I got an email from a friend asking me who Ernie Kovacs was. She's a devoted watcher of What's My Line? on YouTube, and Kovacs was a panelist for a while. She had a sketchy idea about him, but no more than that. I suspect there are a respectable number of people reading this who know the answer well, though I suspect there are a great many more who don't.
But I was glad she asked. I've loved Ernie Kovacs for a long time. In fact, back at Northwestern, my college roommate and I read about a new documentary, Kovacs, that was a compilation of the “best of” from his show, and we wanted to see it SO badly that we tracked down the producer, convinced our dorm for them to be “sponsors” and put up the needed money, and then got approval from the university to show it on campus – we actually turned out to be only the second place in the country to have a public showing of the film. (A fond memory is that the day before we screened it in the big 1,000+-seat Tech Auditorium, we showed it in our dorm room, hanging a small curtain on the wall.) It’s a loooong story how this all came about, but the short version is – the university dean in charge of such things didn’t want to deal with my roommate and I as mere lackeys , so we had to set up another meeting with the dorm president there to make it “official.” The head of Friday Night campus movie screenings ridiculed us for such a stupid, money-losing idea. And we only charged 50-cents. (I remember someone from the community seeing our promotion and calling us to double-check on the price -- she burst out laughing...and then called back to make sure she heard correctly.) We had two screenings…and filled the auditorium twice and made a $500 profit for the dorm. By the way, the movie was absolutely hilarious.
Alas I can’t find the Kovacs documentary on Netflix, though they do have a six-hour compilation The Best of Ernie Kovacs. It's from a limited TV series produced on PBS from WTTW Chicago.
Basically, for those who don't have an idea, Ernie Kovacs is considered one of the true, brilliant innovators of television. His shows might not be as impressive today as when they were on, but he was experimenting and inventing technologies a decade-and-a-half ahead of his time, near the beginning days of television. When watching his shows today, it’s important to remember that they were done in the 1950s, when TV was just mom & pop sitcoms and westerns and vaudeville shows. (Hist best-known series ran from 1952-1957, though he also had a monthly series in 1961-62 which won him a posthumous Emmy.) Kovacs played around with videotape, camera angles, graphics, special effects and technology in general in ways that no one else was even thinking about how to try. At his core, he did what I love in any field: used the medium to its fullest capacity, in a way that could only be done in that medium.
The simplest way to describe his show is that it was the precursor of Laugh-In, which came about almost 15 years later – and blatantly “borrowed” from many of his sketches. And Laugh-In, remember, was considered innovative for its time. Imagine now Ernie Kovacs doing it a 15 years earlier, when the rest of TV was Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver and Gunsmoke and The Ed Sullivan Show. Even something as wonderful as Your Shows of Shows was still basically vaudeville sketch comedy. (Albeit brilliant sketch comedy.) It’s also important to know that the show was Ernie Kovacs: he wrote, produced, co-directed and starred in the thing.
He used music a great deal, often choreographing musical numbers using only inanimate objects, and regularly did long pieces with classical music or opera. A recurring sketch was to have an oscilloscope beam running along the bottom of the screen as “Mack the Knife” was sung in German, intercut with blackout sketches and quick "non-sequitor" cuts. (This was something Laugh-In…"borrowed," directly.) Another recurring character was Percy Dovetonsils, a tipsy, good-natured, very fey lover of poetry. And the Nairobi Trio, which were three people in gorilla suits playing the same song all the time, but with other oddities going around them. (Famously, Jack Lemmon would often be one of the gorillas, uncredited.) He also was a big cigar smoker, and the show was sponsored by Dutch Masters, for he would often would write commercials that he blended into the show the same as any other sketches, and you didn’t realize until the end that it was actually an ad.
One of his most famous shows was a 1957 special done entirely in pantomime, following the adventures of one of his characters, a short of Chaplinesqe sad-sack silent guy named Eugene. It only used exaggerated sound effects, and was filled with tons of wonderful, adventurous optical illusions, playing tricks on the audience. And ended with a famously-brilliant bit of inexplicable trickery having lunch in a library. It's probably among the most little-seen renowned show in TV history.
By the way, he was married to singer-actress Edie Adams, who often appeared on the show. After his death in a car accident, she worked tirelessly to protect his legacy and pay off his huge gambling debts, which she eventually did.
I was going to embed the first two episodes of that Best of Kovacs compilation, but I also tracked down the 30-minute, silent "Eugene" special, and I decided to go with that first. It's too wildly inventive for its time (and almost any time, even today, almost 60 years later), and I thought it the best way to introduce him to people. Or bring a reminiscent smile. And admiration.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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