he has no plans to retire. He's been touring with his "Memories of The Tonight Show" (Oct. 25 at Swinomish Northern Lights Casino in Anacortes); promoting his new book, "When Television Was Young" (Thomas Nelson, $24.99); and even hawking his own brand of vodka. I extracted a few trademark belly laughs from the former "Star Search" host and sweepstakes pitchman as I asked him about when he was young. Q: Is it possible I could already be a winner?

A: Well, let me tell you how close you came. It's amazing. You came in second.

Q: Story of my life. Did anyone ever tell you, "I was just using Johnny Carson to get to you"?

A: Uh, let me see. "I was just using Johnny to get to you." That's a pretty good question. I can't help you now, unfortunately. I am in contact with the heavens, but I just can't help you now, I'm sorry.

Q: You stayed with Johnny longer than most people stay married — starting in 1957. What was your friendship with him like?

A: Well, it was like a camaraderie that you would have — you know I was a Marine. If I met him in the Marine Corps we would have been buddies. If I met him in the Navy — he was a Navy guy — we'd a been buddies. It was just one of those things. We kind of gravitated toward each other. I learned many years after I met him that when I met him for the first time he had made up his mind when he looked at me coming through the door, saw my size, heard my voice and said to himself, "That's the guy."

Q: Johnny's playful exasperation with you never failed to crack me up — especially from your constant repetition of his lines. Did you concoct that, or did it just happen?

A: (Laughs) That just happened. A lot of those things that you got to love and was part of your life as a viewer of "The Tonight Show" just happened. I saw very little of Johnny Carson before the show. I would go the whole day and not see him. And if we had to do an Aunt Blabby or do something where there were setup lines for jokes and so forth, we'd do that in his office. He'd sit on one end of the couch, I'd sit on the other, and the cue cards would come up — you know, somebody held the cue cards — and I had to get the setup for the punchline. As I used to say, "How come you always get the snappers?" The idea that I always did the setups and he got the funny lines. So that was like a running gag that we'd throw in every once in a while. But those kinds of things just happened, and when we knew we had struck gold in the mine, we kept digging there.

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Q: And yet you got one of the all-time great snappers on him. He says to you, "Karnack is attempting to divine an answer and you're sitting here, giggling. May I have silence, please?" And you say ...

A: I say, "You've had it many times before."

Q: And that brought the house down.

A: It did, it did. People love when the No. 2 guy gets the No. 1 guy. People love that because there are a lot more No. 2 people in the world than there are No. 1 people in the world. And he knew it was great fodder. Then I'd get The Look, you know. Then The Look would get a laugh. But we knew that. We never discussed that. When we were walking down the stairs for the very first show ... I said to him, "How do you see my role down here tonight?" He said, "Ed, I don't even know how I see my own role here tonight. Let's just go down and entertain the hell out of them." And that pretty much sums up 30 years of "The Tonight Show."

Q: Did you turn around and take things out on some third banana?

A: (Laughs heartily.) I have never met a Third Banana in my life.

Q: We'll move on, then.

A: There was a song from "The Phil Silvers Show." What the hell was the name of that? If you want to be a top banana, you gotta start at the bottom of the bunch. That's the whole idea. To get to be a second banana, you don't get there just because you're as handsome and beautiful as I am. You get there because you're good at it.

Q: Johnny constantly razzed you about your drinking. How loaded were you really back then?

A: Most of the time. I'd start out in the morning. Before breakfast I'd have about eight martinis. I might have some eggs. I wasn't really crazy about eggs. After you have eight martinis, you really want a couple of olives.

Q: Are you loaded now?

A: No, as a matter of fact I haven't had a drink in about four or five years. I had enough. I drank a long time. I drank as a Marine fighter pilot. I drank growing up as a young man. And I finally got to the point when I had enough.

Q: Then tell me about Ed McMahon Vodka! Did you really need to make your own, sir?

A: Yeah, I did. There's a vodka out called McMahon Perfect. We tried to launch it. It got to the point where it got too big for us. It was like holding onto a tiger's tail. It got too big for us and we're trying to sell what we accomplished, and that's where it is at the moment.

Q: That was a different era. Dino came out with a cocktail, people loosened up in the green room. Do you think talk shows are too tightly operated now?

A: That's a very good question. I don't know. We had a couple of incidents over the 30-year period where a couple of people had a little more fun in the green room than they should have had, and came out and were not quite as conversationally perfect as they might have been.

Q: I want names.

A: (Laughs) At gunpoint you won't get them. Anyway, I don't know, to be honest with you.

Q: Since you're the preeminent MC of all time, what's your opinion of MC Hammer?

A: I worked with him in something, I forget what it was. He is a good musician and as I remember a very nice guy.

Q: When did you speak with Johnny last?

A: I had lunch with him on his boat, and as I walked away — you'll think I made this up because it sounds too good. We had the usual lunch we would have, and we talked and kidded and joked. You know, I wished there could have been a fly on the wall with a handheld camera to watch this, because you'd have found it very entertaining. Several times a year we'd get together and have lunch. This particular time we were on his boat, and I said goodbye, we saluted and did the whole thing, goodbye from the boat and so forth. I walked down the ladder from the boat onto the deck and I walked along the companionway, and I was leaving the area of the dock where the boat was, and I just happened to look back, and he was standing on one of the middle decks, just leaning up against the railing kind of looking at me, and I looked back at him and I gave him another salute, and he gave me a salute.

Q: What did you think of "The Larry Sanders Show" and the Hank Kingsley character?

A: I love that. Imitation, what a tribute that is to somebody. If somebody wants to kind of emulate you or kind of be you or take you from a parody situation, you take a slice of the pie and make a slice of the pie the whole pie. I did that show, I think twice. And I did a movie with Jeffrey Tambor. So I knew him, as a matter of fact. And it was interesting to watch that when they would develop those, my idiosyncrasies would become the theme of some particular scene.

Q: How about "Saturday Night Live's" spoofs with Phil Hartman? As funny as those sketches were, their joke was that "The Tonight Show" was out of touch. Did that sting?

A: Let me tell you something about that. Phil Hartman and I became dear, dear friends. Phil Hartman used to come to the front door for dinner, right? He would ring the doorbell, I would answer the door. Before he came in, he would do five minutes of Ed McMahon.

And I knew he was going for the gusto and going for the humor, and it was fine, you know that was what he was doing.

Q: As the host of "Star Search," do you find "American Idol" to be just mean-spirited karaoke?

A: No, no, no. There are some mean-spirited moments there, in my opinion. Somebody shouldn't be on that stage unless they've really earned the right to be there. No, no, that's a glorification of talent and I love it. They're finding people, they're finding stars, and I was lucky to do that for 12 years. Every era has had, we had "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts," we had "Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour." Dick Clark had a show, so there's always been kind of a talent-type show in every era of broadcasting and that's the current talent type show.

Q: If I were to say not just that this was a very informative interview, but that EVERYTHING you want to know about Ed McMahon was in this interview, what do you think would Johnny say?

A: Johnny would say you haven't even scratched the surface.

Q: I was hoping for: "Au contraire, dishwater breath."

A: Oh! (Laughs.) Very good ... olive breath!

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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