It’s thrilling to watch Pat McMahon order a cappuccino.
It’s how the TV host calls over the waitress during our recent lunch at Capital Grille. The former star of The Wallace and Ladmo Show spins in some random factoid in the middle of his order. He is all smiles and gentle touches, and genuinely wants to connect with folks.
There were plenty of these moments during our two-hour interview, in which we talked about everything from college mascots and The Beatles to McMahon’s early life and his thoughts on a 60-year career spanning music, TV, comedy, and news. If you know nothing about McMahon, this is a prime introduction.
McMahon grew up the son of vaudeville actors. He hopped from city to city during his most formative years. He mostly remembers wandering around Cleveland or Detroit, meeting people and ducking into toy stores. When asked if his self-proclaimed “gypsy” upbringing had an influence, McMahon veered firmly toward his journalism career.
“I think you’re onto something,” he says. “I’m not doing a hatchet job. They know that I’m going to ask the tough questions without doing Howard Stern. I don’t do self-aggrandizing interviews.”
At age 7 or so, McMahon was sent to school in Des Moines, Iowa, “equidistant from wherever [his family] will be.” He later left St. Ambrose University for his first media job, a DJ at Davenport, Iowa’s KSTT-AM. That job, however, was interrupted by a stint in the Army in 1958. By the time he got out two years later, McMahon had planned to move to New York City “because that’s where you thought you should be” as a broadcaster.
“I came down here [Phoenix] just simply to wash the khaki off in a pool somewhere in May of 1960,” he says. And in the 59 years since, McMahon’s never dreamed of relocating, adding, “The longer I was here, the more I discovered the meaning of home.”
If Phoenix gave McMahon roots, he returned the favor the best way he knew how: through entertainment. Most people know him from his 30 years at The Wallace and Ladmo Show, where he played everyone from the spoiled Gerald to the uber-cool Hub Kapp.
But Wallace (played by Bill Thompson) and Ladmo (Ladimir Kwiatkowski) weren’t just “genius” collaborators —they were dear friends. He showed up every day, wore silly wigs, and inspired generations of Arizonans. Among his many tales, the one that especially stands out is when NBC tried poaching The Wallace and Ladmo Show.
“So I go to a viewing room in Burbank, and there’s the [VP] of children’s programming, another executive, and somebody else,” he says. “From the moment the tape started, they were dying. They were falling out of their seats. Someone said, ‘That is the funniest presentation that has been presented to me at NBC, and I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.’”
That taught McMahon a valuable lesson about the importance of creative freedom. It helped that he had other irons in the fire, which kept The Wallace and Ladmo Show as the freeform creative pursuit he’d intended. From 1965 to 1970, he was the program director of Arizona’s KRIZ-AM, and he played some truly groundbreaking music.
“We decided what the hits were going to be, and put a record on all of a sudden,” he says. He recalls one “dramatic piece of music ... We got to put that on right away. What was it called? David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity.’” He also once confused Dick Clark’s staff, who “charted” each state’s radio plays, by featuring Sly and the Family Stone.
McMahon’s also been a “serious” journalist over the years, hosting The McMahon Group and Pat McMahon Show on KTAR-FM, as well as regular commentary gigs and hosting duties for KAZT-TV. All of that makes sense. McMahon’s the sort of presence that wants to inform and comfort. He’s a vaudevillian wunderkind ready to win hearts and minds with a smile and a story.
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But perhaps most interestingly, he’s spent the last 17 years hosting The God Show, in which he converses with everyone from pastors and ministers to Buddhist monks and atheists regarding spirituality. McMahon was raised Catholic, and The God Show isn’t an outlier but an extension of his entire life’s work.
“When you’re talking about comedy, so many guys will talk about bits coming from pain and from painful situations. That is not applicable to everybody,” he says. “But I think that when you’re talking about growing up in an Irish-Catholic or Jewish family, and the closer you get to orthodoxy, the more potential guilt there is for almost everything.”
McMahon’s in his 80s now (or, “somewhere between Bruno Mars and the planet Mars”), with zero retirement plans in sight. He’s actually hoping to stick around for at least another “35 years,” and who knows what he’ll have hosted by then. He could talk for another two hours regarding the value of his life’s work, but mostly he can’t wait for what’s next.
“I can’t compare [my life] with anybody’s life because it’s been so much fun, including tomorrow,” he says. “I’m trying to figure out what it is that I’m scheduled to do tomorrow. But I know that it’s exciting.”