BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Ed Sullivan was one of TV's most awkward hosts. He couldn't tell a joke, couldn't sing and always seemed stiff and unsmiling.
And he was one of the greatest friends to some of America's most influential comedians.
Sullivan and his influence on popular culture in introducing the country to such groundbreaking comedians as Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson, George Carlin, Alan King, Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers on his variety show during the 1960s will be celebrated in PBS' "The Ed Sullivan Comedy Special," which will premiere Sunday at 8:30 p.m. on KUED-Ch. 7.
Robert Klein, who appeared on Sullivan's show six times, talked about the importance of Sullivan during a presentation last week at the PBS portion of the TCA press tour in Beverly Hills.
"It was pure vaudeville," said Klein. "There was no enhanced laughter, no laugh track. It was a tough room." Klein marveled at how the comics were presented by someone "who had no visible talent at all."
In recent years, specials and videos have focused on how Sullivan first introduced musical acts such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to American audiences, while providing a valuable platform for American musicians such as Elvis Presley, the Supremes and the Temptations. But Klein said he was equally influential in giving exposure to up-and-coming comics.
"You had to go to Ed's apartment in those days to perform and have him approve your act," he said.
The special will showcase early clips of comedians who were starting to gain mainstream popularity while still searching for their comic personas. Arsenio Hall, who joined the presentation with Klein, talked about Pryor, whose material on the Sullivan show was in sharp contrast to that of the sharp-tongued provacateur that he became in his heyday.
"You listen to Richard's voice, and you see he wanted to be Bill Cosby early on," said Hall.
In addition to well-known comics, the special will also feature clips of Moms Mabley, Totie Fields and others who were popular during that era but eventually faded.
Hall also talked about Mabley, a black woman who had no teeth and dressed in a housecoat.
"She's fallen further from the consciousness of black comedians," Hall said. "She was very hip. She was the first woman who talked about going after younger men. She did things on TV then that you can't do now."
Greg Vines, producer of the special, said audiences who tune in to the special will see a fresh perspective on the comics of Sullivan's day: "They remain pure and timeless. They are as fresh today as they were then."
Today on TV
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Law & Order: SVU (9 p.m., Ch. 5): When a woman finds a teenage boy sleeping naked in her bedroom, detectives Benson and Stabler investigate the teen and his mother to find out what really happened.
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