The death of Ed McMahon got me thinking about people who play sidekick, or give behind-the-scenes support, or are in one way or another a prop for The Big Cheese. McMahon was probably the most well-known Number Two in show biz, having hooked up with a slice of cheese the size of the moon. In typical Number Two fashion he wrote in his autobiography, “I hitched my wagon to a great star.”
I have a lot of respect for McMahon, and for most people in the Number 2 position. In baseball it’s the catchers I most admire: the guys who squat on their buns while the rest of the team rests or messes around in the dugout; in a sense the catcher nearly runs the game by calling the pitches. The pitcher of course is Number One—so important he’s excused from batting, at least in the American League, lest he lose his concentration or strain his arm. The pitcher is the guy who’s most revered in the sport, the one who gets all the kudos, attention, and money. Catchers seldom even get mentioned in game reports—but you can bet your boopies the pitcher couldn’t have done what he did without a good catcher.
Ed McMahon himself compared his job to that of catcher. “It’s like a pitcher who has a favorite catcher,” he said. “The pitcher gets a little help from the catcher, but the pitcher has to throw the ball. Well, Johnny Carson had to throw the ball, but I could give him a little help.” IMO, McMahon was being far too modest: like every good catcher, he gave Carson more than “a little help.” But such modesty is entirely in keeping with a Number 2.
I first learned what it’s like to work behind the scenes when I joined a feminist theater group umpteen years ago. When I first came on board, I was relegated to the position of understudy, as well as all-around helper during performances. I loved to do the lighting. Before you picture me up in some projection room playing with a big board of complicated doodads, let me hasten to add that “doing the lighting” in this case meant turning various light switches on and off at various moments during the performance. Nevertheless, I got enormous satisfaction doing this most menial of labors: without me, the stage and audience would remain constantly dark or constantly light. I was a crucial part of the production. To the audience I was, of course, invisible.
Later in life I came to realize that in many ways I prefer invisible roles to being the star. I’ve had occasion to be both, the latter in a limited fashion, but enough to teach me a life lesson or two. There’s something wonderful about knowing within yourself that your function in any endeavor is vital, that you do it well and with commitment, and that, unlike The Big Cheese, you’re not exposing your guts. Of course, you’re not garnering applause and adulation–but in fact, when I have gotten applause and adulation, I’ve been somewhat uncomfortable with it. Like anyone else I want recognition—but I prefer that it come in a less ostentatious manner.
I was in my mid-forties when I tapped into this area of self-knowledge, and based on it I changed my sign—my astrological sign, that is. I was born on March 21st, the cusp of Pisces / Aries, and had always identified with the big bad Ram who butts his way into the leading role. Aries women are known as ferocious pioneers, forging new pathways in life, and I happened to meet several of them around this time. I was nothing like them—and if I was, man, did I want to change! So I began reading the Pisces daily horoscope instead of Aries. Pisces is a water sign—meditative and introspective. That’s me, all right: ask me to flick the light switches and I’ll happily work alone backstage, observing the performance and myself while I do the best damn lighting job this play has ever seen!
But back to Ed McMahon and his happy role as Number 2. He used to say he had the best job in entertainment, because he worked with the best entertainer in the world. That’s debatable, IMO, but it’s not the point. The point is that, for 30 years, Ed McMahon worked as a prop for Johnny Carson, and got enormous satisfaction from it. When he died the other day, I found out that he was born March 6, 1923. Ed McMahon was a Pisces.