Ron Onesti: Here's to the No. 1 'second banana' of all time
"Heeeeeere's Johnny!" For three decades, those words opened one of the most popular and most important programs in television history … "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." The man behind that all-too-familiar signature introduction? Ed McMahon, of course!
One of my most memorable experiences in the biz is when we brought him to town to talk about those golden years of TV.
A few years ago, we produced some live shows at the extraordinary NBC Tower in downtown Chicago. At the time, it had three operating television studios in the building populated by Jerry Springer, Judge Mathis and talk show host Jenny Jones. When "The Jenny Jones Show" was canceled, it left a vacant Studio B with no inherent television projects on the books.
After some talks with NBC Chicago President Larry Wert, Studio B became a 240-seat cabaret-style theater. We did several shows there, but when I had the opportunity to bring an NBC icon to the NBC Studios to talk about the most popular show in NBC history, I jumped at the chance! Ed was on tour with his "Memories Of The Tonight Show" presentation complete with behind-the-scenes stories, rare video footage and a few "bloopers" … I HAD to do that show! And what better place to do it?
When Ed arrived at NBC, everyone from the top brass to the janitors was excited to get a glimpse of him. As big of a man he was physically, that's how sincere of a person he was to anyone he spoke to. His red cheeks lit up the room and the temperature rose a few degrees just by virtue of the warmth he projected. He was great to talk to and I had so many questions … it was fabulous!
"What was a typical day on the set of 'The Tonight Show,' " I asked. "Actually, I rarely saw Johnny before we taped," he said. "The only time we would get together before a show would be in his office to read lines off the cue cards we were going to use for a particular skit. He always got the funny lines on paper, but most of the stuff we did we both came up with as we went along, whether it was a snappy response or just a funny look. That's how he said to do it the first night, and that's how we did it for 30 years."
I was sure an afternoon martini or two was the reason for the "looseness" on the set. "Well Johnny definitely liked 'the sauce' and before the show he would take a dip now and then, but he was definitely the most intelligent person I had ever met. Professionally, he was always in control," Ed said. "I, on the other hand, went to the Dean Martin School of Acting … I would have six martinis before lunch! I was far from inebriated, but that's just how showbiz was back then. Nowadays you have bottles of water. Can you imagine what would have happened if I offered Jackie Gleason a bottle of water? Bang! Zoom!"
With more than 30,000 guests to sit on that couch, dare I ask who their favorites were? "I get that question a lot. Of course, we have had presidents and kings on the show, the biggest names in the world. But at the risk of sounding pretentious, the Sinatras and the Reagans of the world were kind of in our circle, Johnny's for sure. We really enjoyed the 'real' people. There was a 5-year-old boy who came on the show to sing and Johnny did a magic trick for him. His slight-of-hand trick made a quarter disappear. The kid asked 'How did you really make the money disappear?' Johnny said 'Get married!'
"We loved the people from the small towns with heart. A heart was a hard thing to find in showbiz back then! And we loved the animals that Joan Embry would bring on. There is no laughter like that you get when a baby tiger relieves himself on you!"
We continued to banter back and forth and I really wondered if this smart, witty and engaging conversationalist ever thought of having his own talk show. "I didn't mind being 'second banana,' " he said. "There are far more second bananas in this world than top bananas, and I think that is why our formula worked. People could identify with me as 'the underdog,' and they loved when I would toss out a zinger to him. Plus, how could I ever compare to the master? The comparison would inevitably come up, and that would be embarrassing."
McMahon and I spent a bunch of time together and really hit it off. The next morning I met him at his hotel to say goodbye. As an amateur emcee I let him know what an honor it was to meet him. There happened to be a couple filming something for their wedding in the lobby. He asked me to see if they would tape something quickly for him. A strange request but I did it. "You have been so nice and respectful, I want to leave you with a little gift, something you may be able to use at your events," he said.
As they pointed the camera at him, he stood erect, smiled and announced, "And now, heeeeeere's Ronnie!"
I nearly fainted and my eyes quickly welled up. I have amassed quite a bit of showbiz memorabilia over the years, but that is on my top five list. After all, who else has that besides me and Johnny?
Big Ed is gone now. So is Johnny. And so are the days of classy showbiz moments on the couch. If those cushions could only talk!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.