Electric Review

Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms

Claudia McMahon Discusses Her Father, Carson, and A Faltering News Media

Claudia McMahon and daughter Jiao Jiao in November 2018. Photo courtesy Claudia McMahon.

Claudia McMahon –  the oldest daughter of “Tonight Show” legend Ed McMahon – grew up in the shadow of the Hollywood neon, as her famous father found his way into America’s collective living room 5 nights a week for 30 years.

After graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in English/ Communications in the mid-1960s, Claudia found her first calling as a social worker, guiding the disenfranchised thorough life-challenges such as addiction and mental illness. But cutbacks to various social programs under Ronald Reagan’s presidency erased her job, and Claudia once again found herself looking for work in the late 1980s.

That’s when she received a a call from her father, who was prowling for a Talent Coordinator for the old “Star Search” show. Even though she never envisioned a role for herself in television, she accepted the job and relocated to New York. Once on staff at “Star Search” Claudia excelled, discovering mega-stars Rosie O’Donnell and Martin Lawrence along the way. The days she spent hunting for talent at “Star Search” groomed her for a place on the news-side of television, first as a Producer at ABC’s “Good Morning America” (1993-1996); and then as a Senior Producer at Fox News (1998-2002).

Today, Claudia works as a Television/Media Consultant for Women Media Pros, helping celebrities navigate media minefields while simultaneously serving as a sometimes talent coach. The success she has enjoyed in her career shouldn’t be dismissed as the natural extension of having a TV legend for a father.

Instead, Claudia has forged her own way in a mostly male-dominated universe, bucking long-standing trends in an attempt to bring some semblance of substance to television news. Nonetheless, Claudia knows just where she came from, and her recollections of her famous father are both poignant and revealing, granting us this rare and up-close glimpse of the man who helped Carson climb to the top of the ratings.

The Electric Review sat down with Claudia McMahon on November 24, 2020: At once direct, relevant, and insightful, she personifies what the journalists who guide the airwaves should sound like.

Tell me about your background and where you grew up.

I was born in Florida. My father was in the service and we lived there during my early years. Eventually, we ended up in Philadelphia and I spent the majority of my time there in the suburbs. We lived in an apartment until I was in the seventh grade, and then we moved into a house. I was educated at Catholic schools and was enrolled in an all-girls high school.  When I was a senior in high school, we moved to New York. I was devastated at the time because I was about to graduate. But we made the move – mainly because dad had commuted to New York from Philadelphia for seven years for the “Tonight Show.” Even though it was hard at first, I eventually came to love New York.

What was day-to-day life like in your house?

Imagine being raised in a household where there was no prejudice. My parents raised us with no prejudice. My mom had been raised in the South where racism was prevalent. But she shunned all traces of that attitude after meeting my dad and meeting different people. She turned that attitude around after meeting my dad and meeting different people. Dad was in the service during World War II and he would not tolerate prejudice of any kind. For example, he would reprimand anyone who used derogatory words toward the Japanese. He wanted his kids to be raised without such prejudices.

How many siblings do you have?

I have two remaining siblings – a younger brother and a sister; I lost my brother Michael to colon cancer when he was just 44.

You eventually attended Syracuse University and studied Communications?

Yes I did. When I started college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. My father was an entertainer so I took drama courses. By the end of the first term I realized that I had no talent as an actor and I switched to English/Communications.

When did you know that your family was different – living in full public view because of your father’s work?

Well, when we moved to New York I realized for the first time that we had money. We had lived in a nice neighborhood in Philadelphia, but when I saw the house in New York I realized it was different. In Philadelphia, dad had been involved in television and people knew him, but it wasn’t like he was a star. But in New York, he was identified as being on the “Tonight Show.” Sometimes I found that attention obnoxious. Dad was also doing commercials for Budweiser and there were life-size cut-outs of him in grocery stores everywhere. Everybody knew who we were…

Did you like that feeling? Or did it make you uncomfortable?

I didn’t like it because I really wasn’t used to it. I was already grown up. I’ve talked to other celebrity kids about this, and truthfully, you’re always wondering if your friends want to be friends with you because they like you or because they want to meet your father. Really – it’s not like I was special. Dad was the special one. And because of that, I was treated differently. That can be confusing on a certain level…

Tell me about Ed McMahon – was he the same guy we saw on TV all those years, or did he have another side he kept from the public eye?

I would say he was the same. He was out-going, but still shy. My dad’s father was a traveling salesman, and when he was a kid his family moved nine times. He also had very bad acne and because of these things he grew up shy. At the same time, he was driven. And that drive overcame his shyness. He was naturally outgoing and gregarious. He was also a great father, but very strict – especially with me since I was the oldest daughter. My dad was a good person and that fact was always noticed. He was considered to be one of the top five people working in the entertainment world. A person who always went the extra mile for you…

Did you ever meet Johnny Carson? What was he like?

Oh yes! Johnny Carson was the first older man [on whom] I ever had a crush. Sometimes he would come to Philadelphia and spend the weekend with us. I was so infatuated with him I wouldn’t leave the house while he was there. Johnny was not like my dad at all. He was more aloof. I understood why. Dad was the kind of guy who was happy to sign autographs and chat with fans. But with Johnny – everybody wanted a piece of him. And you just can’t give everybody a piece of yourself. You have to pull back. Johnny was a superstar, he was on a much different level than dad was on. Everybody wanted to invade his privacy and talk to him. He had to draw back. He became aloof to save himself.

Did you ever appear on the Tonight Show yourself?

No, I never appeared on the show. But I was often in the audience. And a few times I was on stage during color and sound checks.

Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson are arguably the most well-liked duo ever to star on television. Moreover, they appeared as if they truly liked and enjoyed each other. Was that real? Or did they spar off camera?

That was definitely real. But, when dad started getting other opportunities and became the Budweiser spokesman, Johnny started digging him more on camera. But obviously, they were close. Both men had lost sons and that bonded them; as a result, they were able to help each other through those losses. They ended up being friends until the end. They just weren’t as close after the show ended. Johnny had other superstar friends – Carey Grant. Frank Sinatra. Dad was more of a home and family man…

Tell me two of your ‘I will never forget’ moments from the “Tonight Show.”

It’s hard to pick just two moments. But the times I was in the audience to see Cher and the Jackson Five stand out as being very special to me. It’s special when you are given the chance to meet an idol. Also the last show, when Better Midler and Robin Williams were guests, was a highlight. It was very emotional. And dad was very emotional during that last show. That will always stand out as being a special moment…

I understand you have an adopted daughter who was born in China.  That kind of adoption makes such a bold statement – how did you come to make this decision?

I was the older sister in the family. The aunt to six nieces and nephews. But I had never married and had no children. I worked in TV. And that was my life. At one point, I wanted more. I wanted to be more than the aunt [who tended to the nieces and nephews]. At one point, I read this article about single career women adopting children from China. And I began to explore the idea slowly. It certainly was not a snap decision. I was 55 when I adopted my daughter. In China, they actually welcome the process because there are so many children in orphanages…

Claudia McMahon sits with her 8-year-old adopted daughter, Jiao Jiao, on their first night together in the United States after their return from China in 2001. Photo courtesy Claudia McMahon.

What particular challenges did adopting a child from another continent present?

The obvious challenge was language. I adopted Jiao Jiao when she was 8 and a half. She didn’t speak a word of English. She had been abandoned when she was seven. {For a time] I was in a support group with other women who had adopted children and I gained direction from them. At one point I got a tutor who helped me learn some basic Mandarin [so Claudia could begin teaching her daughter]. Another great challenge involved my job – right after work I would have to pick Jiao Jiao up from school and then help her learn the fundamentals of an new language. It was quite difficult because she had never been to public school anywhere before [which meant Jiao Jiao had no language to reference since she was never taught Mandarin before she left China]. It was a struggle in the beginning, but in just ten months’ time Jiao Jiao was fluent. She is obviously quite intelligent.

When you look at the current battle over immigration taking place in the United States, what would you want to express to government leaders – knowing what you know now after the success of your adoption?

25,000 kids are adopted from China to the United States every year. And I feel it is absurd that there are barriers blocking people from coming here to get an education and to seek a better life. It’s the antithesis of what Americans are about. We’re about opening our doors. If my daughter had stayed there she would have been kicked out of the orphanage at 14 and would have ended up as a prostitute or working in a factory. She would have never had one day of education. But she will make a difference here one day. Immigrants are the backbone of this country and we need to always remember that.

How did your father inspire you to pursue a career in television?

He really didn’t. The last thing I wanted to do was work in television. My first job was as a Vista Volunteer.  I was working in a segregated town in Kentucky. I was this white kid and what did I know about community organizing? But I learned. And then I worked in social services for eleven years in various facilities in Philadelphia. I worked as a counselor and teacher. I did that until President Reagan eliminated those programs. When that happened I was suddenly out of a job.

I understand you actually worked with your father at one point in the early 90s on “Star Search?”

Yes, after I lost my job as a social worker Dad mentioned that he needed people on “Star Search.” I thought he was out of his mind! But out of desperation I moved to New York and took a job on the show as a Talent Coordinator, scouting talent in different areas of the country.

At one point you also worked as a producer on “Good Morning America,” spending a good piece of your career in the thick of TV news. How has the industry changed since you left?

Yes! “Good Morning America” is my all-time favorite job. I loved the work and I loved the people.  Now, it [the news] is so opinionated. You have talking heads competing and screaming over one another. It seems ridiculous to me. [When I worked in news], I never had to write any statement or story I didn’t believe in. And I left [the industry] when I no longer believed in the process. There are many former news producers in L.A. It’s easy to get burnt out. You’re always on call, always working…

What do you feel is lacking in the industry today?

It lacks balance today. “Good Morning America” was balanced. That was the given standard. It’s just what you were. And it was never an issue [to be debated].

On some levels, the news industry has always been male-dominated. During the course of your career, did you ever experience sexism and how did you transcend it?

The first thing I realized was that, if you wanted to be respected by the men you worked with and for, you had to be completely professional at all times. No whining or complaining, no inappropriate relationships in the office. You also had to develop a reputation for being a hard worker who went the extra mile. My father was known for this, and so was I. Nonetheless, as a woman, even if you maintain these high standards, you are still open to criticism – sometimes you will still be ignored and sexualized [no matter what you do]. In most of the jobs I had, I was lucky to have supportive male bosses who became mentors. For the ones who were the opposite, I just did my job. [Instinctively] I knew they were acting like this with all the female employees. 

What does your role as a media consultant/coach entail?

Well, if an actor or author or news personality has a TV appearance where a controversial subject will be discussed, we film them in a trial interview answering questions. Then they can see how they sound and how they appear to an audience. They’re allowed to see how they will be perceived and can correct any problems if necessary.

How has COVID changed your life and how are you coping personally?

I am certainly not very happy these days. I am tired of being inside all the time. And I need a lot of visual stimulation now. I am not reading as much either. I think being in quarantine has caused a lot of laziness with people generally. We’re just not as motivated. I am trying to follow the protocols, but I still feel very isolated. I feel I lack a real purpose. I thought when this all started I would feel more motivated, but I don’t. And that disappoints me.

If your dad were alive today, what message would he give to America right now as it flounders without direction or identity?

I think Dad would have been a big Biden supporter and I think he would be appalled at where we are as a country. I think he would be appalled by Trump and the GOP. I think dad would be very outspoken about it, too. He was a very honest man and he would have been compelled to point out these lies. He wouldn’t just sit quiet. I think he’d say: “Get behind Biden and let’s turn this mess out!”

by John Aiello

One comment on “Claudia McMahon Discusses Her Father, Carson, and A Faltering News Media

  1. introgroove
    December 1, 2020

    Thanks for sharing this. I’ve had it in my mind all this time that Johnny and Ed didn’t have much interaction off the set, just as Letterman apparently had little to do with Paul Shaffer. Nice to know they were friends to the extent possible.

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This entry was posted on November 30, 2020 by in 2020, Artist Profiles, December 2020, Features & Profiles and tagged , .

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