Booze Library Finds: Ed McMahon’s Barside Companion

Boozy lessons from the King of Late Night’s sidekick

All photos by Lincoln Chinnery. 

A long time ago there was one undisputed King of Late Night. His name was Johnny Carson. Mr. Carson had a sidekick named Ed McMahon. More than just an off-screen voice, Mr. McMahon was a friend, confidant and drinking buddy. Ed (to a nation of viewers) enjoyed a good drink as much (and a little bit more) as the next guy. Ed was famous for his adventures in and around bars. His scores of experiences, off color jokes and bar games were captured in a book called Ed McMahon’s Barside Companion.

This is the book that your grandfather had tucked away in his home bar between Playboy’s Host and Bar Book and Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts. Published in 1969 by New World Publishing with art by Playboy cartoonist Phil Interlandi, this book is a treasure trove of old school bar games, cocktails definitions, bets and spirited stunts. All of it written to be shared and given to a future generation of bar enthusiasts.

As much as I love this book I must acknowledge its major flaw. It was written in 1969 and only speaks to (White) men. Ed writes as if he’s in a bar full of guys and he’s talking to a bartender named Bill. Seriously, in this book Ed conversates with his fictional pal Al and bartender Bill like Elwood Dowd spoke to Harvey. The book mirrors what bar culture was back then – bartenders wore aprons up to their armpits, patrons smoked cigarettes inside the bar, women were there for entertainment, wives were punchlines and People of Color were invisible. It’s a history lesson in a glass with no chaser and no excuses.

While this book reflects a sorry past, it holds some amazing gems. For instance, On Bar Games (page 53). Out of the dozens of bar games in this book, the one that sticks out the most is Concentric Circle Tic Tac Toe. Draw four circles – much like a bullseye, divided by eight lines. Two players wage war with Xs and Os (like regular Tic Tac Toe) until someone has four consecutive Xs or Os. Playing a few rounds of this while drinking extra dry Martinis will give you a solid reason to put down your phone and concentrate on the evening at hand.

One of the timeless notes this book has is its resourcefulness. The games use items found in most bars – toothpicks, olives, cocktail napkins, dollar bills (okay, no one carries cash anymore, but you get the idea). After you read through this book and learn a few of these games, the most you’ll need to carry is a deck of playing cards. It’s all about convenient playfulness to pass the time and bring people together.

Like any good book this one has a twist: The last few chapters are dedicated to education. And not just the history of spirits but pieces devoted to real life alcohol issues. The chapter titled “When can I start to drink, Dad?”  is an actual statement from the Seagram Distilling Company – something you don’t find in most modern cocktail books. There’s a section on calculating your blood alcohol and drinking and driving. Before you ask, Ed is against it. The Barside Companion is brimming with information that the parents of this generation should have taught their children.

If you aren’t familiar with Ed, Johnny and their groundbreaking legacy in Late Night television I suggest you try The Carson Podcast or hit the Wiki to find out more.

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