Rich Koz celebrates 40 years of mixing horror and humor in “Svengoolie”


Jim Roche

Rich Koz poses in “Svengoolie.” Koz took over the titular role in 1979 as “Son of Svengoolie.”

Jane Recker, The Monthly Editor

There’s something refreshingly simple about the Chicago style of comedy. Unlike the coasts, which often rely on big budgets and flashy productions, Chicago comedy focuses on the people. It’s a little bit slower, a little less refined, a little more off the cuff. It doesn’t look for the easy laughs; instead it gradually builds until you find yourself smiling and chuckling, almost without realizing it.

The majority of the country has been deprived of this style of humor, but Rich Koz might be the one to change that. For over 40 years, Koz has starred as the titular role in “Svengoolie.” The hosted-style horror program got its start in 1970 on WFLD, then made the move to MeTV in 2011. Though “Svengoolie” has long been a Chicago cult classic, its recent national syndication is quickly making Sven a household name.

Koz got his start with “Svengoolie” as a freshman at Northwestern in 1970. After sending in potential jokes for the original Svengoolie — Jerry G. Bishop — to perform in his next episode, Bishop invited Koz to write for the show.

The first iteration of “Svengoolie” was canceled in 1973 when WFLD changed ownership, but was resurrected in 1979 with Koz taking the reins as “Son of Svengoolie.” WFLD wanted Koz to debut a different look than Bishop’s dated hippie-vampire getup, so Koz rummaged around his house to create Svengoolie’s now signature look of black suit, top-hat, wild black wig, red tux shirt and heavy, skull-like makeup.

It was during this period that Koz refined and established the style of humor that would come to define Svengoolie for decades to come. Though the show relies mostly on simple puns and one-liners about the horror flick shown that week, the overall result is something satisfyingly smart that doesn’t rely on crudity or easy laughs.

“It’s kind of a melange,” Koz said. “There’s stuff I do that’s almost slapsticky, and I think there’s some stuff that’s fairly sharp satire. We weave the different forms of humor and it just seems to work.”

Of course, Koz still makes sure to mix in some real groaners. Whenever Sven delivers an achingly bad pun on the show, he’s pelted with with yellow rubber chickens as a boo track plays in the background. Koz said this was one of Bishop’s original bits; Bishop wanted to have rotten vegetable thrown at him like people used to do in vaudeville shows, but the producers said he needed to find an alternative that would require less cleanup.

Another Bishop legacy Koz has kept alive: the loving continual roasting of the Chicago suburb of Berwyn. While originally included as the brunt for small-town jokes, Berwyn has taken on its own life in the show. If ever something unfortunate is brought up, a nasal whining “Beeerwyyyyn” plays in the background.

“(Bishop) wanted to have a local equivalent (to the jokes made about Burbank on Johnny Carson) so he decided on the wonderful village that had a yearly parade in honor of mushrooms, Berwyn,” Koz said.

Though Koz has had to cut back on some of the Chicago-centric material since the show’s national syndication in 2011, the essence of the Windy City is still there. Koz said some of his favorite fan mail comes from viewers who grew up watching the original Svengoolie and now share the tradition with their children.

Koz’s executive producer, Jim Roche, said Svengoolie’s fanbase has exploded since joining MeTV. A once-local cult celebrity is quickly becoming part of the mainstream, he said, with Sven earning his own feature in the December issue of MAD Magazine, recent signing appearances lasting upward of four hours to accommodate over 600 fans and the show trending on pockets of Twitter every Saturday night it airs.

In fact, it was through Twitter that Koz began a surprising friendship with Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker and The Joker. Koz said he received an email from Hamill saying how much he loved the show, but Koz didn’t believe it was him. To prove it, Hamill tweeted out “One of the best things I discovered this summer was the Svengoolie show on MeTV” to his 2.93 million followers.

“I immediately sent him my phone number and he called me and we talked for about 45 minutes,” Koz said. “Of course I was overwhelmed… it was a great experience.”

Since then, Hamill has continued to tweet about Svengoolie and has talked on the phone with Koz many more times; the two even promised to meet up should they ever be in the same city at the same time, with Hamill making a very Skywalkerian prophecy that “someday we will meet, it is our destiny.”

Despite becoming friends with Hamill, winning three local Emmy’s and having the original Svengoolie set installed in the Museum of Broadcast Communications, Koz has remained incredibly humble. Roche said Koz is a delight to work with, and that the person you see on air is who he is in person.

“Every single fan (is) important to (Koz),” Roche said. “I’ve met a lot of different celebrities at a lot of different levels, but I’ve never (seen) anybody who understood the value of every single person in an audience (like Koz).”

Roche noted that Koz’s endearing quality and the show’s commitment to stay away from political or inappropriate material create an avenue for escapism for many viewers. But Koz’s reasoning for the show’s success is much more quintessentially Chicagoan.

Like Chicago Popcorn’s surprisingly perfect sweet-and-savory mixture of caramel and cheese, Koz thinks it’s the show’s unexpected but dynamically pleasing pairing of horror and hilarity that has grown its viewership.

“People really love horror movies,” he said. “It’s one of the most entertaining things that people can watch…it’s like riding a roller coaster. You get a lot of thrills and you get scared, but you know when it’s over with, you’re still going to be fine. I’m not tooting my own horn here, but I think the entertainment value we add to it makes it a complete experience.”

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