Kovacs, Ernie (1919-1962)

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Kovacs, Ernie (1919-1962)

Ernie Kovacs was one of network television's most daring and innovative comedians. From 1950 to 1962, he used the small screen as his personal canvas, challenging all of the medium's early conventions and assumptions. A master of live television and a pioneer in the use of videotape, Kovacs realized the potentials of television as an unique art form and paved the way for future experimentation by David Letterman, MTV (Music Television), and artist Nam June Paik.

Kovacs was one of the first stars in television without a preceding career in vaudeville and theater. His sensibility was idiosyncratically attuned to experimenting with video technology and special effects. Although his various series rarely lasted a year, all his programs were marked with a surreal playfulness and inventive use of music. Kovacs was, in the words of critic William Henry III, "probably the best mind that has yet been drawn to television."

Born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1919, Kovacs worked as a newspaper columnist and radio announcer before his transition to television in 1950. He hosted several programs simultaneously on a local NBC affiliate in Philadelphia, including a fashion and cooking show. Station executives at WPTZ noticed his flair for improvisation and asked him to create the first morning show on television. For 3 to Get Ready (named after channel 3 in Philadelphia) Kovacs created a zany atmosphere to wake up his audience. He ad-libbed with the camera crew and spoke directly with his viewers, even forming a special club, the Early Eyeball Fraternal and Marching Society. He set the pattern for his later comedy by using cheap, offbeat props, including a pair of novelty glasses that inspired the creation of his enduring character, the fey poet Percy Dovetonsils.

NBC executives took notice of his success in the morning and formulated the Today Show; in May 1951 they also gave Kovacs his first network series, It's Time for Ernie. The 15 minute afternoon show featured Kovacs alone in the Philadelphia studio, supported by the music of the Tony de Simone Trio. In July Kovacs made his prime-time debut, serving as a summer replacement for Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. The new series, appropriately called Ernie in Kovacsland had a regular cast, featuring singer Edie Adams, who would later become Kovacs' second wife. In January 1952 Kovacs returned to daytime and hosted Kovacs on the Corner, a series modeled on a radio sketch of Fred Allen, "Allen's Alley," in which the comedian regularly met a series of oddball characters. Kovacs' denizens included Pete the cop, Luigi the barber, and a midget, Little Johnny Merkin. This time he asked his fans to come to the studio and wave back to the viewers at home, for a segment entitled "Yoo-Hoo Time."

In April 1952 WCBS lured Kovacs and gang to New York for a weekday afternoon show, Kovacs Unlimited. Most of the freewheeling gags and skits were completely unrehearsed. The response to the zany comedian led to a brief, prime-time series, opposite Mr. Television, Milton Berle. Unlike most live variety series, Kovacs decided to create his own interior, free associative world without a studio audience. He concocted more and more with visual experiments, often skewering other television shows and commercials in the process. His self-reflexive parodies on the television medium itself provided the inspiration for Saturday Night Live and SCTV, predating these revolutionary series by 20 years.

During the mid-1950s, television executives had trouble scheduling Kovacs and his electronic adventures. In 1954 the DuMont network programmed Kovacs into the late-night slot. In 1955 Kovacs returned to daytime on NBC and, later that year, to prime time as a summer replacement for Caesar's Hour. The latter was his most professional series, with a stable of writers and lavish production numbers, garnering the program three Emmy Award nominations. In 1956 Kovacs became a part-time host of the Tonight Show.

For all his series the comedian unleashed a Kovacsian universe of video magic, populated with off-the-wall characters. Most of his creations were insane parodies of familiar television types, including Matzoh Hepplewhite, the inept magician; Uncle or Auntie Gruesome, who recounted macabre fairy tales; Mr. Question Man, who made mockery of the simplest queries; and Wolfgang Sauerbraten, the Bavarian disc jockey. The most bizarre and popular of Kovacs' repertory company was the Nairobi Trio, three instrumentalists dressed in overcoats, bowler hats, and gorilla masks. The Trio acted like mechanical toys, miming to the odd tune of "Solfeggio."

Kovacs was at his most outlandish when he produced, wrote, and starred in special presentations. In 1956 he developed a silent character, Eugene, along the lines of Charlie Chaplin's little tramp. A year later, the Eugene show explored his mute world with only music and sound effects. For this first special done entirely in pantomime, Kovacs created an illusory, illogical world, with sets and objects confounding gravity.

In the late 1950s Kovacs resettled in Los Angeles. He brought his mustachioed good looks to several comic films, most notably the service hijinks of Operation Mad Ball (1957); Bell, Book, and Candle with James Stewart and Kim Novak (1958), and the spy spoof, Our Man in Havana (1960). While in Hollywood, Kovacs hooked up with a sponsor, Dutch Masters Cigars, which had total faith in him. Dutch Masters hired Kovacs, an inveterate cigar smoker, to dream up commercials and host the quiz show, Take a Good Look.

During 1961-1962, Kovacs created eight specials for Dutch Masters and ABC that culminated a decade of video exploration. He wanted to take "sound to sight" and pioneered the music video, conjuring up moody, dream-like imagery to accompany Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.Kovacs wanted to communicate comedy in the most economical fashion and used quick blackouts to express his dark humor. He also employed all electronic effects at his disposal—superimposition, matting, reverse polarity, asynchronous sound—to sustain a world that was off-kilter and slightly perverse. The final special aired posthumously, ten days after Kovacs was killed in an automobile accident.

Ernie Kovacs's motto was "Nothing in Moderation," and this visionary lived life and created programs at a fever pitch. A true television auteur, Kovacs laid the groundwork for future video experimentation, from the mainstream (e.g., Laugh-In, Monty Python, Pee-wee's Playhouse) to the avant-garde (e.g. Laurie Anderson, William Wegman). He proved that one man with a singular sensibility could flourish in commercial television; his legacy was spectacular, but all too brief.

—Ron Simon

Further Reading:

The Museum of Broadcasting. The Vision of Ernie Kovacs, exhibition publication. New York, 1986.

Rico, Diana. Kovacsland: A Biography of Ernie Kovacs. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

Whalley, David. The Ernie Kovacs Phile. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987.

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Kovacs, Ernie (1919-1962)

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