Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The Best of Ernie Kovacs * * *

Ernie Kovacs (January 23, 1919 – January 13, 1962) was an American comedian whose uninhibited, often ad-libbed, and visually experimental comic style has had a great influence on TV comedy programs. During the 1950s this oddball genius was all over TV with a few of his own shows and frequent appearances on other shows. Kovacs' TV programs included THREE TO GET READY (1951), TIME FOR ERNIE (1951), ERNIE IN KOVACSLAND (1951), THE ERNIE KOVACS SHOW (1952–53 and 1955–56), filling in for Steve Allen as host of THE TONIGHT SHOW on Mondays and Tuesdays (1956–57), and the game show TAKE A GOOD LOOK (1959–61). Kovacs later publicly accused Allen of stealing material and characters from him. For example, Kovacs' "Mr. Question Man" resembles Allen's "Answer Man," and Johnny Carson's long-running Carnac character. Kovacs also was a celebrity panelist on WHAT'S MY LINE, but took his responsibilities less than seriously, often asking strange questions for the sake of a laugh.

Ernie Kovacs: I'd like to thank you all for inviting me into your living rooms this evening. It's just a shame you didn't straighten up a little.

He also did several TV specials, including the famous SILENT SHOW (1957). A series of monthly half-hour specials for ABC in 1961–62 is often considered his best television work. What made Kovacs unique may also have been what made him a hard sell to television viewers used to situation comedies and variety shows. Having a cult following at best, Kovacs rarely had a highly rated show. His friend Jack Lemmon was once quoted as saying that no one ever understood Kovacs' work because "he was always 15 years ahead of everyone else." Kovacs influenced Such iconoclastic TV shows as ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN, MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRUCUS, THE UNCLE FLOYD SHOW, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, CAPTAIN KANGAROO, SESAME STREET, and other comics such as David Letterman and Steve Martin.

Ernie Kovacs: We do these shows for the love of it. The money means nothing. The money is nothing, consequently it means nothing.

His television career began at Philadelphia's WPTZ TV station in 1950, using the ad-libbed and experimental style that would later make his reputation, including video effects, superimpositions, reverse polarities and scanning, and quick blackouts. He was also noted for abstraction and carefully timed non sequitur gags, and for carefully breaking the fourth wall. His cameras showed his viewers activity beyond the boundaries of the show set--including crew members and, on occasion, outside the studio itself. Kovacs also liked talking to the off-camera crew and even introduced segments from the studio control room. Ernie frequently made use of accidents and happenstance, incorporating the unexpected into his shows. One of Kovacs' Philadelphia broadcasts was enlivened by a homeless man who sought shelter inside the TV studio. Kovacs invited him onto the set, where he slept for the duration of the telecast, but nonetheless was introduced on camera to the audience as "Sleeping Schwartz".

Ernie Kovacs: There is currently a formula for success in the entertainment medium, that is--beat it to death if it succeeds.

Kovacs was rarely seen without a cigar in his hand, and his love of spontaneity extended to his crew, who would occasionally play live on-air pranks on him just to see how he would react. During one of his NBC shows, Kovacs was appearing as magician character Matzoh Heppelwhite. The sketch called for the magician to frequently hit a gong, which was the signal for a sexy female assistant to bring out a bottle and shot glass for a quick snort of alcohol. Stagehands substituted real liquor for the iced tea normally used for the gag. The look on Ernie's face upon taking the first shot was priceless, as he realized that he would likely be called upon to drink a shot of liquor for each successive gong. But Kovacs pressed on with the sketch, and was quite inebriated by the end of the show. On another occasion, while doing his Percy Dovetonsils character, he found that his drink contained a live fish.

Kovacs as Percy Dovetonsils: That cameraman has the motht muthcular legth... Are you really a gay caballero?

One innovation involved attaching a kaleidoscope to a camera lens and setting the resulting abstract images to music. An underwater stunt involved Kovacs sitting in an easy chair, reading his newspaper and somehow smoking his cigar. Removing it from his mouth, Kovacs was able to exhale a puff of white smoke, all while floating underwater. The trick: the "smoke" was a small amount of milk with which he filled his mouth before submerging. He also developed routines such as an all-gorilla version of Swan Lake, a poker game set to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the Silent Show, in which Eugene interacts with the world accompanied solely by music and sound effects, parodies of typical TV commercials and movie genres, and musical segments with everyday items in sync to music. A popular recurring sketch was The Nairobi Trio, three derby-hatted apes miming mechanically and rhythmically to the tune of Robert Maxwell's "Solfeggio".

Ernie Kovacs: Television: A medium--so called because it is neither rare nor well done.

He often used extended sketches or quick blackout gags lasting only seconds. Some of these were expensive, such as his famous used car salesman routine with a jalopy and a breakaway floor: it cost a reported $50,000 to produce the six-second gag. He was also one of the first television comedians to use odd fake credits and comments between the legitimate credits and, at times, during his routines. Kovacs reportedly disliked working in front of a live audience, as was the case with the shows he did for NBC in the 1950s. He found the presence of an audience distracting, and those in the seats frequently did not understand some of the more elaborate visual gags and special effects, which could only be appreciated by watching studio monitors instead of the stage. Despite the low budget, cheap sets, and poor lighting, this pioneer genius created some first-rate TV programs.

Ernie Kovacs: Seeing a murder on television can help work off one's antagonisms. And if you haven't any antagonisms, the commercials will give you some.

THE BEST OF ERNIE KOVACS is indispensable. It offers a generous sampling of more than 100 blackouts, musical diversions, sketches, technological dalliances, and the game show "Whom Dunnit," in which a panel must determine the identity of the mystery guest who has wounded a studio audience member. Another highlight is "Eugene," a 1961 broadcast in which not a word is uttered. And let's not forget the musical gorilla-costumed Nairobi Trio, one of Kovacs' signature creations. The DVD edition has a few noteworthy additions, including a clip from Kovacs's 1959 quiz show, TAKE A GOOD LOOK. In another memorable clip, Edie Adams, Kovacs' wife, performs her definitive impersonation of Marilyn Monroe singing "The Ballad of Davy Crockett". Though this footage dates back to television's early days, some of it is dated but this is no museum piece. Much of what Kovacs unleashed on an unsuspecting public is fresher, funnier, and more original than most of what passes for prime-time programming today.

This 2-disc set includes all of the 1977 PBS Series that re-introduced this television pioneer to a new audience. Some of this DVD is not side-splittingly funny in a conventional sense, much of it is gently humorous and cerebral. Mostly, it is fascinating--incredibly surreal, the most surreal programming ever shown on television and way ahead of its time. Kovacs work remains indescribable and uncategoriazable. Characters such as lisping gay poet Percy Dovetonsils, The Nairobi Trio, German disc jockey Wolfgang von Sauerbraten, and Mr. Question Man, who would answer queries supposedly sent in by viewers, will have you in stitches. Others include horror show host Auntie Gruesome, bumbling magician Matzoh Heppelwhite, Miklos Molnar, the Hungarian host of a cooking show; and Frenchman Pierre Ragout. Keep in mind when these shows were made in the late 1950s and early 60s and they are among the most subversive ever done for network television. Kovacs solemnly intoning a scene from Julius Ceaser, dressed in full Roman centurian regalia, and then breaking into a tap-dance is fairly typical. This five-part series is a six-hour guided tour through Kovacsland, and a more surreal or cockeyed landscape has never been broadcast over "the orthicon tube".

The genius of Kovacs is his great skits, bizarre antics, wild characters, and ingenious visual gags. Most of his early television shows were done live and have not survived except for a very few short film clips. Some of his later 1950s shows exist in the form of kinescopes. Few videotapes of his ABC specials were preserved and other videotaped shows such as his quirky game show TAKE A GOOD LOOK exist only in piecemeal fashion. After his death, Edie Adams discovered that the networks were erasing and reusing tapes of his shows. She bought the rights to the surviving footage and tapes, and most of Kovacs' surviving work is available to researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles Library's Department of Special Collections.

In his final years, Kovacs found Hollywood success as a character actor, often typecast as a swarthy military officer in such films as OPERATION MAD BALL (1957) and OUR MAN IN HAVANA (1959). He garnered critical acclaim for roles such as the perennially inebriated writer in BELL, BOOK, AND HANDLE (1958) and as the cartoonishly evil head of a railroad company in IT HAPPENED TO JANE (1959). In 1960 he made WAKE ME WHEN IT'S OVER and STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET. His own personal favorite was said to have been the offbeat FIVE GOLDEN HOURS (1961), in which he portrayed a larcenous professional mourner who meets his match in a professional widow played by Cyd Charisse. The last films for Kovacs are SAIL A CROOKED SHIP (1961) and NORTH TO ALASKA (1962). In 1987, a quarter century after his death, Kovacs's talent was recognized formally at last: he was inducted posthumously into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame. Kovacs was multi-talented. He composed much of the music used on the show, and was also a capable actor. His untimely death in a car crash in 1962 when his career was just taking off was a great loss for the entertainment world. As Mel Brooks once said, "dying is easy...comedy, that's difficult."

His tombstone epitaph reads, "Nothing in moderation".

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