Illustration by Stavros Damos
Illustration: Stavros Damos

I was a fan of Jerry G. Bishop, the original Svengoolie. He was on the radio at the time, then did this Channel 32 Friday night voice-over for the horror movies. He asked people to send in jokes. I was a freshman at Northwestern when I started sending them in. He could’ve just taken the material and went, “Hey, thanks a lot, kid.” But he got me working with him, out of his own pocket. Then when we went to WMAQ Radio, he brought me along as the producer.

He was the one who decided I should be the Son of Svengoolie. He always told me the reason he didn’t want to do it anymore was because one day he might run for office, and he didn’t want his opponent to be able to find pictures of him as Sven.

In my audition, I looked exactly like Jerry’s character. They said, “You know, it’s 1979, and we don’t know if the whole hippie thing will work.” At first I just changed the wig color and the mustache and beard, and they said, “It’s still that hippie thing.” I happened to have the top hat and a double-breasted coat and a long chain that was part of a clock on my wall. So I just cobbled this thing together.

I’m a safety valve, the comic relief. A lot of these movies have such a great atmosphere, and there is tense stuff that really starts to build up, so it’s like, “OK, here’s a break. I’m just going to have a little fun.”

I went to my dentist, and he said, “You know, your gums are real bad.” We figured out it was the spirit gum I was using for my stick-on mustache. To get it to stick under the hot lights, I had to put a hell of a lot on, and it was leaking into my mouth and irritating my gums. I always loved Groucho Marx. So I said, “Let’s paint it on. Nobody’s going to know.”

I’ve always done my own makeup. At first it took close to 50 minutes. Now I’ve got it down to 30. People have said, “Oh, you have scars.” They’re supposed to be cheekbone shadows.

I got an email one day: “Hi, I’m Mark Hamill, and I have to say, I really enjoy what you do.” And I wrote back: “Well, I’m very flattered. I just wish I knew it was really you.” He says, “I’ll tell you what. Send me your phone number and I’ll call you.” And I’m thinking, OK, if it isn’t him, is this a wise thing to do? So I said, “Just post a Twitter message about me, and I’ll know it’s you.” So now I’m watching Twitter. One hour goes by, two hours, three hours. All of a sudden, a tweet comes up from Mark Hamill: “One of the best things I discovered this summer was the Svengoolie show on MeTV.” And I’m like, That’s it! So I send him my work number. Later I’m going through my recorded messages and there’s one that says, “Hello, Rich. Joker here.” And he’s doing that Joker voice he does in all those animated Batman shows.

When I was a small child, for some reason—and I don’t know if this was from cartoons or movies or what—I was very frightened of skeletons. I also was very afraid of the dark. I used to have incredibly terrible nightmares. I was afraid of everything as a child. Now look what I’m doing.

I get asked, “Why do people like horror movies so much?” I compare it to a roller coaster. You know it’s going to be scary and terrible, but you also know when it’s over you’ll be fine.

My second heart attack happened five years ago, like two days after Halloween. My wife and I were watching TV, and all of a sudden, she says, I stiffened up and passed out. They had to use the paddles twice on me. They ended up doing a double bypass, then shortly after put in the pacemaker. But I was gone. Twice.

My whole joke is anyone can look like Svengoolie. Because we get photos, and some are really good. I heard from somebody who was at a San Diego event: “It was great getting my picture taken with you.” I was not there.