Ernie Kovacs still amuses, influences, amazes

He’s an artist; a pioneer — Ernie Kovacs (with Edie Adams). Image Courtesy of Shout! Factory

BY TRAV S.D. | April marked the 50th anniversary of a landmark series of inventive and influential television specials by comedian Ernie Kovacs. The surreal funny man — always a favorite with critics and industry insiders (if not so much with mainstream audiences) — was one of the hardest working men in show business. Throughout the 1950s, Kovacs helmed innumerable TV series and specials on all of the four networks (both local and national) and in every conceivable time slot. A pioneer of both morning wake-up and late-night television, Kovacs was defined by his offbeat nature. His signature bits included The Nairobi Trio (three people in gorilla suits pretending to play along with a scratchy record of “Solfeggio”), Percy Dovetonsils (an extremely sissified poet in joke shop eyeglasses) and Eugene (a silent character who was a vehicle for sight gags). Kovacs’ popularity was just starting to grow (partially through the help of a concurrent movie career) when his life was taken by a car accident in early 1962. But his comedy continued to influence generations of television comedians — notably, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” David Letterman, Andy Kaufman and the original cast of “Saturday Night Live.”

On April 19, Shout! Factory released a new six-DVD boxed set entitled “The Ernie Kovacs Collection” — containing over 13 hours of programs (plus a bonus DVD if you order through Shout! Factory directly).

A week prior to the official release, The Paley Center for Media held a panel discussion on the subject of Kovacs’ work, moderated by former MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann, and featuring Kovacs cast member Jolene Brand, her husband George Schlatter (one of the creators of “Laugh-In”), Joel Hodgson (creator of “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”), Robert Smigel (creator of Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog) and Ben Model — curator of the DVD (and a familiar face around town as a silent film accompanist). The place was overflowing with Kovacs fans. Not only was The Paley Center’s 200-seat Bennack Theater filled to capacity, but a second room, watching (appropriately enough) on a closed-circuit television feed, was filled as well. Olbermann proved a surprisingly apt host; while it’s well known that he incorporates comedy into his news work, he is also a major (and completely knowledgeable) Kovacs buff.

“Something transcends about his comedy,” says Olbermann. “To this day, he’s still cutting edge.”

As if to prove his point, Hodgson and Smigel were subdued and deferential throughout, leaving most of the limelight to Brand and Schlatter (who actually knew and worked with Kovacs) and Model, the Kovacs scholar.

“One thing you have to remember is the primitive environment [Kovacs] was working in,” says Schlatter. “They didn’t have the same kind of equipment we have nowadays.”

Kovacs was known for his crazy special effects gags, often playing with his cameras and the video switcher as though they were his own set of trains. What’s more remarkable is that most of them were done on live television (videotape wasn’t available until close to the end of his life).

Brand points out that the cast would always be as delighted and surprised as the audience. As an example she cites one of Kovacs’ most famous gags, wherein Brand is taking a bath, and suddenly several people — and a dog — crawl out of the suds.

“We never knew what anybody else in the show was doing,” says Brand. “We only got our own sides [i.e., lines in the script] before the show, so what would happen would be a surprise. In that bathtub sketch, I didn’t know what was going to happen. Ernie just told me not to look surprised.”

“Like Chaplin or Keaton in the cinema,” says Model, “Kovacs knew just what to do right off the bat. He just innately understood the medium.”

As early as 1951 you can see the irrepressible Kovacs testing out unprecedented notions — such as stepping off the set and into the office corridor outside the studio (on camera), or pointing the camera out the studio window onto the street below where Kovacs just happens to be fooling around in the real world. These are gags that would later be associated with David Letterman and others — most of whom freely admit borrowing them from Kovacs.

What may come as a shock to longtime Kovacs fans, at least ones too young to have seen his shows live in their heyday, is that Kovacs wasn’t always the genius we think of him as. Those who, like this reporter, know Kovacs chiefly through the previous compilations that show him at his very best; with a preponderance of clips from his incredible 1961 ABC series. The real Kovacs — especially the early, and especially the early morning Kovacs — could be slapdash and undisciplined. And it’s understandable. There were occasions when he might be doing as many as three television shows in a single day, encompassing several hours of air time, with most of the material improvised or generated by Kovacs himself.  The anarchistic approach gives Kovacs the freedom to be inspired occasionally, but he is just as often hit-or-miss in these early shows.

For those reasons, the boxed set should be considered for die-hard Kovacs fans only. Someone being introduced to Kovacs for the very first time would be better off starting with one of the earlier anthologies and working their way up. That said, there is an overwhelming wealth of material here for the true Kovacs fan — not just those rarities from his early days, but also a color TV special from 1957 shot in Kovacs’ Central Park West apartment, episodes of Kovacs guest-hosting on “The Tonight Show,” some home movies, interviews with Brand and Schlatter and most of the landmark ABC specials. Unfortunately, there is a gap in the historical record. While Kovacs’ late widow (and comedy partner) Edie Adams was able to track down and save many of the kinescopes covering a lot of his career, the years 1952-55 (when he worked mostly at the now-defunct DuMont Network) are missing, possibly permanently lost.

And if these thirteen-plus hours of material isn’t enough for you, you can always visit The Paley Center — where Kovacs’ programs, according to CEO Pat Mitchell, “are among our most requested materials.” Or just watch television. His influence is everywhere.

DVD Box Set
$54.99 (plus shipping & handling)
To order, visit shoutfactorystore.com
Also visit paleycenter.org (search for “Kovacs”)