The Ed Sullivan Comedy Special

The Ed Sullivan Comedy Special

Great Classic Comics get the spotlight again in PBS special

Something funny was going on during PBS’s The Ed Sullivan Comedy Special session at the recent TCA Summer Press Tour at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills. Comedian-actor Arsenio Hall and comedian-actor Robert Klein were discussing all the comics that appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.

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Although Sullivan had a long reign as the host of television’s top variety show, it was revealed that Ed didn’t really have a good sense of humor.

But the show itself was a great showcase for classic and new comics who would become icons in the business. Producer Greg Vines says he had great joy in putting together the PBS show (Aug. 6 premiere), The Ed Sullivan Comedy Special. He says, “The Sullivan archives bring back the original stars that defined the history of comedy, in their prime, doing their original acts.”

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From a young George Carlin and Richard Pryor, to Moms Mabley and Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield, they grabbed the spotlight on arguably the most popular variety show of all times. And it was a tough audience with no laugh track. Imagine how tough it was for comic-impressionist Rich Little to do his impression of Ed Sullivan in front of the humorless host?

Klein notes that the funniest irony was that “Ed Sullivan was an anomaly. He had no visible talent at all.” But he remembers Ed fondly because Klein appeared on the show six times, doing standup comedy routines. Klein was told if Ed liked your standup routine he would invite you over to take another bow for the cameras. But even after all those years, it was known that Ed would turn you the wrong way to the wrong camera, so it would always be very awkward.

The Sullivan show appearances presented the world’s best comics at the beginning of their careers. Klein says, “Seeing George Carlin do the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman, and Richard Pryor looking like babies.”

Arsenio Hall adds, “And you get to see that in the beginning, Richard’s voice was kind of an offshoot of Bill Cosby. He idolized Cosby. Later Richard found his own voice and who he really was, but he wanted to be Bill early on.”

Hall says the closest show to Sullivan nowadays is America’s Got Talent, because that talent contest show is all about variety. “What I get when I’m watching that show is the great feeling I remember when I watched the Sullivan show as a kid. It was a show on Sunday night that you could watch as a family. It was vaudeville variety acts.”

The Ed Sullivan Show lasted for 23 years, and Vines is looking forward to doing more specials. “It’s a gold mine. We could do ten more of these easily, and still feature the biggest names. For this show I had at least 2,000 hours of comedy,” Vines says. That’s a lot of laughs.


Frank Barron is the former editor of The Hollywood Reporter, having served twice in that capacity. In between, he was West Coast news director for Billboard Publications, supervising their five magazines. Barron also created the western TV series “The Man From Blackhawk” for the ABC network. For more than three decades he and writer-wife Margie Barron have covered Hollywood for Production Update magazine, and they currently contribute to numerous publications. Frank started in showbiz as publicity director for the KHJ radio and television station. Before moving to California, he was a sports editor in New Jersey.

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